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‘That’s saving jobs.’ Why Northern Illinois will play at Florida State

The state of Illinois' budget crisis caused the Huskies to rearrange their schedule to take a $1.6 million payday in Tallahassee.
Northern Illinois will play at Florida State on Sept. 22 in a rematch of the January 2013 Orange Bowl. [ AP FILE PHOTO ]
Published Aug. 31, 2018
Updated Sep. 1, 2018

The biggest reason Northern Illinois is coming to Tallahassee in three weeks is bigger than the chance to avenge an Orange Bowl loss or to play a marquee opponent.

The Huskies needed the money.

"We needed it to financially support our department and our institution," Huskies athletic director Sean T. Frazier said.

The state of Illinois faces a multi-billion-dollar deficit thanks to unfunded pensions, unpaid bills and years of legislative stalemates. Because of the budget crisis, Northern Illinois lost $125 million in state funding over three years.

As the situation worsened in 2017, Frazier began looking for extra revenue through future scheduling. That led him to Florida State.

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The two teams have a recent history; the Huskies hung with FSU for three quarters before the Seminoles pulled away in the January 2013 Orange Bowl. FSU was looking to finalize their 2018 schedule, and the date (Sept. 22) worked for both teams.

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Most importantly, the paycheck matched up, too. FSU guaranteed the Huskies $1.6 million.

Although that's a steep price to pay an opponent, it's only a fraction of the $48 million the Seminoles spend on football, according to 2016 data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. But for a Northern Illinois program that claimed only $8 million in football-related revenue that year, it's enormous.

"That's saving jobs," Frazier said.

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Last April, Northern Illinois officially replaced its home game against Idaho with a trip to Doak Campbell Stadium in a deal that included an immediate cash installment. A month later, the university announced the elimination of 150 jobs (30 through layoffs) to help cut another $35 million from its budget.

The idea of playing big-name opponents isn't new to the Huskies, who have beaten four different Big Ten teams on the road since 2013. Even before scheduling FSU, Northern Illinois had one of the toughest non-conference slates in the country: at Iowa on Saturday, home against Utah next week and at BYU in October.

But adding another powerhouse program to the mix took a special circumstance. It's not easy to give up a likely win at home to face a perennial power on the road.

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"You can see our coach, Rod Carey, is in lockstep about our institution's needs," Frazier said. "This was his way of saying, 'Hey, the institution is important, the athletic department is important, and this is what football can do to help support what's going on.'"

Northern Illinois' future schedules are more reflective of Frazier's usual goals.

Frazier wants a program with three Mid-American Conference titles since 2011 to remain in the national conversation through big-name opponents, either with paycheck games on the road (three trips to Nebraska) or home-and-home series (Vanderbilt, Maryland and Utah). Frazier wants to play other respected Group of Five programs, like a home-and-home with USF that began in 2016 and will finish in 2025.

And after swapping Idaho for the FSU payday, Northern Illinois will continue scheduling home games against Division I-AA teams. Ideally, that means opponents like next year's opener, Illinois State. The Redbirds are a solid I-AA opponent (three playoff appearances in the last four years), and the Huskies' money will help fund another program in Illinois.

"Lord knows we need (the money) to stay in the state," Frazier said.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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