Ben Hempel had never given much thought to attending Northern Michigan University while he was younger. In fact, he had never even heard of the place until his junior year of high school.
“A friend of my father had told me about [NMU] while at a Wisconsin Badgers game, but I never thought I would end up here,” Hempel, a junior and now the starting quarterback for NMU’s football team, said. “I was later recruited, and now I’m here. The isolation can hurt a place.”
That isolation of the U.P. can be a good thing; and several locals would argue that it is the remoteness that makes living in northern Michigan so great. When it comes to building a football team though, isolation is something that can hold a program back. Luckily for the 2008 football Wildcats, recognition is on its way and it happens to be in the form of a national TV audience.
On Thursday, September 18, the annual rivalry between the Wildcats of NMU and the Michigan Tech Huskies (in which NMU won last season 34-27) will be broadcast and made available to more than 3.2 million state-wide including hundreds of thousands more nation-wide. CBS College Sports Network (CBS CSTV), along with Fox Sports Detroit (FSN Detroit) will air the battle between the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) schools at 8 p.m.
“I think it’s great for the university and the entire community,” head football coach Bernie Anderson said. “You get exposed to so many people that might watch Thursday night college football.”
The game, originally scheduled for Saturday, September 20th, was moved after CBS College Sports Network asked Northern if they would like to be a part of one of their broadcasts during the year. The game was later picked up by Fox Sports Detroit as well, which reaches an estimated 3.2 million households in Michigan, northwest Ohio, and northern Indiana, the game will also be made available via a broadband-internet connection at NCAA.com.
“The decision and the schedule decisions overall are made cooperatively between the NCAA and CBS College Sports Network,” said Tim Pernetti, executive vice president of content for CBS College Sports Network. “This partnership was hatched to grow D-II exposure together and in the process, showcase the top programs, matchups and rivalries in D-II sports.”
Many players seem excited about the fact that family members and friends, who may not get to see them play, now have a chance at it this season.
“Everyone likes to see their kid play,” senior defensive back Alex Grignon said. “We got a couple guys from Florida and some guys from California so I’m sure it’s exciting for them and I’m sure their families will be watching it too.”
One thing that may become a factor following the game is the recruiting attention both schools acquire. A player downstate or even across the country may consider attending and playing sports at NMU or Michigan Tech when they may not have considered either college beforehand.
“All of a sudden they see you’re on TV or they like the dome or they like something else, where if you’re not [on TV] there’s just no exposure,” Anderson said. “So there’s exposure for football and recruiting for the university.”
Michigan Tech head coach Tom Kearly thought differently on the subject that the game may shape recruiting for one of the programs.
“I think a young person will choose a college for different reasons: a chance to play, and play early, and the quality of education,” said Kearly.
In players cases, such as Ben Hempel’s, who may not have been aware of schools like Northern and Tech, it gives kids a chance to see the caliber of football being played in the GLIAC.
“The game on TV opens up the eyes to a lot of viewers that there’s good football up here,” Hempel said. “It gives them a chance to see the rivalry and see the dome and campus.”
Whether or not recruiting for either team is affected by the larger audience, one thing it does give football fans across the state and country is a chance to see a great football game and one of the oldest rivalries still alive today, dating all the way back to 1920. Last season’s scuffle between the two came down to the final seconds of play before a winner was crowned.
With 44 seconds remaining, and with Northern ahead 34-27, Tech found themselves on their own 44-yard line on fourth down. Three straight plays by the Huskies were stuffed by a stiffening Wildcat defense. Tech quarterback Steve Short took the snap on the final play, a draw up the middle, but was tripped up at the one yard line to end the game, giving the Wildcats the victory.
This season’s game looks to be just as intense, that is, if players stay focused on not letting themselves get star struck.
“I think the players were excited to see it on FSN, but (the excitement) has been under control. They know that that’s not for three weeks yet,” Anderson said. “I think when we get to that week there will be a few extra butterflies. I will discuss it with the team so they know how to mentally handle it – so there are some small points to address, but you don’t prepare any differently just because it’s on TV.”
Alex Grignon felt the same on the issue, that no players will be starstruck by the bright lights of a national stage.
“Some players like to shine when the spotlight is on them and that’s when they play their best,” Grignon said. “Refer to them as primetime players; I feel we got several primetime players all over the field for us that will step-up.”
Players aren’t finding themselves get away from what is important now, though, as the game between the bitter rivals will have to wait a few more weeks, but it doesn’t hurt to get excited.
“Right now the focus is on Northwood,” Grignon said. “But obviously in the back of their mind everyone is thinking about Tech, especially on national TV, everyone is fired up you can tell. The intensity is definitely going to step up after these first two weeks, too.”