By Chris Emma-
(CBS) How did Northern Illinois football ascend to the top of the state? It began seven years and four coaches ago, not on Saturday with a win over Northwestern. The Huskies have been building toward this point for years, carrying one common belief.
The tone-setter was coach Joe Novak, who helped foster a culture in DeKalb. The Huskies had seen success at the turn of the century, producing NFL names like Michael Turner, P.J. Fleck and Sam Hurd. But it wasn’t until Novak’s 2007 class came in that the expectations were raised.
The Huskies had a talented team, but one that realized its place. It was one largely made up of players snubbed by the Big Ten, Midwest kids who wanted to play big-time football. Novak knew his players and their goals.
“There was a culture set in place by Joe Novak,” said Chandler Harnish, the Huskies’ decorated former quarterback from 2008-’11. “It was a winning culture, it was blue-collar, no complaining, no excuses, just go to work.”
NIU rallied together under a common mindset. Their mantra became “The Hard Way,” detailing how things haven’t come easy for them. They were ignored by the bigger schools, counted out in DeKalb and had to work for their success. It began with that 2007 group.
“We strive for doing things the hard way,” said Pat Schiller, part of the 2007 class and a current linebacker for the St. Louis Rams. “We didn’t have everything at our program that other programs have. We’ve gotten that over the years through the success that we’ve had. But it’s always been instilled that we work hard. We’re a lunch-pail, hard-hat team.”
The foundation was formed with Novak, then continued under Jerry Kill, the successful coach of Southern Illinois. In 2007, Kill’s Salukis beat Northern Illinois on its home turf. That would be the last time the Huskies were an ordinary MAC team, as they hired Kill in December 2007 after Novak retired and took the next step forward from there.
“Jerry got us to be disciplined young men, turned us from teenagers to men,” Harnish said.
NIU reached the 2008 Independence Bowl, just its fourth bowl in program history but third in the decade. That started a run of six straight postseason berths. Three of those came under Kill, who left for Minnesota in December 2010.
Most mid-major programs fall off when losing their head coach, but not NI, which was ready to keep raising the bar.
“People doubt us,” Harnish said. “That’s what makes us stronger. It gives us a chip on our shoulders. It makes us hungry to win.”
Enter Dave Doeren, formerly Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator, aiming to raise the bar even higher. Mission accomplished.
NIU overcame a 20-0 halftime deficit in the 2011 MAC title game to beat Ohio, 23-20. The 2007 class left the program by making history and also setting it up for more.
“We know we helped pave the way for these guys, and they’re pavig the way for the guys that follow them,” Schiller said. “It’s a brotherhood, and we take pride in it.”
A perfect picture of that brotherhood came in Atlanta on New Year’s Day of 2013, some 800 miles from DeKalb. Against all odds, the Huskies reached the Orange Bowl against perrenial power Florida State. Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch had led NIU to a dream season.
Gathered in Atlanta, Schiller and Falcons teammate Michael Turner watched with pride as NIU had reached its pinnacle. Huskies all across the country watched in amazement of how far their team had come.
“It really brings us back together, and it keeps our bond strong,” Schiller said. “We all have something to talk about, to go back and cherish, to relive our memories.”
And the memories keep coming, with 2013 bringing NIU’s second consecutive 12-win season and finishing off a 46-10 mark over the past four years. Second-year Rod Carey has carried the torch after Doeren left for NC State, proving the Huskies’ flame hasn’t burned out.
It’s because that driving force remains the same as seven years ago. These Huskies have that same hunger, and they’re not afraid to do it the hard way.
“You can’t attack big expectations unless you have daily work ethic,” Carey said after Saturday’s 23-15 win at Northwestern. “These guys have it.”
The celebration was just beginning in Evanston, with red-clad fans gathered throughout Ryan Field. Their Huskies had just upset their in-state Big Ten neighbors, cementing a place as the state’s top dogs.
NIU’s rise has been years in the making, and worth all the work.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.