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Wolfe, Harnish helped put Northern Illinois on map

Huskie tracks

Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish (12) outruns Illinois cornerback Travon Bellamy (31) during a game in 2010. Harnish is one of many alumni applauding the Huskies berth into the Orange Bowl.
Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish (12) outruns Illinois cornerback Travon Bellamy (31) during a game in 2010. Harnish is one of many alumni applauding the Huskies berth into the Orange Bowl.

When Northern Illinois' Orange Bowl bid became official last weekend, Garrett Wolfe didn't bother watching.

Wolfe, the Huskies' career leading rusher, had been told by numerous sources earlier in the day that NIU would become the first Mid-American Conference team to earn a BCS berth, making the news moot by the time it was broadcast hours later.

But like the ESPN announcement that sent NIU's football community into a tizzy, the fact the program Wolfe helped construct into a championship contender had reached such a pinnacle didn't surprise Wolfe.

Wolfe is a former Huskies players who plans to travel to Miami to witness an accomplishment NIU coach Rod Carey called the biggest thing ever to happen to Huskies football. Although 6 years have passed since Wolfe's college career ended, time hasn't diminished the connection he still feels to his BCS-busting alma mater.

"It's undeniably very impressive," said Wolfe, who rushed for a school-record 5,164 yards and 51 touchdowns in his career before spending 4 years with the Bears. "Those guys who are there now want to win just as bad as we wanted to win when we were playing, and that's something that I take pride in as an alum is seeing how important [winning] is to those guys."

Wolfe was a freshman when NIU started to turn things around, appearing in two postseason games before the Huskies' current string of five straight bowl appearances began 2 years later.

Former coach Joe Novak said he always used the fact many NIU players were passed over by bigger programs as motivation to get the most out of his teams. It's a characteristic, Wolfe said, that defines not only this year's team but the program as a whole.

"Northern Illinois has always been a school that has carried a huge chip on its shoulder," Wolfe said. "Even the chip on our shoulder had a chip on its shoulder."

That trait existed even before NIU became a perennial MAC title contender. Although teams in the past didn't experience the same kind of success that has become a staple in DeKalb, former players now celebrate the part they played in the building process.

Central among them is offensive lineman Ryan Diem, who spent 12 years with the Indianapolis Colts after finishing 13-31 with the Huskies during his 4-year career.

"The cool thing now is to see how successful they are," said Diem, who was part of NIU's 0-11 team as a freshman in 1997. "We didn't have a lot of success when I was there, but it was building, and I feel like we were the foundation for everything they're doing now.

"[Success] certainly seemed far off, and [1997] was a struggle. Every week, we looked at ourselves and wondered what the heck we were doing. But by the time I was done, we had our first winning season in quite a while, and they've continued to build on that."

Since 2000, NIU has had only one losing season, finishing 2-10 in Novak's final year in 2007. Throughout the Huskies' current bowl streak – which has included appearances in the Independence, International, Humanitarian and bowls – expectations have continued to grow.

The Huskies have won two straight MAC titles and have appeared in the league's championship game three consecutive times, constantly adding bricks to the base started by the teams Wolfe and Diem played on. Even now that the Huskies have entered uncharted territory, former players expect NIU to embrace the underdog role that continues to be affixed to the program, even with their recent success.

"I think that gives you that advantage that bigger BCS programs should be very afraid of," former NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish of the Indianapolis Colts said. "We've been looked over our whole lives ... . You get to college and you're underrated every year – you're never a favorite against the big schools"

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