Column: An Orange Bowl date NIU couldn't turn down


Column: An Orange Bowl date NIU couldn't turn down

Many college football fans will awake New Year's Day, glance at the TV listings, and then face a pressing question.

If it's, ``Where did I put the aspirin?'' good luck.

But if it's ``How did Northern Illinois sneak into the Orange Bowl?'' you've come to the right place.

The story of how the Huskies wound playing Florida State in a big-money BCS bowl stretches back more than four decades. But the short version covers just a few days. It began with a 44-37 double-overtime win against Kent State in the Mid-American Conference championship game in Detroit on Nov. 30, and got crazier from there.

The next morning, NIU athletic director Jeff Compher set out on Interstate 94 toward the campus at DeKalb, Ill., with only one thing on his to-do list: Take out his wife Cathy for a 22nd wedding anniversary dinner in Chicago that night.

``That was the first casualty,'' Compher chuckled during a phone interview from Florida, where the Huskies were wrapping up preparations for Tuesday's game. ``It's been rescheduled for February.''

When he set off from Detroit with son C.J. in tow, Compher knew his life was about to get complicated. What he couldn't have known until his cellphone began ringing non-stop was how complicated, and how fast. In the first of a string of good decisions, he turned the wheel over to C.J.

``I knew we'd be going to a bowl, but there were so many combinations in play, I wasn't going to try and figure out which one. In the back of my mind, I thought we might have to find a new coach, because that's how things happen in the MAC. If you've got a good one, and believe me, Dave Doeren is one helluva coach, the big schools come calling quick.''

Quick in this case turned out to be an understatement. One of the first things Compher learned during that Saturday morning drive was that Debbie Yow, his counterpart at North Carolina State, had already beat him back to campus, determined to be the first to interview Doeren. A few hours later, it was a done deal. All Compher asked for was a delay of a few hours so he could be in the room when Doeren told the team. When that meeting ended, he began another one, asking the players what they wanted in a coach, not who.

That's because Compher began working up a just-in-case scenario months earlier, settling on Rod Carey, NIU's offensive coordinator. But he wasn't going to make the call without the players buying in.

``The question in our business, at our level, is how does a good team become a great program? And I've always believed the answer is continuity. We were already a good team. This will be our fifth consecutive bowl appearance. We're one of only two teams (along with Oregon) to win at least 11 games the last two seasons,'' Compher said. ``In this case, the last thing you want to do is rush into a big decision.''

Already exhausted, Compher decided to sleep on it. When he went to bed, NIU was solidly inside the Top 20 and likely to move up with the win over Kent State. Plus, Texas was losing and Wisconsin was en route to an upset over Nebraska. Compher knew a slot in the Orange Bowl was a possibility, but still a dizzying one.

``I dozed off thinking, `I've got to hire a coach tomorrow,'' Compher recalled. ``That's all I knew for sure.''

By the time he awoke Sunday morning, both Texas and Nebraska were out of the picture. Between negotiations on a new contract for Carey, he began checking bowl projections. Word that NIU was going to the Orange finally came in a call from the MAC office in mid-afternoon, with a warning to keep it quiet until the official announcement Sunday evening. That's when Compher decided to add a flourish of his own. He sent an athletic department assistant down to the grocery with instructions to buy 100 oranges and not leak a word about why to anyone.

Just minutes before the bowl selection show began on ESPN, Compher introduced Carey as NIU's new coach. A roar went up, followed by a second a few minutes later as the team learned what Compher already knew: that the Huskies would be the first MAC team accorded a chance to bang shoulders with the big boys in a BCS bowl. A few minutes after that, as ESPN's commentators roundly panned the BCS' decision to include NIU, those oranges Compher sent out for came in handy, just not the way he'd expected. Players hurled them at the TV set.

``Of all the things running through my head, I guess hadn't figured on that,'' Compher said, ``but I understand it. Here, people know the MAC and how good it can be. But the further you get away from Midwest, the less knowledge there's bound to be and the less respect some people have.

``So, yeah, I'm sure there will be some head-scratching when we pop up in the Orange Bowl, some `Who are they?' ... But we've played in some big games before,'' he added, ``and we know we're responsible for representing the MAC. We won't let people down.''

And no matter the final score, there's already a silver lining. As news of Compher's action-packed few days made the rounds, someone at Hilton Hotels heard about it, saw the original cancellation and invited the Comphers to pick a weekend in Chicago as their guests.

``I already owed my wife big-time,'' Compher said, ``so how great is that?''


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at) and follow him at

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Rewatching 'All Or Nothing': You'll absolutely love this Ron Rivera halftime speech

Amazon Prime

Rewatching 'All Or Nothing': You'll absolutely love this Ron Rivera halftime speech

Pete Hailey is rewatching Amazon's All Or Nothing, a behind-the-scenes look at the 2018 Panthers, to learn about Ron Rivera and other key people who are now a part of the Redskins. Here's his review of episode five, "It Happens."

The first four episodes of 2018's All Or Nothing, which closely followed Ron Rivera's Panthers from the start of the season to the end, have led to thoughtful reviews about the coach's steady leadership and how he believes in building confidence in his young players.

