NIU alumni celebrate Orange Bowl bid at holiday party

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NIU alumni celebrate Orange Bowl bid at holiday party

By Jack McCarthy
CSNChicago.com

Festive white lights twinkled on a 25-foot Christmas tree rising towards the arches of the University Club's Cathedral Room as Northern Illinois University alumni gathered for a holiday party on Thursday.

But forget about the traditional Christmas hues and highlights.

Orange -- as in Orange Bowl -- was the color to celebrate as several hundred alums saluted the NIU football team's historic berth in a major college bowl game.

"I got a little emotional about it when I found out," admitted athletic director Jeff Compher as the party got under way. "This is a seminal moment in the history of our university. It's one of those defining moments that validates everything we've been doing and how we've been doing it."

The Huskies (12-1) vaulted into Bowl Championship Series contention following last Friday's Mid-American Conference double overtime title victory over Kent State.

The reward was a No. 15 spot in the final BCS rankings announced last Sunday and an unprecedented Orange Bowl berth -- the first major bowl appearance by any MAC team.

Northern Illinois, also ranked in the top 15 in two major national polls, will face No. 12 Florida State in prime time (7 p.m. Central) on New Year's Day.

The Huskies inclusion generated plenty of controversy. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit called it a joke and college football message boards have been awash with criticism of the Huskies selection, strength of schedule, mid-major status and a broken BCS system.

"So what?" says NIU alums like Dave Heide, who played under coach Bill Mallory on the 1983 California Bowl championship team.

"The thing that kind of befuddles me a little is that you look at college basketball and everybody roots for VCU, they root for Butler, they root for Gonzaga," he said. "Why not in college football? I think Herbstreit's (negative) comments were very strong that I think the country has rallied around Northern.

"I couldn't be more proud of this program, they do everything the right way."

Besides, Northern Illinois legitimately qualified under current BCS rules. And under a new system set to debut in 2014, the Huskies would also be in the field.

The past decade has seen the most successful seasons since Northern Illinois was a NCAA College Division power in the 1960s, winning a national championship in 1963 behind College Football Hall of Fame quarterback George Bork.

In 2002, the Huskies were emerging as a Mid-American power under coach Joe Novak and finished 8-4 with a MAC West championship. Two years later, Northern Illinois made its first bowl appearance since 1983 with a 34-21 victory over Troy in the Silicon Valley Classic.

Novak guided NIU to the Poinsettia Bowl in 2006, then stepped down after the Huskies slipped to 2-10 in 2007.

The three-year Jerry Kill era began the next year with the revived team finishing 6-6 and reaching the 2008 Independence Bowl, the first of five straight postseason appearances.

Northern dropped a 27-3 decision to South Florida in the 2009 International Bowl and beat Fresno State 40-17 in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl. The next year, under former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren, NIU went 11-3, won a MAC championship and beat Arkansas State in the 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl.

Doeren guided the Huskies to a 12-1 record and another MAC title this season before resigning to take the top job at North Carolina State.

Now its up to new head coach Rod Carey -- still adjusting to his quick promotion -- to continue Northerns winning ways.

A week ago I was buried in film figuring out to block Kent State's tackles, said the 42-year-old Carey, who spent the last two seasons helping guide two of the most explosive offenses in program history. "I don't have a sense of this yet, but it's fun."

NIU alumni, meanwhile, see good things to come out of the Orange Bowl experience.

"When you go to a university like NIU, it's a great institution," said Joseph Matty, NIU associate vice president for university advancement and CEO and executive director of the school's alumni association. "Our athletic program is allowing the rest of the country to see how great it is."

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

For the past two seasons, David Accam was a bright spot on bad Chicago Fire teams.

This season, with more talent on the roster, Accam has blossomed into one of the most dangerous players in the league.

He had a hat trick and an assist in Saturday’s 4-0 win against Orlando. That gives him 10 goals and six assists on the season. Only two other players in Major League Soccer have 16 combined goals and assists, New York City FC's David Villa and teammate Nemanja Nikolic (the leading goal-scorer in the league).

“I thought I could do anything on the pitch today,” Accam said. “I just wanted to enjoy myself and entertain the fans and also help the team win. That’s what we did today, especially after my first goal. I just thought I could get more goals and also help the team win.”

Accam’s big game comes after he sat out the previous two games, which were both played on turf. He wasn’t listed on the injury report, but coach Veljko Paunovic said, “he didn’t recover from the physical issues that he had in the previous game.”

The rest seemed to do Accam some good, but his success in the game (as well as his recent run of eight goals and four assists in his last eight matches) coincides with questions about his future. He was recently rumored to be the target of a Turkish club.

In the past, Accam has spoken about his ambition to play at the highest levels. Typically, that means Europe. General manager Nelson Rodriguez said last month that he expects offers to come in for the 26-year-old because he is a good player in his prime ages.

So is Accam playing like someone trying to earn a new contract? That could be either impressing potential suitors in Europe or boosting his negotiation position with the Fire. Rodriguez has talked about contract negotiations with Accam before, and said those will not resume again until after the season.

“I wanted to be in a team where I would develop as a person and also win trophies, whether here or somewhere (else) I don’t know,” Accam said. “For me, I’m doing really well here and every year if I keep playing well there will be always interest. I know there is a lot of interest because I’m doing well. For me it’s always extra motivation to keep doing well. You don’t know where I will end up, whether here or somewhere else. I’ll just keep playing.”

Accam’s play earned him another call-up to the Ghanaian national team. He will join the team on Sunday for a pair of friendlies in the U.S. The Black Stars will take on Mexico in Houston on June 28 and the U.S. in East Hartford, Conn., on July 1 as the two North American countries prepare for the Gold Cup.

“That’s where I want to be,” Accam said. “I want to be playing for the national team so it’s extra motivation for me to perform well and also to go to the national team.”

Accam has been one of the most productive players in MLS this year, based on goals and assists, and is young enough to draw the attention of plenty of teams. For now, the Fire have him as a key part of the best season the club has had in years.

“I think that he understands very well how to play with the team that we have now and with the teammates that he is surrounded with,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We just have to work to give David opportunities… Then we expect that performances like that will come even more.”

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