The NIU Huskies football team has headed down to Miami to play in the Discover Orange Bowl. They’ll be joined by a host of school officials, alumni and students. Getting everyone down there has taken an unprecedented effort across the NIU community.
To say there was interest in the NIU community about the game would be an understatement. Brad Hoey is Director of Communications & Marketing at NIU. He’s been involved with bowl trips since he was a student broadcaster for Huskies in the 1980s. He says this one is a huge leap from previous bowl trips.
“The Orange Bowl is an iconic event, not just for college bowl games, but I think most everybody is familiar with the Orange Bowl."
Hoey says any trip for a school with fewer resources than, say, Ohio State or Michigan, that could be a daunting task. But Hoey says NIU was prepared, maybe better than most.
“One of the things we have done in recent years is we put together a bowl manual. We have a group of people from across the campus that gets together even before the end of the season, anticipating what might happen and preparing for it.”
First, there’s the football team. For a big bowl game like this, everyone is going. 103 football players, 23 football coaches and staff, 49 staff families and 60 support staff - 235 in all. The athletic department is at least somewhat used to transporting a small army for away games, and with several postseason trips in recent years, it feels prepared to handle the extra team members, staff and administration who are going to Miami.
The department also is helping with transporting cheerleaders and the Huskie Marching Band. The band has done this before, too. Still, its director, Dr. Thomas Bough, says taking the 150 band members, along with nearly two dozen staff, as far as Miami is a big job. And with a band, there are always special issues:
“Those darn sousaphones were an obstacle. The charter company wanted to know the exact measurement to see if they would fit through the bay doors and not overload the airplane.”
With the trip’s high profile, and a very tight schedule, Bough says the band also has taken an important precaution, since accidents do happen.
“Ellman’s Music in Naperville was kind enough to lend us their repairman for the trip, so, we’re bringing our own repairman with us.”
As might be expected, many alumni are going. The NIU Alumni Association’s Executive Director, Joseph Matty says 300 alumni are taking Association charter flights, and many more are attending. He noted that 1,000 people are expected for one alumni event in Miami and 2,000 for another. Matty says it was tricky coming up with an economical set of travel package in these circumstances.
“At this time of the year in such a short window, there’s nothing that’s cheap.”
Matty says the main problem was booking just enough extra plane seats and hotel rooms to accommodate late deciders.
The university has organized trips in the past for students who want to follow the team. For the Orange Bowl, the number is huge. 1300 students are going. Bill Finucane manages the NIU Transportation Department. He says he never organized anything on this scale before.
“We’ve been to bowl games where we sent 8 or 9 buses, but this time with 1300 students, that’s 26 busloads of students we’re sending down.”
Finucane says everyone knew interest would be high. But no one expected what happened when the school announced it was organizing a bus trip to Miami for students.
“When the first 500 seats sold out in about ten minutes, I mean that that was a huge surprise. And then the waiting list grew for another 800 people, and that’s when they decided that that’s where they wanted to cut it off.”
Finucane says with so many buses, the university is staggering the departure schedule, sending them off in waves of five or six at a time. Finucane says it’ll be safer on the road to spread the buses out. It’s also much easier to load the buses in shifts. Imagine loading 1,300 students and their luggage all at once, he says, and you can see why.
Those students also will have to be fed and housed, and that’s where Jill Zambito comes in. She runs the Office for Student Involvement and Leadership Development at NIU, which worked on all aspects of the trip from providing information, to ticket sales, planning activities and beyond. She says arrangements have been made with vendors in DeKalb and in Florida to provide food for the trip there and back. Then the office had to find accommodations for them.
“Dump 1,300 additional students on top of an already very popular destination makes it a bit more challenging,” Zambito says.
Zambito says they had to split the students among 7 hotels in Miami and nearby cities. And her office’s responsibilities don’t end there.
“We also want to make sure that our students have things to do while they’re there, and options that are good options and maybe safe options.”
Zambito says with 1,300 students going, there was an issue that really hadn’t come up before, and not one that her office was set up to handle:
“The rooming assignments. Each student, when they purchased their ticket online, were able to preference up to three students that they would like to room with. We’re doing it all by hand.”
Finucane and Zambito say the student package is a real bargain. But it could still be a problem for someone on a student budget. That’s where the NIU Alumni Association stepped in. Members donated money to help defray students’ cost for the trip. Joseph Matty says the alumni response has been gratifying, with $45,000 raised.
“A lot of our alums are just saying they remember when they were in college and would have wanted an opportunity like this, and just wanted to make sure the students take advantage of this opportunity.”
Ticket sales were still running strong last week, and it’s obvious a lot of people are heading to Miami on their own. Even there, the university is trying to help. NIU’s Carpool Connection usually helps commuting students looking to save money through ride sharing. For the Orange Bowl, the Connection is offering its assistance to NIU students and staff looking to split a ride to Miami.
Everyone involved says that cooperation between departments, and strong support from the NIU administration, the Mid-American Conference of which NIU is a member, and the Orange Bowl committee, has been a big help all through the process. And they credit their staffs for putting in extra effort to make it a success. They say everyone realizes that, for many, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And they’re doing their best to make it a positive one, as well.