From elation, to uncertainty to answering critics: Four days Northern Illinois will never forget

Dan Wetzel

Jeff Compher is the athletic director at Northern Illinois, which means he works about a million hours a week being pulled in about a million different directions. His wife, Cathy, is quite obviously patient and understanding.

Saturday was their 22nd wedding anniversary, and in appreciation and recognition, Jeff plotted out a night of rare downtime. The plan was to head to Chicago, with a reservation at the downtown Hilton and another for dinner with friends at Keefer's, the steak and seafood place just off the Chicago River. His cell phone might even get turned off, or at least put on mute.

"I had it all set up," Compher joked Monday afternoon, after his potentially quiet anniversary weekend turned into one of the craziest four days an athletic director will ever experience.

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It included winning a dramatic MAC championship in Detroit, a lightning quick resignation of the head coach, a "Mario Andretti" inspired Interstate 94 chauffeur job by his son, multiple meetings, a phone that wouldn't stop buzzing, the hiring of a new coach, a perfect storm of results around college football that led to a surge up the rankings, the covert purchase of 100 oranges, accepting the first BCS bid in conference history, getting bashed mercilessly on ESPN and, in the end, elation turning to reality: How the heck are we going to pay for all of this?

Oh, and about that anniversary?

"Obviously I owe my wife, big time," Compher said. "Miami's got some good restaurants though …"

Compher saw most everything coming, he just didn't think it would all come, let alone all at once.

As the wins piled up this fall for the now 12-1 Huskies, Compher knew that bigger, richer schools would try to hire his coach, Dave Doeren. That's life in the MAC.

"Bells go off anytime a coach hits 10 wins in this league," explained Compher, who's been AD at NIU for five years. "So I started preparing myself for a job search."

NIU was also slated to play Kent State in the MAC title game in Detroit on Friday, which was the school's third consecutive appearance. This time, though, a shot at the Orange Bowl was possible due to quirky BCS rules designed to fend off anti-trust lawsuits.

For NIU to make it, however, it needed a bunch of other teams to lose. So even after the Huskies did their part, winning a dramatic, double-overtime thriller, 44-37, the BCS was still back of mind. In the MAC, winning the conference title is the goal and when you accomplish that, you take a moment to savor it.

So as the team returned to DeKalb, Compher went back to the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Detroit and celebrated with NIU fans and boosters. That's part of the job too.

"We we're going to enjoy the moment," he said.

The plan was still to make the five-hour drive back home on Saturday morning with his son C.J., pick up Cathy in DeKalb and then roll an hour or so back into Chicago.

Cathy wasn't the only person waiting in DeKalb though.

Debbie Yow, the athletic director of North Carolina State, needed to hire a head football coach, had identified Doeren as her No. 1 target and worked for days on getting him. Her chief concern was other schools beating her to the punch.

So rather than hesitate, she flew to DeKalb early Saturday morning to get the first face-to-face crack at Doeren. It was savvy, high-level recruiting.

Compher didn't know about it though. He figured he had at least until Sunday, and more likely into the early parts of the week before Doeren inevitably took another job.

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Instead, at 10 a.m. ET, as the Comphers drove through Michigan, Doeren called and said he was taking the Wolfpack job and flying to Raleigh with Yow later that day.

NIU had lost its coach within 10 hours of winning the championship.

"At that point my whole world turned upside down," Compher said.

Doeren said he wanted to speak to the team at 2 p.m. CT. Compher figured out the driving distance and asked if Doeren could push it back to 2:45 so he could be there, too. C.J. took the wheel so Compher could work the phone. "He was like Mario Andretti," Compher said. "He managed to cut off about 20 minutes of driving time."

Few things are more chaotic for an AD than the job carousel. There are dozens of tasks to accomplish and people to call – administrators, legal, human resources, boosters, media, players and so on. And that's just when a coach leaves. Once word leaks that a job is open, there is a deluge of interested parties: agents, candidates, surrogates, former players, famous coaches, more media, more boosters, you name it.

Compher was suddenly underwater. He called Cathy, told her the news and said he would get things handled on the ride home and they'd still head to Chicago. She called back an hour later and told him to be honest, the anniversary celebration could wait. The possible BCS bid? A coach going? A coach coming?

This was nearly unprecedented chaos.

Compher made it back to campus on time and after Doeren spoke to the team, the AD met with the players also. Months ago he decided the best candidate for the job was current offensive coordinator Rod Carey. He didn't tell the team that though. He wanted to hear what they were thinking first.

"I didn't ask them who they wanted, I asked them what they wanted in a coach," Compher said.

When the characteristics that came back were the ones Compher believed Carey, 41, possessed, he decided to move.

Across Saturday afternoon and evening, as word of Doeren leaving hit the media, the calls and texts began coming in torrents. Compher even noticed a few that kept signaling that maybe NIU did have a chance to get a berth into a BCS game. Under other circumstances, he would've been following every touchdown scored. This time he didn't have time to worry about it. Instead, a lengthy meeting was convened that included Compher, Carey and school president John G. Peters.

It wasn't until Compher arrived home, exhausted, at about 10:30 p.m. that "I started looking at all the results." Texas was about to lose. Wisconsin was blowing out Nebraska in a surprise. Things were falling into place.

"It still seemed like a long shot, but I went to bed thinking, 'We still have a shot,' " Compher said.

Upon waking up, there was a new contract to negotiate, more people to speak with, loose ends to tie up. Still, throughout the morning and early afternoon, Compher couldn't help but check some of the bowl projections, which began changing as various computer numbers and polls came in.

There wasn't universal agreement, but more often than not NIU kept getting slotted into the Orange Bowl. "I was thinking, 'Man, no one can make up their mind,' " Compher said. "But it is trending in our direction."

