DeKALB – Chandler Harnish arrived at Northern Illinois four years ago a virtual unknown.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Indiana native prepared to continue his quarterbacking career in DeKalb having been ignored by college football recruiters who weren’t sold on the potential that eventually made Harnish the perfect fit for former NIU coach Joe Novak.
Northern Illinois not only offered Harnish a scholarship, but a chance to be part of a program that, over the course of his career, would turn a major competitive corner, leading to this year’s 12-1 finish and unprecedented Orange Bowl bid.
But even in 2008, Harnish – the final selection in last spring’s NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts – believed the Huskies were destined for bigger things than Mid-American Conference championships.
For three years, Harnish had watched three non-automatic qualifiers earn berths in the Bowl Championship Series, paving a road for mid-major programs to share the spotlight with bigger, more traditional football powerhouses.
“Our goal when I was there was to be the next Boise State and it really looks like we’re heading that way,” Harnish said in a phone interview last week. “Now, it’s about consistency and doing those things year in and year out.”
Although NIU is the first MAC representative to make a BCS appearance, college football’s biggest bowl games have included a non-automatic qualifier every year but one since 2005.
Since then, Boise State, Texas Christian and Utah have all made two BCS appearances apiece, registering bowl game victories against schools like Oklahoma, Alabama and most recently, Wisconsin as TCU captured a Rose Bowl title with a 21-19 win over the Badgers in 2011.
Hawaii, which appeared in the 2008 Sugar Bowl after winning a Western Athletic Conference, is – to date – the only mid-major not to fare well in a BCS bowl appearance, losing 41-10 to Georgia in New Orleans four years ago.
The recent rash of mid-major representation comes in stark contrast to the 54 years before the BCS was formed in 1999.
In the five decades that preceded college football’s much ballyhooed postseason system, only five schools from non-AQ conferences appeared in upper-tier bowl games.
“Those access points were negotiated out of a sense of fairness and doing what’s best for the game,” BCS executive director Bill Hancock said last week.
“Any time a new school qualifies for a BCS bowl game, it’s a good thing. ... This is good for college football.”
Hancock spent last week hearing all the backlash directed at NIU. He disagrees with the vast majority of it, pointing to the fact NIU plays by the same rules that everyone else does.
Two years ago, Hancock met with athletic directors from the MAC, suggesting they were closer to reaching a BCS bowl than perhaps they realized. For effect, Hancock held his thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart, demonstrating how confident he was that sooner than later a MAC team would qualify.
On Dec. 2, NIU captured the 15th spot in the BCS standings to earn its Orange Bowl berth.
Hancock watched on TV as the Huskies celebrated their historic accomplishment and relished that NIU had finally found its way to a major bowl game appearances – an accomplishment new Huskies’ coach Rod Carey called the biggest thing to ever happen to Northern Illinois football.
“This is not a matter of Northern Illinois versus Oklahoma – this is a matter of applying the rules that everyone agreed to,” Hancock said. “It’s a matter now of allowing Northern Illinois to enjoy what will be a lifetime memory.
“Every [NIU] student, heck, every alum will remember this month for the rest of their lives.”
Harnish has celebrated the notoriety that has come with his alma mater’s BCS berth like he’s still part of the program.
He has fielded countless phone calls and conducted several media interviews, taking pride in a program that has added its name to the growing list of mid-major BCS participants.
Like Harnish, current players understand the criticism that has come the Huskies’ way, living with the “mid-major” tag that has long been affixed to programs Northern Illinois.
It’s a characterization NIU players insist won’t impact the Huskies’ preparations against Florida State.
“We have a chip on our shoulder – the players do, the program does and as a whole, I think the university does,” NIU senior defensive end Sean Progar said. “[The game] can be a mid-major or a BCS school but it doesn’t matter when we get on the field – it’s one team against another team and it’s going to depend on who executes their plan better.”