This review, however, is going to be simpler than the previous installments. In fact, it'd be difficult to get much simpler, honestly.

That's because the climax of the fifth episode involves Rivera ripping into his team at halftime, and the ripping goes on for 60 straight and intense seconds, and few things are cooler than getting access inside of a locker room where this level of ripping is occuring, so this story exists just to highlight the ripping.

The reason Rivera goes off on the Panthers is because of a very poor first half on the road against the Steelers. Carolina went into Pittsburgh hoping to make a statement on prime time, but instead, they got worked to the tune of a 31-14 deficit through two quarters.

So, Rivera lets his guys have it. First, he addresses corner Donte Jackson, who was losing his one-on-one battle with Antonio Brown. After that, he goes in on everyone else. Here's a transcript of it all (pretty much every sentence could have an exclamation point at the end of it, by the way, so read this in your best yelling voice):

Don't lose your mind. Don't let him get inside your head. You got just as much skill and ability as anybody on that damn field. You don't let that (redacted) push you around. You're too good, but you've got to keep your mind in the game and stay focused, all right? Don't let him get to you. You are too good of a football player to worry about (redacted) like that, all right? You go out and do your job.

Now, the rest of you (redacted), the same thing. The only thing they've gotten on us has been what? Two (redacted) long passes. You have to challenge these (redacted) guys. You can't sit there and accept it. This is their (redacted) history. This is who the (redacted) they are. They expect you guys to (redacted) roll over. You can't. You've got to defy them and challenge their (redacted). You've got to hit the (redacted) (redacted) center in his (redacted) mouth. That's how you beat these (redacted) teams. These (redacted) teams come out because they think they've got (redacted). And they challenge your (redacted). Well (redacted) them. Challenge them back. Find out what they're really made of. 

While All Or Nothing is a produced show, Rivera's passionate speech wasn't followed by a made-for-TV comeback. In fact, the second half was worse than the first, with the Panthers losing the contest 52-21. That said, the rant was 1) still compelling as (redacted) and 2) a look at a side of the 58-year-old Redskins fans obviously haven't seen yet.

Since taking over the Burgundy and Gold in January, Rivera gave an introductory press conference that featured only hints of his competitive nature. After that day, he's done plenty of other interviews, but they've been fairly typical or even lighter conversations.

The version of Ron that lit up the Panthers that night in 2018 will probably only show up from late-summer to late-winter or so, when meaningful practices and games are taking place. Until then, the calm and thoughtful (though still serious) vibes he's given off so far with the Redskins when behind a microphone or on-camera should continue.

However, as episode five of Amazon's project highlighted, Rivera's not afraid to turn the dial up so much it snaps off in his hand. 

In recent years, big-name Washington players like Adrian Peterson and Jonathan Allen have made it clear that they didn't like how easygoing Redskins Park felt at times, specifically when the results on the field suggested a need for more accountability and discipline.

When watching Rivera sound off on his old team, it was hard not to think how that approach will be more than welcome on his new team.

Here is a link to the uncensored speech. If around family, you may want to put some headphones in before watching.

Links to past reviews:

Episode 1: Rivera doesn't flinch after adversity hits

Episode 2: Rivera shows his feelings on distractions

Episode 3: Special teams truly mean something to Ron

Episode 4: Young Redskins will have a chance in 2020

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This date in Wizards history: Kobe Bryant scores 55 in last matchup with Michael Jordan

This date in Wizards history: Kobe Bryant scores 55 in last matchup with Michael Jordan

With the NBA season suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Wizards, or any team for that matter, are currently unable to make their mark on the NBA history books. 

So on this day, March 28th, we roll the clocks back 17 years to a major moment in not only Wizards history, but in NBA history as well. The final meeting between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. 

2003 was Jordan's second season in Washington and his last in a legendary 15-year career where he won six championships, five MVPs, 10 scoring titles and nine All-Defensive selections.

If anyone came close to being the next MJ, it was Bryant. By their final meeting, the 24-year-old prodigy already had three titles and more than enough reason to put on a show against his idol. 

Bryant went for 55 points against the Wizards, scoring 42 in the first half. He went 15-for-29 from the field and made 9-of-13 from three. Safe to say, Bryant was on a mission following a one-point loss to the Wizards earlier that season. 

He scored an inefficient 27 points on 8-21 shooting and was outplayed by a 40-year-old Jordan. According to Gilbert Arenas, Jordan told Bryant he would never fill his shoes following the loss. In true Bryant fashion, he held onto that moment, apparently didn't talk to his teammates for two weeks leading up to the rematch and took it all out on the Wizards. 

Jordan didn't have a bad game by any stretch. He still scored 23 points on 10-20 shooting to go along with four assists, but he was simply no match for Bryant. 

The Wizards would go on to finish 37-45 miss out on the playoffs and take Jarvis Hayes with the 10th overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.

The Lakers went for the first run of four-straight titles since Bill Russell's Celtics but fell short in the Western Conference Semifinals to Tim Duncan and the Spurs. They'd return to the Finals the following year only to lose to the Pistons. After that, Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami and the Lakers didn't win a championship for another five years. 

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