Mid-majors make big strides

DeKALB – Chandler Harnish arrived at Northern Illinois four years ago a virtual unknown.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Indiana native was pretty much ignored outside of NIU, even by Ball State.

NIU not only offered Harnish a scholarship, but a chance to be part of a program that, over the course of his career, turned a major competitive corner, leading to this year’s 12-1 finish and an unprecedented Orange Bowl bid.

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 like Northern Illinois 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 phone interview last week. “Now, it’s about consistency and doing those things year in and year out.”

The Huskies are the first MAC representative to make a BCS appearance. But the BCS bowls have included a non-automatic qualifier every year but two since 2005.

Since then, Boise State, Texas Christian and Utah have made two BCS appearances apiece, registering bowl victories against schools such as Oklahoma, Alabama and most recently, Wisconsin. TCU beat Wisconsin, 21-19, in the Rose Bowl in 2011.

Hawaii, which appeared in the 2008 Sugar Bowl after winning the Western Athletic Conference, is the only mid-major to date that did not fare well in a BCS bowl appearance. The Warriors lost, 41-10, to Georgia in New Orleans four years ago.

The recent mid-major representation comes in contrast to the 54 years before the BCS was formed in 1999. In the five decades that preceded the BCS, only five schools from non-AQ conferences appeared in upper-tier bowl games.

It’s something the BCS set out to change, providing more equity for conference champions such as NIU.

“Those access points were negotiated out of a sense of fairness and doing what’s best for the game,” BCS executive director Bill Hancock told the Northwest Herald 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, who oversaw the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament for 13 years before being appointed to his current position, spent the 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 as everyone else.

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 No. 15 spot in the BCS standings to earn the Orange Bowl berth by the slimmest of margins – 0.0404 points – edging out former BCS participants Oklahoma and LSU. Hancock watched on TV as the Huskies celebrated their historic accomplishment and relished that NIU finally had found its way to a major bowl game appearance – an accomplishment new Huskies coach Rod Carey called the biggest thing to ever happen to NIU 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 still is part of the program. He has fielded countless phone calls and conducted several interviews, taking pride in the Huskies’ accomplishment.

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 like NIU. It’s a characterization NIU players insist won’t impact the Huskies’ Orange Bowl 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.”