For a sense of NIU perspective, just talk to Korcek
Mike Korcek remembers how hairy it was when the Northern Illinois football team played in the iconic and now departed Orange Bowl in 1986.
The Huskies were getting set to join the list of teams who received a dose of reality by the top-ranked University of Miami. Korcek, a 1966 Prospect High School graduate, was on the field fulfilling his duties as NIU's sports information director as a fairly decent breeze blew through the palm trees at the site of so many memorable football moments.
He waited as NIU head coach Jerry Pettibone chatted for about 15 minutes with an old friend in Miami coach Jimmy Johnson. After they finished talking, Pettibone and Korcek got together and started laughing and joking about how Johnson's well-known head of hair never budged an inch before his Hurricanes blew out NIU 34-0.
When Korcek returns to Miami on New Year's Day, he may feel his hair standing up on the back of his neck this time. Because he will be watching his alma mater and the school he worked at for 34 years in the sports information department playing in the Orange Bowl game against Florida State.
It's safe to say there aren't many -- if any -- alums who have witnessed as many NIU football games (more than 300) or sporting events (somewhere in the thousands) as Korcek. He was there in 1969 when the school moved up with the big boys -- from the College Division to the University Division at the time -- and working for legendary SID and former sports writer Bud Nangle.
"I'd always ask him ... what do you think is the most significant (NIU) athletic accomplishment?" Korcek said. "Considering for a long time it was a state teacher's college, becoming part of the University Division was the most significant thing.
"To go from that to being in the Orange Bowl, this is the most significant event in the school's athletic history."
And those who knew how hard Korcek worked for so many years to make sure people knew what was happening at NIU congratulated him as if he was a player or coach after the historic news.
"The Monday after the bowl selection show, I was on the phone all day," Korcek said. "It was very flattering to hear from media people, alums and former student workers. It was like I was working again.
"That was fun, and to see the reaction of Northern people celebrating, that's what athletics does for a community whether it's high school or college."
Even if the reaction wasn't so enthusiastic nationally, particularly from ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit and some of his colleagues who reacted as if this was one of the worst things to ever happen in a sport populated with high-profile college programs at the center of various embarrassing scandals. Korcek even wrote a column afterward for the DeKalb paper that helped explain to the Herbstreits of the world that NIU's success is not a fluke or an aberration.
"The last 10 to 12 years have been like the golden era of NIU football," said Korcek, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of NIU athletics. "There has never been a decade like this in NIU history."
There was a win at Alabama and a home win over a ranked Maryland team. Standouts like Michael "The Burner" Turner. And now back-to-back Mid-American Conference championships and national rankings.
No one can appreciate it more than Korcek, who led the NIU sports information department for 22 years. After all, part of what lured him to the school and his chosen profession was Arlington High grad George Bork quarterbacking NIU to the NCAA College Division championship in 1963.
"Growing up in Mount Prospect and reading the Herald ... I read all of Bob (Frisk's) columns about George Bork," Korcek said of the paper's high school guru for 50 years. "Bob was also my mentor and he got me interested in sports writing."
Korcek went to work for the Northern Star as soon as he got to campus. But in his senior year, Korcek started working for Nangle in the NIU sports information office and found his true calling.
After a three-year stint in the Army, Korcek returned to his dream job in what Nangle called "the toy department of life." And it was clear NIU was the perfect toy store for Korcek as he recalled a conversation years ago with a somewhat envious John Heisler, who was the well-known SID at Notre Dame.
"Heisler said, 'You're the SID at your alma mater,'" Korcek said. "It's been an honor and a privilege to be the SID at my alma mater."
That's why Korcek, who still goes to all the home games, truly understands how momentous this will be on New Year's Day. Of course, he's got some familiarity with these kinds of stories after seeing his old high school go from rock bottom to three state football titles from 2001-2005.
"Prospect has three of them so we have to catch up," Korcek said with a laugh of NIU. "When you think of all the tough years Prospect had in football, they're both pretty incredulous (stories) when you think about it."
• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org