DeKALB – The Marathon gas station on Lincoln Highway provided a frank summary of Northern Illinois University's enthusiasm Monday for the Huskies' unexpected trip to the Orange Bowl.
It read: "Suck Our Oranges, ESPN. Go Huskies!"
NIU's New Year's Day date with Florida State and ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who called the Huskies' selection "an absolute joke," ignited the university's social media network. It sparked a steady stream of reservations at the Convocation Center ticket office and a wave of NIU merchandise sales that at least two store managers hope lasts long enough for the orange ink to dry on new T-shirts.
"Facebook just blew up, and it's all everyone's been talking about," said Joe Themig, an NIU student from Decatur. "It's really exciting. It's kind of surprising because I didn't know if we could get into that kind of bowl, but the chips kind of fell the right way."
Students said NIU's trip south has been a hot topic campuswide on a day when unseasonable temperatures pulled shorts and Huskies T-shirts from storage. Students could start reserving their free Orange Bowl tickets at 9 a.m. Monday, which made checking online airline and bus fares a priority.
Themig said he has plenty of friends planning to make the trip, but at least for now, he won't be joining them. He's going to see whether he can "finagle out" of his New Year's plans, and he politely disagreed with the ESPN analyst's assessment. Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, said NIU wasn't deserving of a BCS berth despite its 12-1 record.
"I know ESPN was kind of dogging us, but I think we'll show them what we're made of," Themig predicted.
By Monday morning, the excitement over NIU's bowl berth had taken over Village Commons Bookstore, where employees were trying to create space for freshly printed Orange Bowl merchandise. The store is already filled with NIU shirts, hats and other Huskies gear – even without any clothing celebrating either NIU’s MAC Championship or the school’s Miami appointment with the Seminoles.
Store manager Jody Boardman said she had ordered Orange Bowl material from two athletic clothing manufacturers last week before the Huskies knocked off then No. 17-ranked Kent State 44-37 in double overtime Friday night in Detroit.
“It’s a big flipping deal,” said Linda Christensen, the business manager at Village Commons, who has worked at the store for 28 years and can't remember anything quite like this.
Boardman is at the mercy of manufacturers who are scrambling to get Orange Bowl merchandise printed. She hopes to have the clothing shipped overnight and expects it could be in stores as early as today.
In the meantime, Boardman was taking phone orders Monday for BCS-themed merchandise, which will certainly bolster normal holiday sales typically dominated by out-of-town alumni purchasing NIU clothing for Christmas gifts.
The Orange Bowl appeared to be the main topic around campus Monday. Kendall Penfield, a student from Ottawa who attended all the home games this fall, said even professors were pondering how many students would take advantage of the free ticket offer.
"It's pretty exciting," said Penfield, who will have to settle for watching the Orange Bowl on television. "I just wish it was closer to home."