Northern Illinois football coach Jerry Kill refrains from calling the Huskies "his" team or "his" program out of respect for his assistant coaches, trainers and NIU staff members who help run the Division I football program.
But it's also an homage to his predecessor and close friend, Joe Novak, who retired in 2007 after 13 seasons as the NIU head coach. Kill and Novak talk a few times a month and Novak remains close to the only program he was ever called head coach.
He will be in attendance tonight at Ford Field when the Huskies try to break a 27-year Mid-American Conference Championship drought in Detroit. Daily Chronicle reporter Jeremy Werner caught up with the former NIU coach – who is spending his retirement reading presidential biographies, boating near his beach home in South Port, S.C., and traveling the country with his wife, Carole, to see college football games.
Novak, a Miami (Ohio) graduate and former RedHawks assistant coach, shared his views on today's game, Kill and his former players who are playing starring roles for this year's Huskies.
For you, this game is the alma mater versus your only head coaching spot. What's it going to be like watching this game?
Miami's my alma mater, but there's a lot of people there at Northern – a lot of those players we recruited, of course the coaching staff I know very, very well – so right now I'm leaning real heavy toward Northern Illinois.
You're not just saying that to appease the fans here in DeKalb, are you?
No, I'm not, believe me. I love the people there, and I love Miami. I go back to some of their games and certainly try to support them too. But there's no question, I know so many people there at Northern yet. ...I'm a Northern fan this week.
A lot of the players having big seasons for NIU are players you recruited. What's it like for you to see them have this kind of success, especially when their careers probably didn't start the way you or they wanted (with a 2-10 season in 2007)?
It's exciting. During Jerry's second year, we were talking one day and he said, 'You know, your last recruiting class we think is really going to be pretty good if they hang in there.' Of course they did, and it's certainly panned out. It's good to know because when you recruit you never know how they're going to end up. A lot of those kids are really doing a good job. But a lot of that is because of Jerry and his staff and how they've developed them.
Give me your take on the year quarterback Chandler Harnish is having for NIU?
When we recruited Chandler, he was really a running quarterback. He was a very physical kid, a great character kid. I thought he'd be a great leader. That's the thing I really liked about him. The biggest question I had was that he was not a great thrower in high school. They did not ask him to throw much. He was very erratic throwing the ball, but he was a great athlete, he could run and he had great leadership qualities. But the thing he's really done is he's really developed as a passer. Jerry and those coaches have done a great job of bringing him along. He right now is really a total quarterback.
I've heard you had a pretty big influence with the hiring of Jerry Kill. What role did you play in the hiring process?
Here's how that worked out. (Former NIU athletic director) Jim Phillips had me sitting in the interviews with him. The big reason for that was I might be able to ask some football questions that Jim might not. I could be there in case the candidates had any questions that maybe I could answer better than Jim could. But when push came to shove, the hire was Jim Phillips and (NIU president) John Peters.
Where did Jerry rank on your list of candidates then?
(Laughs) Right at the top. The thing about Jerry is he's just such a down-to-earth, level guy. He cares about the players, does things the right way, hard work, lunchpail – as he puts it – and that's what I think our program was built on. Our kids were blue collar. They came in and worked hard, and Jerry has no ego. He just loves coaching football. ...To me, he's a perfect fit for Northern, and I sure hope they do everything they can to keep him there.
You took a team to Detroit for the MAC Championship in 2005. What's that week like leading into game and what's it mean for a program?
Everything happens so fast, just like this year. They played Friday night and they'll be back playing again Friday. You don't really have time to revel in any on-the-side stuff. It's just preparing for the next game, just like every week. ...Certainly the only concern you ever have – and we had them when we were there – is the conditions you practice in this time of year.
How often do you think of Domenik Hixon (who caught the game-winning Hail Mary touchdown pass in Akron's 31-30 win over NIU in 2005)?
(Laughs) Way too often. That's a nightmare. You never forget those. We had some good wins too, but somehow – any coach or player – you always remember the hard losses more than the great wins. That's unfortunate, but that's the way it is.
So you'll be in Detroit tonight?
Oh, I'll be there. I told Jerry I made my plane reservations before the Ball State game.
I was. (Kill) wasn't very happy with that, but I was sure they were going to go.
So what do you think of this matchup?
Miami being my alma mater I've seen them play a couple times live. I went down and saw their opener against Florida (a 34-12 RedHawks loss). I walked out of that game and I said, 'You know what? Miami outplayed Florida.' And they did that day. They had about four or five really bad plays, but other than that I thought Miami outplayed Florida. A year ago they were 1-11 and I saw them play and they weren't very good. This was one of the greatest turnarounds I've seen from any football team in a one-year period. They're much-improved.
So who's your pick?
(Laughs) Well, Northern of course. I think right now, and I probably shouldn't say this, but I think Northern's a better football team. They have to go up there and play. I know Miami's going to battle, but I think Northern's a better football team. I think they're healthier. I think they certainly have some confidence, but they still have to play the game. That's what it's all about.