Joe Novak chuckled through the phone lines, perhaps a tad uncomfortably, when it was suggested he had birthed one of the Mid-American Conference’s most heated rivalries.
“I don’t know about that; I don’t remember a lot of success against Toledo,” the genial former Northern Illinois football coach said. “We had a whole bunch of big games but it was mostly very frustrating for us.”
In 11 seasons as head coach of the Huskies (1997-2007), Novak compiled a 1-10 record against UT’s Rockets.
“When we got halfway decent, in order to win anything we had to beat Toledo,” he said. “Those games were for all the marbles in the MAC West.”
Today’s game between NIU and the Rockets in DeKalb, Ill., will be no different. Just like last year and the year before that. Just like a lot of years since Novak dug the Huskies out of a pit far deeper than mere mediocrity.
Novak’s record as NIU’s head coach was 63-76, and if that doesn’t sound very impressive, then you don’t realize what he started with and that his record was 3-30 after his first three seasons.
“Could have been fired, no question,” Novak said.
But he wasn’t, and everything the Huskies have accomplished since, even after Novak’s retirement at the end of the 2007 season, bears his fingerprints.
When he was offered the job, NIU athletic director Cary Groth told him, “This isn’t very good.”
Novak knew that. But they had another conversation a couple weeks later, “And I told her that it was worse than I thought, and it might get even worse before it gets better.”
It did. After a 1-10 debut season, the Huskies celebrated their return to the MAC in 1997 by going 0-11.
“That had to be the worst team in major college football,” Novak recalled. “We had to do some weeding out.
“It wasn’t pretty.”
But NIU insiders could see baby steps. They saw discipline and work ethic and some promising recruits, including the likes of tackle Ryan Diem and receiver Justin McCariens, two future NFL players.
It was gradual, but early in the 2002 season the Huskies were ready to make a major move. They started 1-3, but followed with seven straight wins before a 33-30 loss to Toledo cost them an outright MAC West title and a trip to the league championship game.
In 2003, the Huskies beat No. 14 Maryland on national TV, then Alabama and Iowa State en route to a 7-0 start and a No. 10 slot in the BCS standings. But before it was over NIU dropped a 49-30 decision at Toledo and, in a great injustice, was not even selected for a bowl game.
Northern Illinois ended a two-decade bowl drought the following year and Novak got his only win against UT in 2005, a 35-17 decision at the Glass Bowl that paved the way to a MAC title game berth.
Since that 1-3 start in ’02, the Huskies are 86-47 overall and 63-22 in MAC play under Novak and his successors, Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren.
In the late 1990s Huskie Stadium was a ghost town — moms, dads, and girlfriends — even on game days; now it is a tough ticket and one of the MAC’s more hostile stages for opponents. Every NIU player and coach who walks into the Yordon Center, the team facility at one end of the stadium, should thank Novak.
Same for when the Chessick indoor practice building, similar to the newly opened Fetterman Training Center at UT, is completed next fall.
“I thought from the start that the job had a lot of potential, but there was the need for a huge commitment,” Novak said. “We had a little success finally, some boosters and donors got excited, and that got some things started. Jerry and Dave have done great jobs and taken the program another step up.
“To know where we started and to see where it is now, the success the teams have had, the facilities … to see it all come to fruition is very gratifying.”
Most gratifying, perhaps, for Novak is the Huskies’ recent success against Toledo. NIU has won the last two meetings, scoring 65 and 63 points in the process, and is a double-digit favorite tonight against the 8-2 Rockets.
“Toledo was always such a big, physical offensive team and that wasn’t a good matchup for us,” Novak said. “We struggled against their running game. It was so frustrating for me, so I’m glad our guys have turned that around a bit.”
Novak and his wife have a home on the water on the southeast edge of North Carolina and life is good. But the pleasing view through the window will be secondary to what the TV screen is offering tonight when UT and the Huskies square off on ESPN2.
“I catch as many [NIU] games as I can,” Novak said. “You can bet I’ll be watching that one.”
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 419-724-6398.