NIU football a beacon of light in a dark football city

Part of me thought the playoff-eliminated Chicago Bears (5-9) would come out and play for pride against the equally struggling New Orleans Saints (6-8) Monday at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Sadly, it became apparent the Bears had more or less checked out for the season and were simply going through the motions in a 31-15 loss. Even the gambles weren’t calculated as a failed fake punt with only 10 men on the field perfectly summed up the Bears’ brutal season.

So, why do Chicagoans still put up with the pitiless Bears? And will they even care to watch the final two games? I don’t have those answers, but I’d guess any reasoning would go that it’s still the beloved Bears and it’s still football.

But, I have a team for Chicagoans to root and cheer for that deserves to be rooted and cheered for. A team that knows how to win and has proven it year in and year out. A team that does things the right way, some would say the hard way. A team that receives little Chicago media coverage despite its university having 200,000 alums living in yhe Chicagoland area, but it doesn’t care because it’s too busy making it to five consecutive MAC Championship games under three head coaches. If you guessed the NIU Huskies you’ve guessed right.

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding season – losing the likes of Heisman finalist quarterback Jordan Lynch, first-round safety Jimmie Ward and the entire defensive line – the Huskies put together an 11-2 season, won their third MAC Championship in four seasons and will play the Conference-USA champion Marshall Thundering Herd in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl 5 p.m. Dec. 23 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Elsewhere, the Bears are sitting alone in last place of the NFC North at 5-9 with games against the Detroit Lions (10-4) and the Minnesota Vikings (6-8) remaining. Add to that that the Bears have missed the playoffs for four-straight seasons and the dreariness only drags on. 

In the FBS college football landscape, the Northwestern Wildcats finished one win shy of bowl eligibility. “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” lost five of its final seven games to close the season at 5-7 and 3-5 in conference play. They also lost to the Huskies, 23-15, Sept. 6 at Ryan Field in Evanston. Thanks for playing, Wildcats.

Down south, Illinois’ other FBS program eked out a bowl bid by beating Northwestern in its final regular season game. Five of the Fighting Illini’s six wins came against teams that finished .500 or better, but two of those came against Group of Five teams (Western Kentucky and Texas State) while one came against an FCS team (Youngstown State). It’s nothing to write home about.

In a year where football in Illinois has been downright horrendous, the Huskies are a shining light. Sometimes that light, emanating from DeKalb, doesn’t stretch far enough into Chicago to be seen and appreciated as much as it deserves to be.

In my two years covering NIU football I’ve seen almost next to nothing in terms of original coverage of NIU football from the Chicago Sun-Times – Jordan Lynch trying to make the Bears doesn’t count as that much in my book.

The Daily Herald brings NIU to life once in a while with NIU alumnus Barry Rozner’s well-thought-out columns.

The Chicago Tribune offers the closest resemblance of an NIU beat, bringing NIU to some relevance in the Chicago market with game previews and recaps and the occasional column. But, there’s little about the players and coaches who make the program what it is.

And don’t get me started about sports talk radio in Chicago. I could probably count the number of times I’ve heard meaningful NIU football talk on one hand – again, excluding Jordan Lynch trying to make the Bears.

So, go ahead and watch the Bears’ final two meaningless games, stomach the Fighting Illini going for another win against a Group of Five team – the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs – in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl or start looking at Northwestern’s next recruiting class.

But, embrace the Huskies if you haven’t already. Their light has been shining for the better part of a decade. All they do is win, and they do it with the utmost class.