BOISE, Idaho – When he was 12 years old, Tom Matukewicz used to practice speeches as the head football coach of some future team in whatever town his future brought him to.
For the past two weeks, Matukewicz has been as close to that dream as ever. He made sure he would enjoy it, even if it was only on an interim basis. More important, Matukewicz made sure Northern Illinois' players would enjoy it.
Fun was the message from the time Matukewicz took over as the interim head coach on Dec. 7 all the way through Saturday's 40-17 Humanitarian Bowl blowout victory against Fresno State at Bronco Stadium.
It was the exact thing the Huskies needed to hear. At the point in which they were at their lowest, the high-energy, double fist-pumping Kansas native with the booming voice, quick wit and dry sense of humor not only got his team to rally, but smile while doing it.
It's why players were chanting "Tuuuuuke" by the end of the game. Those same players in unison credited Matukewicz with getting them ready for Fresno State.
"He meant everything to us," quarterback Chandler Harnish said. "I loved how the team came together, how he rallied the troops."
Matukewicz's reply: "Just for that, you're getting double Chick-fil-A tonight."
When he walked into the postgame news conference, he told the media, "You all need to get comfortable, because when I get back to DeKalb, I'm no longer the head coach. So I'm going to milk this thing out."
With that, the coach they call "Tuke" was on a roll.
On NIU next season: "I'm telling you right now, we better start in the top 25 so if any of you all have a vote, you need to put us in there next year because we've got a lot of guys back."
On the bowl experience in Boise: "I'm telling you now, the secret is out on Boise. There may be a million people that move in here because this is an unbelievable town with unbelievable people."
On celebrating the bowl win: "I'm going to find out how much gas is in that jet because I'm not going to land it. We're just going to circle around and celebrate."
Matukewicz, who will be the linebackers coach under incoming head coach Dave Doeren, plus possible additional responsibilities, has done what really only a handful of people could. This is not the situation coaches dream of when they talk about getting the chance to lead.
There was talk of the team fracturing and not being ready on such a quick turnaround for the bowl. Matukewicz and the Huskies didn't have any of it. Credit to NIU's seniors for how they played Saturday and what was said in a players-only meeting after Jerry Kill left for Minnesota, but credit Matukewicz for fostering an environment for success in a tough position.
If there is a quicker way to put yourself on the fast track to a career as a head coach, I can't think of a better proving ground than the past two weeks.
"I hope someone sees my work in these two weeks and these coaches' work and say 'Hey I want to talk to that guy.' But obviously I want this feeling again," Matukewicz said. "It'll happen. I'm going to keep pressing on."
As for those speeches, Matukewicz made one – sort of – at halftime Saturday.
"You know what I said at halftime to the guys?" Matukewicz said. "I said, 'If you haven't had fun, that's your fault. You can't slap the smile off me.' "
I don't know if he ever practiced that one, but it sure worked.
• John Sahly is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org