If you ever want to see the mark of progress, take a look back at Joe Novak's tenure at Northern Illinois. After going 1-10 in his first season as Husky coach in 1996, and 0-11 the following year, he started to compile much more respectable records. A 2-9, 1998 season led to a 5-6 record in 1999. He followed that up with consecutive winning seasons in 2000 and 2001 of 6-5. In 2002, the Huskies tied for first place in the MAC West conference on their way to an 8-4 record, earning Novak postseason recognition as MAC coach of the year.
Northern Illinois kept up its momentum with a 10-2 season in 2003 and a 9-3 mark in 2004. The team also finished off last season by winning in the Silicon Valley Classic Bowl against Troy State 34-21. That marked the Huskies first postseason bowl appearance in 21 years (their last appearance was in the 1983 California Bowl). Even though his team now considered one of the MAC powers, the veteran coach hasn't lost sight of the early struggles. "I like this way a lot better than the one ten years ago, I guarantee you that;" said Novak at a media call-in this week. "We were just praying to win a game for awhile there and didn't!"
As to what led to the football program's resurrection, Novak claims it has
been his players and not himself who should be credited with the improvement.
"Well, really I'm the same person, so it's our players that got the thing turned
around," Novak explained. "I think a couple of things did it. Certainly
commitment. We've asked our kids over the last several years to make a real
strong commitment to turn this program around and they've done that. Just an
example: the last three or four summers we've had every kid on our football
team here all summer working out together. Belief -- I think our kids are now
to the point where they believe we're good, they believe we can win, and I think
sometimes that's harder than the physical aspects of the game. The last several
times we've played BCS teams we've either won or competed very well. Right now
they believe and that's very important."
When asked what the biggest change from then to now is, the answer from Coach Novak was simple; expectations. "The biggest thing, the thing that's fun now is the expectation level is so much higher," he said. "I know Lloyd has to deal with that every year not only with Big Ten Championships but National Championships, and that can be a daunting task. Things are different: I've got a lot of people around town here that think we can beat Michigan. They really think we're going to and that's great; I want it that way. We also need to all be realistic."
Before Novak's position at Northern Illinois, he and Michigan Head Coach Lloyd Carr spent time coaching together under Gary Moeller at Illinois. Novak coached the defensive line while Carr coached the defensive backs, and the two became good friends. "Our personal relationship -- this is many years ago now, we're talking 26 years probably, '78-'79, that time," explained Novak. "Lloyd and I actually played a little bit of tennis and we played mixed doubles and my wife played with Lloyd and I played with his wife, and we got after each other pretty good to be honest with you! We had a lot of fun; I really enjoyed Lloyd and Coach (Gary) Moeller back then; we had a great staff."
During this time, Novak also gained his respect for Carr's coaching ability. "You could tell Lloyd really was a great coach" said Novak. "Gary Moeller had known him for quite awhile. Rick Venturi was on our original staff and Rick got the job at Northwestern, and I know Gary jumped at the chance to hire Lloyd. You could just tell he had a great future in coaching. Very intense, very intelligent and I know Bo (Schembechler) hired him right off of that and I knew he'd do some great things. Certainly Lloyd has gone on and had a great career there and a great record at Michigan." Novak's connection with Michigan coaches just doesn't end at Moeller and Carr. He was a two year letterman under Head Coach Bo Schembechler at Miami of Ohio and graduated in 1966. When asked if he ever thought he and Carr would ever be coaching against each other, Novak responded, "No! Because the last time I was with Lloyd we got fired (Moeller got fired at Illinois) so we were looking for jobs!" Novak joked. "But to answer your question, like I said the last time we saw each other, working together, we were just getting fired, so no, I never thought I had a chance." Novak did find another job however, working as a defensive coordinator for Northern Illinois from 1980 to 1984 before hooking up with Bill Mallory as defensive coordinator at Indiana from 1984 to 1995.
Carr and Novak both had jobs being assistants on the defensive side of the football, and the Husky head man believes it has helped them both as head coaches. "When defensive coordinators become head coaches like Lloyd and I, the offensive coaches are nervous because we have 10,000 ideas on what to do and you can't do them all!" exclaimed Novak. "I think one thing, being an ex-defensive coach, and Lloyd and I are both that, we know where we've got ideas on things we felt were difficult for us to defend, and I know certainly Lloyd has really gotten into the passing game. He knows how tough that can be, spreading people out, especially with the skill that their able to recruit every year and the quality of quarterbacks they're able to get. I think again, he's trying to take advantage of the talent and he's great ideas on the things he knew were difficult for him when he was coordinating defenses."
At his weekly press conference Monday, Coach Carr had many words of praise for his ex-coworker as well. "I know Joe Novak as well as most people," said Carr. "I coached with him two years at the University of Illinois. I don't think anybody in this country has done a better job coaching than Joe has. He's done a great job at Northern Illinois. When you look at what they've accomplished, particularly in the last few years, it's really special when you consider where that program was when he started. He's got a football team that plays to his personality. He's an old-school guy that cares greatly about his players. I think he represents the coaching profession, the very highest ideals."
In his coaching span, Novak has made several trips up to the Big House to play the Wolverines, but has yet to experience much success. "My memories aren't real good up there to be honest with you," said Novak. :I was at Illinois and Indiana when we weren't very good. The last time we played up there, I don't remember the year, the early 90's, we had a game that was very close. There was a very controversial interference call, it turned the game around and got Coach (Bill) Mallory suspended from a game the next week because he was upset with the officials."
Though he knows the game is a great opportunity for his team, Novak isn't putting all his eggs in one basket per-se. "I think we've got a chance to win," he said. "We've got to play real, real, real well, we know that, but it is one game. Our goal has been and always will be a Mid American Conference Championship. Just like Lloyd (Carr) will tell you, he'd rather lose to Northern Illinois and win the Big Ten, than beat us and not win the Big Ten. I think we're all that way."
This weekend's game against the Wolverines is a sign of things to come for
NIU. Novak hopes his team gets used to playing a tough preseason schedule because
it doesn't get any easier in the next few years. "We have Ohio State next year
as our opener and we play Tennessee the year after that so just having a chance
again to take our team and our fans into these venues, to play at Michigan,
to play at Ohio State, to play at Tennessee, and I do know this -- those are
top ten teams every year! Those are going to be awful, awful tough games but
what a great opportunity for our program to go in there, to play on national
television in those venues. It remains to be seen how we're going to play, but
just to have a chance to do that, I think, is a big stride for this program."
Novak's program will certainly be taking a large stride for his program on Saturday against Michigan; it will be the team's first appearance on ABC, and the game will be seen by 49 percent of the country in 25 states.