Northern Illinois University is the heartwarming story of the entire bowl season a Mid-American Conference school receiving a BCS bowl invitation. A blow, as it were, for the little guy.
But lets be frank here. Little guys dont ever get a fair shake in an institution as big as college football. The system is gamed against it, which is why you see so many big conferences absorbing planetoids here and there. The Shakedown is coming, and the big will eat the medium-sized and leave the small to fend for themselves.
Darwin would whistle in admiration. And fear.
Northern Illinois joy, though, is both the gold-painted rock, and the creepy crawlies beneath, and this has nothing to do with Northern Illinois. It went 12-1, it did everything required of it, and it deserves the Orange Bowl.
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But fun comes full retail at this level, and Northern Illinois is going to that, and then some, for its big moment.
For one, there is the 17,500-seat guarantee it must meet, one of the many things about the bowl system that mitigates against schools. Northern Illinoiss average attendance this year was 15,670. So the school is already well into the red, and it hasnt even boarded the plane yet.
Then head coach Dave Doeren wont be there, because as part of the games get-out-when-the-getting-is-good coaching culture, he just took the North Carolina State job. You cant keep a man from advancing, but thats strike two.
And strike three is that it draws Florida State, and the possibility of a ferocious beating awaits. Now if that isnt a buzz-killer, nothing is.
Now this wont be a rant about the bowl system being corrupt, because plowing plowed ground is a waste of your time and, more importantly, mine. Nor will it be a paean to a playoff system, which is both exclusionary and will be every bit as pay-in-advance as the bowl system, and will do nothing about the underlying bowls ability to make achievement expensive.
There is, frankly, no way to avoid the soaking Northern Illinois is going to represent this January. When the money meets the weight room, college sports holds the same charm as loan sharking. In fact, if loan sharks sold sweatshirts at 95 a copy, the two industries would be at each others throats in court constantly.
The system works fine for some schools, of course. It will work fine for Stanford, for example, because it will go to the Rose Bowl against a beatable foe in Wisconsin, and because its the Rose Bowl, Stanford will make a nice piece of jack. Not only that, it keeps its coach, David Shaw (unless someone wants to triple his money), and even if there were a shortfall, the endowments the athletic wing of the university holds will keep it from going broke even if it offered all its service for free for the next 50-some-odd years.
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And remember, Stanford is one of those schools that doesnt travel well. It didnt even travel well to the Pac-12 championship, which was on its own grounds. This was treated as a scandal of highest proportions until a quick look at the other conference championships showed that only one, the SEC championship, sold out. Everywhere else, there were acres of empty seats, which tells us two things.
One, in the SEC, football is 14 Christmases. Two, everywhere else, the conference championship is not the riveting event its producers claim it is.
In short, there is a finite demand for college football in America, and the places where it is the biggest thing in town does not change the situation for all those schools where it isnt even the biggest thing on campus.
And Northern Illinois is the living breathing embodiment of that truth. This is the biggest thing the football program has ever produced, and the hangover is going to be a bitch.
But some day it will get better. NIU will be excluded from the process altogether, because while college football likes stories like NIUs, it makes the NIUs pay dearly for telling them. Its a nice racket, when you get right down to it.
And if youre on the right end of the business model, so is loan sharking.