DeKALB – Lee McGee thought the Northern Illinois University Huskies would have to rebuild in 2012.
After the Mid-American Conference football champions lost their starting quarterback to the NFL, a repeat as conference kingpins seemed unlikely to the lifelong NIU fan. An invitation to a Bowl Championship Subdivision bowl game – a feat never accomplished by a Mid-American Conference team – was only possible in McGee's wildest dreams.
But there was no need to wake up from any dream Wednesday as McGee and roughly 150 other fans waited in sub-freezing weather to welcome the Huskies back from their historic run to the Orange Bowl. The fans lined the Convocation Center drive as the players buses approached.
"It's nice for them to get this appreciation," McGee, of DeKalb, said of the welcome home ceremony. "No one expected them to have the season they had."
There were only smiles from fans and alums Wednesday after NIU's 31-10 loss Tuesday to Florida State. For fans such as Ron Jossendal, win or lose, the team already exceeded the program's previous crowning achievement when it defeated Alabama in 2003.
"I never thought I would see anything like this in my lifetime," he said. "I was just pleased [the Huskies] stayed with Florida State."
Despite the three-touchdown defeat, NIU stayed within striking distance of the heavily favored Seminoles for three quarters in a game season ticket-holder Larry Brodersen said showed NIU's toughness.
From the fake punt, to their recovery of a surprise onside kick and big hits absorbed by quarterback Jordan Lynch, Brodersen said the Huskies showed the guts and toughness that brought them to the Orange Bowl.
"We watched the whole game. I wasn't going to turn it off no matter what the score was," he said. "It was real special."
Jeanne Isabel, an NIU faculty member, wanted to welcome the team Wednesday to show her appreciation for the way the players represented the university the whole year. She said the Orange Bowl trip resulted in some of the most positive national coverage the university has received in years.
"With all the ads on TV, the logos ... people will know about NIU now if they didn't before," Isabel said. "I think the students are proud of it."
Wednesday's welcoming was another example of the fan support Lynch said the team was grateful for all season. Although the junior quarterback said he was disappointed the Huskies could not send the seniors out with an upset victory, he said all the players felt huge fan support in Miami.
"It was a great experience," Lynch said. "It was special. ... I think [the fans] were louder than Florida State's at times."
NIU's season had some fans believing that a spot in the top 25 and BCS bowl bids could become more familiar territory for the Huskies. With two consecutive MAC championships, an Orange Bowl appearance and an indoor practice facility on the way, Ryan McGee said he thought NIU had a chance to rise to prominence the way Boise State and Texas Christian universities did before them.
"They just need to keep actively recruiting and play with the determination they did this season," said Ryan McGee, Lee's son and a soon-to-be NIU student.
The Huskies also provided inspiration and motivation for some fans. Nick Quick, a sophomore football player at Ottawa High School, came to welcome a team that inspired him throughout the year with its ability to overcome the odds.
"It was the David versus Goliath of football games," the sophomore lineman said of the Orange Bowl matchup. "But they earned it and took the hard way to get there."