DeKALB – Dave Doeren folded his arms and focused his stare, textbook posture for deflection.
“Honestly, it’s not any different,” he said, answering what it will be like when his Northern Illinois team plays Saturday at Soldier Field against No. 7 Wisconsin, where some of his closest friends coach. “... This week is about us playing against them, and that’s all it is.”
Any game in the coaching profession is significant. But to imply Saturday has the same personal meaning to NIU’s first-time head coach as next week’s game against Cal Poly? Junior defensive end Sean Progar isn’t convinced.
“He doesn’t really speak about it because he tries to act like it’s not that big of a deal,” Progar said. “But I know he wants to win. He was there for so long, and coming here as a head coach to play against the team he was just with last year, I know he wants to win. Everybody on the team knows that. We want to get that win for him because he does so much for us.
“He’s real fired up this week.”
As Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator from 2006-10, Doeren coached alongside men he calls brothers. He was Drake teammates with Charlie Partridge, who replaced Doeren as the Badgers’ co-defensive coordinator. He was an assistant at his alma mater with Chris Ash, Wisconsin’s other co-coordinator.
Their friendship is almost two decades old.
“I think if you sat in your office, and two of your best friends in life were sitting in the same office with you every single day, that’s a pretty neat deal,” Doeren said. “As a coach, you work 100 hours a week sometimes. The camaraderie you have in coaching maybe is even magnified more when you have two of your best friends in the room with you.”
“But we haven’t talked about each others schemes in a long time.”
When Doeren was hired at NIU, his conversations didn’t stop with Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who he calls one of his best friends in the profession. Bielema was one of the first people Doeren spoke to after leaving linebacker Devon Butler’s hospital room in April, after Butler was the victim of an off-campus shooting.
Months later, Bielema vividly remembers the phone call.
“I reached out to him as soon as I saw that,” Bielema said. “... I think I got a hold of him at like 7 or 8 a.m. He’d been at the hospital with him all night, just gotten home, and he said, ‘Nobody ever really prepared me for this one.’ I said, ‘Well, thankfully it hasn’t happened.’ “
It’s an example of the kindness and concern Bielema always showed Doeren, and a reason their bond remains strong months after he left Madison, Wis.
“He was extremely good to me, as a person and as an employee, and somebody that I care a lot about as a human being,” Doeren said.
As this season began, Doeren and Bielema talked less frequently. Other than a radio appearance in Chicago earlier this week, Doeren’s only contact with Wisconsin since Saturday was a congratulatory text after the Badgers’ 35-0 win against Oregon State, “because I think that’s a big deal when a defense gets a shutout,” he said.
But their friendly quips and banter are on hold.
“Once the season starts, all coaches kind of get in a cave and shut the door,” Doeren said. “So we haven’t talked at all, it’s more of a text here and there, ‘Hey, good luck this week,’ or, ‘Nice job, saw you on TV.’ But there is no conversation that goes back and forth from a football standpoint during the season.”
A FAMILY MOVE
Doeren used to take his three young sons to Wisconsin practices, just like he now does at NIU. They grew up in the program, got to know its stars as people. They hung out on the sidelines, played catch during breaks.
When Doeren flipped allegiances, he wasn’t the only one in his family who had to adjust.
“I think two of my three sons immediately switched,” Doeren said, smiling. “And one of them has a great affinity for both. I know they’re all obviously rooting for us as Huskies now, but ... they have good memories of being there as well.”
His life has moved on, a couple hours south. Doeren can now look back in fondness, reminisce over the good times. Except for this rare Saturday.
“When we get on the football field and we play, I’m going to coach our guys,” he said. “I’m not going to look at their sideline and worry about what they’re doing. When the game is over, we’ll do what we do as friends and we’ll talk.”
He can keep downplaying it all he wants. His players know better.
“It’s definitely a special game for coach Doeren,” NIU cornerback Rashaan Melvin said. “He’s competing against the coaches like we’re competing against the players.”