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Cinderella – live and in color

For anyone who has spent time in an apartment on any college campus, I won’t have to use many words to describe the scene.

It was poorly lit with old windows that allowed air to pass through. The walls were painted a creamy white and probably had stains here or there that you’d rather not think about.

But it was the fall of 2003, and the Northern Illinois football team was playing at Alabama. So we gathered at said old apartment for the game.

Of course, all we could do was listen to the game on the radio. It didn’t matter that NIU had already beat a ranked Maryland team, and Alabama was one of the most storied programs in college football. No TV station in DeKalb was showing it.

Why? Because it was Northern Illinois football. That’s why. 

Up to that point, all the football team was noted for was its 23-game losing streak from 1996-98 and, of course, LeShon Johnson, who finished sixth in the 1993 Heisman voting and later took a page from Michael Vick’s book and was arrested for dog fighting. 

While many of the perceptions of NIU football have changed in the decade since, thanks to the Michael Turners, Garrett Wolfes and Chandler Harnishes of the world, the national perception has remained the same.

Just ask Kirk Herbstreit. Or the Heisman voters who didn’t feel Jordan Lynch deserved to be a finalist for the award. 

Yet, NIU is in the eye of the national storm for being selected for the Orange Bowl on Sunday night. 

Herbstreit, who is one of the many talking heads employed by ESPN, called the selection a joke and the clearest indicator of the sad state of college football. 

Herbstreit’s probably right. Teams like Georgia and Oklahoma are no doubt better than NIU and play a tougher schedule. They should be the ones that play Florida State on Jan. 1. 

Of course, all the strong language is sort of moot, anyways. 

The BCS – the system designed to protect the bowls – has essentially created a system that tells us only one bowl really matters. That’s the national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama.

It’s not like if Notre Dame loses, and NIU beats Florida State, that some glitch in the system is going to make the Huskies the champions. 

No, the fact is that schools like Oklahoma and Georgia don’t really need to go to the Orange Bowl, anyway. They’ll still recruit just fine, and their programs will still be financially sound even by going to a “lesser” bowl.

For NIU, this is a boon. A reward for a decade of solid play. Heck, it’s almost payback from a 2003 season where NIU’s resume included wins over Alabama, Maryland and Iowa State, but a 10-2 record meant absolutely no bowl for the Huskies.

NIU’s Orange Bowl selection has created more interest in the whole system than if one of the other “usual suspects” had made it. 

Cinderella is one heck of a story, and this time it will be televised. 

The irony? If I decide to work on New Year’s night as I usually do, I’ll have to resort to the radio, since there’s no ESPN in the office.

I guess some things don’t change.  

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