By midafternoon, it was official. The MAC offices called with word the selection process was complete. NIU was going to the BCS to play Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Compher was told to stay quiet; the official results would be announced on ESPN that night. Word began to leak, though, and the media were calling about a selection party. This was a huge moment, one he figured demanded more than just the players watching the selection show on TV. Ever the marketer, he decided this called for some oranges, like a lot of oranges.

So a little after 4 p.m. he sent down a request for someone in the athletic department to go buy at least 100 oranges, just don't wear any NIU clothing or tell anyone why.

"It was a clandestine orange purchase," Compher said, laughing.

The job fell to Lesslie Erickson, normally the athletic department's accountant. With all the action going on, she volunteered to work on Sunday. NIU isn't a big athletic department; it's a family kind of place and she figured she could help somehow. She didn't think it meant running to the local Hy-Vee grocery store.

So how exactly do you buy an unusually large number of oranges – and nothing else – without attracting any attention?

Erickson headed directly to the fruit section and overloaded her cart with bag after bag of oranges. She then pushed her way to the check out and held her breath. The cashier rang her up – $61 – without blinking an eye.

"Nobody even looked at why I had an entire cart full of oranges," Erickson said.

At 5 p.m., Compher finalized the deal with Carey's agent. About 32 hours after Doeren bailed, NIU had a new head coach. The players still didn't know, though, when they arrived for the watch party set for 7:30.

At 7:23 Compher stood in front of the team and introduced its new coach.

"I couldn't finish the introduction," he said. "The team roared, pounding the tables, cheering. It was emotional for everyone. I still get chills thinking about it, an amazing sense of joy and relief.

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"Then Rod got up and addressed the team and did a heck of a job. It was like everyone was thinking, 'You know, we're going to be fine.' "

Seven minutes later, they went to watch the selection show, with the media present. When the historic official word came in, the place went crazy … again.

Outside of DeKalb, the reaction was different. ESPN began slamming the selection, attacking the BCS, NIU's ability, its schedule, its credentials, you name it. Even the normally reserved Kirk Herbstreit declared it "a joke" and "a sad state for college football."

At that point quarterback Jordan Lynch picked up one of Lesslie Erickson's oranges and threw it at the TV.

Soon after Compher had the broadcast shut off. And the media was ushered out.

After that wild, emotional, on-the-brink weekend, no one was in the mood to hear how this blue-collar, mid-major program was somehow what's wrong about college football.

The sentiment was simple: Northern Illinois was going to apologize for nothing. They didn't make the rules. They never said they were the nation's best team. They just went out and played the best they could, as hard as they could. The school was going to enjoy every last second of this. They had a new coach. They had each other.

The job was hardly done for Compher though. While everyone else was focused on the fun, he knew the economics.

Bowls are third-party corporations. They expect to make money. As such, they stick participating schools with incredible expenses, from huge ticket guarantees to nearly all travel costs, with blocks of rooms already set at high-priced hotels. Buses, meeting rooms, food, almost nothing is free at a bowl game. You even have to pay for the seats where the student band sits.

Bowl payouts rarely cover everything, in part because conferences share revenue. Even big schools at big bowls take a bath. Virginia Tech lost $2.2 million attending the 2009 Orange Bowl. When it returned in 2011, it dropped another $1.6 million.

Northern Illinois, with about a $20 million total athletic budget, simply can't afford that.

"Believe me," Compher said, "we've read all the stories."

He was concerned enough and prepared enough that he had his marketing and ticket folks begin working on a plan two weeks back in the somewhat unlikely chance that this all played out. Better safe then buried in red ink, he figured.

Still, the school is now on the hook to sell 17,500 tickets to the Orange Bowl at elevated prices – from $75 to $225 per seat.

"We owe $2.4 million in tickets," Compher said.

Selling those seats is nearly impossible and not just because the Huskies average less than 16,000 fans for home games.

The secondary ticket market for many bowl games, including the Orange, is weak, driving down prices for fans that do want to attend. Monday night you could buy hundreds of tickets on for under $8.

The prices the Orange Bowl makes the schools pay are artificially inflated. How do you sell tickets for 10, 20 times what the public can buy online? The bowl doesn't care. It gets the big money. If the school eats the cost of empty seats, well, that's the school's problem.

"It's a huge challenge," Compher said.

Fortunately, the MAC agrees. When the prospect of a BCS came on the radar late in the season, commissioner Jon Steinbrecher decided the league should use a greater portion of BCS money to protect the selected school. That isn't how all leagues do it. Since the MAC is due just $8 million for a BCS bid, unlike the $20 million-plus major conferences get, it's a bold plan. It will mean less for other programs, but Steinbrecher says, at least no one gets crushed.

"The MAC is going to provide the financial support to make sure we aren't hurt by this trip," Compher said.

Still, the goal is for NIU do the best it can. Orange Bowl officials came to DeKalb on Monday and declared the Huskies plan to market tickets the best they'd seen. NIU will engage in an aggressive publicity campaign, mostly to their nearly 250,000 alumni: TV, radio, online, billboards, email, text messages, social media, direct mail to alumni in Florida and Georgia, you name it.

They're even hoping fans of other MAC schools get caught up in the conference's big day. This, Compher said, is about the league, not just NIU.

After the wildest, most wonderful four days in NIU football history, he sure isn't complaining. And he hasn't forgotten that missed anniversary.

About those great South Beach restaurants …

"There's Joe's Stone Crab," he said. "Of course, that's tough to get into."

Can someone down there hook him up with a table with no wait? Cathy Compher deserves her night out.

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