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 player 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 six 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 four 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 two 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 four-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  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 GoDaddy.com 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.
“You build a little bit of a cockiness because you’ve got that chip on your shoulder where you want to go into those games and just silence the country and show them what you’re made of.”
Harnish and Diem both have seen respect grow nationally for NIU as part of a system that landed the Huskies into the No. 15 slot in the final BCS standings. But neither the naysaying pundits nor the fact NIU is a 13 1/2-point underdog to Florida State can take away from the pride former players will share when they arrive in Miami.
Once in South Florida, former players will not only celebrate the present, but the past, understanding the effort required for NIU to become the latest nonautomatic qualifier to shine under the BCS spotlight.
“It’s such a great opportunity for Northern Illinois, and really, there’s no pressure,” Harnish said. “They can just go out and have fun, play loose and continue to do unbelievable things for the program.”