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

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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?''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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Marcin Gortat's emotional return ends with a loss and personal vindication

Marcin Gortat's emotional return ends with a loss and personal vindication

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- The “Polish Machine” who now plays for the Los Angeles Clippers didn’t quite land the Hollywood movie script ending in his return to Washington.

Don’t fret for Marcin Gortat. Sure, the Wizards, his former team, fought back from a 24-point deficit for a 125-118 win. He’s good with his new scene. Gortat also has thoughts on his former situation and the turmoil brewing.

Gortat made his first appearance in the arena he called home for five seasons Tuesday night since a June 26 trade sent him to Los Angeles for Austin Rivers. He wasn’t sure of how the local fans would react. His journey in Washington ended bumpily, but the overall ride coincided with a positive turn for the franchise. The Wizards reached the playoffs in four of his five seasons.

“Well, obviously a very emotional moment,” Gortat said of his return. “Bottom line is that we came here to get a win. Unfortunately, we lost today. …It was great to be here.”

His arrival in 2013 following a trade with Phoenix led to the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2008. Three more postseason trips followed as did Mohawks and fabulous quotes. Gortat provided the power just before the NBA veered away from hulking frontcourts. His fame and fortune increased in Washington. His affable and oversized personality attracted fans.

Fans that watched the 6-foot-11 screen-setting center consistently provide double-doubles graciously applauded for the ex-Wizard during pre-game introductions. Gortat, who started 400 of 402 games played in Washington, appreciated the gesture.

“It was weird to sit on that side of the court and play against your guys,” Gortat said. “It was tough, very emotional and weird, but it’s business.”

Gortat wasn’t immune to criticism from fans and teammates during his time in Washington. Part of the reason he now plays for the Clippers is that the relationship with former pick-and-roll partner John Wall soured. When disapproval only went so far up the Wizards’ player hierarchy, it often stopped with the man in the middle.

The Wizards entered Tuesday’s game flailing. Many of the same players from prior seasons remained. Not Gortat, meaning any blame must land elsewhere. With drama engulfing the Wizards, Gortat proudly felt vindicated. He waited for the pack of reporters to clear before expressing such thoughts.

“Listen, the way I was traded out of that team, it looked like I was the cancer of the locker room,” Gortat told NBC Sports Washington. “I think that thing was verified and it was complete [expletive]. It is what it is now.”

Pregame Gortat wondered if the Wizards would join the ranks of teams creating tribute videos for returning players. He would be left wanting.

Rivers, the son of the Clippers head coach, received one in October upon his first arrival back with the team he played for over four seasons. Gortat remembered.

As the formal postgame scrum ended, the ex-Wizard made it clear he had thoughts to share and asked to be asked about the lack of a video tribute.

“Well, what do I think about that? A lot of guys around the league are getting tributes. It ’s obviously up to the organization, but I guess Austin Rivers did enough to get his tribute, but I didn’t do enough to get a tribute here,” Gortat said to NBC Sports Washington. “A few guys around the team understand. It was kind of weird.”

Taking the court with his former teammates was more different than weird, but ultimately cordial and competitive.

“Brad (Beal) fouled me a few times. He admitted he fouled me, but I didn’t get a call,” a chuckling Gortat told NBC Sports Washington. “John, yeah, we had our ups and downs, but at the end of the day, there’s no bad blood. We spoke at the end of the game, said good luck, stay healthy.”

Ultimately, Gortat made peace with his time in Washington. The fond memories outweighed the knocks. Members of the Wizards organization stopped by the Clippers locker room for a chat and a laugh. Gortat bear hugged Wizards equipment manager Jerry Walter to the ground.

The loss stung. Los Angeles does the stinging most nights. The Clippers entered with a five-game winning streak. Their 11-6 record puts them among the Western Conference elite. Gortat’s minutes are down (18 per game). Such limits would have bothered him in Washington. 

At 34 and knowing his NBA life could be fleeting with his contract expiring this summer, Gortat is cool with his new world.

“I’m great. I’m great where I am,” the 12-year veteran said. “I get to play and help the team as much as I can either on the court, off the court, in the locker room. I’m going to try to help my team and lead us as much as I can. We have great chemistry and a great team.”

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Former Raven Ed Reed takes step closer to Hall of Fame enshrinement

Former Raven Ed Reed takes step closer to Hall of Fame enshrinement

To the surprise of no one, former Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed is one step closer to Hall of Fame enshrinement.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced Tuesday that Reed was named one of the 25 semifinalist for the 2019 class. Reed, cornerback Champ Bailey and tight end Tony Gonzalez are the only first-year eligible players that made the cut.

An obvious first-year ballot Hall of Famer, the next step in the selection process for Reed will take place on Thursday, January 3 when the semifinalist are cut down to 15 Modern-Era Finalist.

Finalist then must receive 80% positive vote from the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee on "Selection Saturday," one day prior to Super Bowl LIII. No more than five Modern-Era Finalist can be elected in a given year. The finalist will be formally enshrined Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019 in Canton, Ohio.

The Ravens selected Reed in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft, and he would go on to play 11 seasons with the organization. During those 11 seasons, he was voted to the Pro Bowl nine times, was a five-time First-Team All-Pro and started 159 of 160 games. 

On the field, Reed had 61 interceptions for 1,541 yards and seven touchdowns. In addition, the safety raked up 11 forced fumbles and 13 fumbles recovered for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Not to forget a Super Bowl XLVII championship.

Reed's enshrinement would make him the third Raven in the history of the organization to be enshrined in his first-year of eligibility alongside linebacker Ray Lewis and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. 

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