Orange Bowl pride abounded for more than 100 former Northern Illinois University football players and their families gathered at the Pride in the Pack reception Sunday afternoon, sharing stories and engaging in fellowship at the Fontainebleau.
The list of former players and coaches in attendance was impressive.
Among the players representing the past six decades of Huskie football were former National Football League players Tim Tyrrell, Justin McCareins and Garrett Wolfe as well as former coaches Jerry Ippoliti, Joe Novak and Jerry Kill.
“One of the things that’s unique about the Huskies is that we’re all about family, and we’re very, very glad to know that we’ve got very prominent members of our family that are with us today,” announced associate vice president and director of athletics Jeff Compher to the crowd.
Former wide receiver Michael Pinckney, who played under both Pat Culpepper and Bill Mallory, arrived Sunday morning from Silver Springs, Md., and was among those attending.
“This is huge,” Pinckney said. “I’m very proud of the program. I think back to my last year,which was coach Mallory’s first year, and he actually started something then that carried on throughout the years.”
Novak was on Mallory’s staff, which led NIU to its first MAC football championship in 1983. Many credit Novak for laying the strong foundation for NIU’s current football successes.
“It was a dream way back when, in fact Bill Mallory and I talked about this back in 1980 about what a great place Northern could be if people wanted it to be,” said Novak, sharing that praise.
“Just look at all the people here. I mean you’ve got people here from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. They all take such pride. You know, that’s one thing about athletics, and I think especially football – the guys that play it take such pride in what they’ve done, in their school, their teammates – and to see all these guys here of different ages taking so much pride in Northern Illinois University, being able to brag about Northern Illinois University, that’s just a wonderful thing.”
“It’s just a great time in the history of Northern Illinois football, but I think as you look around the room, there’s a lot of people that put blood, sweat and tears into it,” said Minnesota head coach Kill, who succeeded Novak at NIU and led the program to three straight bowl games. “Coach always said, the ones who stayed would get rewarded, and I think that all the people in this room are getting rewarded today.”
Compher echoed the former coaches’ praise of the contributions of the many to NIU’s current successes, saying, “Getting to this point took a lot of hard work. Everybody in this room helped get us to this point, and we cannot thank you enough forthe foundation you built for this program. Thank you all very, very much.”
That gratitude and pride was displayed in custom-made T-shirts given to the former players in attendance. The shirts were inscribed with the phrase “BECAUSE OF US,” with the letters BCS highlighted.
Former placekicker John Ivanic, who kicked the winning field goal in NIU’s first-ever win over a Big Ten opponent (Wisconsin) added, “We all wanted to take this program … to a place where it was mentioned among the greatest football programs in the country and it was BCS worthy. And now that I think that we’re here, it’s great to celebrate the foundation.”
Grant Dungan, a third generation NIU graduate, was a walk-on player for Novak in the mid-2000s and marveled how far the football program has come.
“When you go to the deepest valley, you know how magnificent it is to stand on one of the highest mountains like we are here today. And what a beautiful view we’ve got,” he said. “It’s not just football. It’s the business school, the engineering program … There’s always something going on that you hear about and are like, ‘That’s amazing!’ ”
“It’s really good. It makes me really proud to be here with the team at this particular bowl game,but to see the other former players is special,” Pinckney added.
“You know, schools have fraternities, and we have our fraternity of NIU football players, and what this group is doing is not just for them. Most importantly it is for them, but it is about everybody that came before them and everybody that will come after them,” said Jamie Dobay, who played for NIU during the Charlie Sadler era. “The foundation that we’ve built at the university is going to continue to grow and move forward.”
Earl Upton, who played with Ivanic for head coach Jerry Pettibone in the late 1980s and early 1990s, now calls South Florida home. He’s thrilled to see the university on a national stage in South Florida.
“My wife and I live in Miami,and we’re just elated that not only is NIU in a bowl game, but they’re in the Orange Bowl,” Upton said. “We’re just so proud to be a part of the NIU family, to be here now, and we’re just looking forward to NIU having a great, competitive game at the Orange Bowl.”