The connection lingered. Joe Novak tried to distance himself from Northern Illinois, break away from his creation. He moved to North Carolina. Phone calls came once a week, and only to coaches. Conversations with players became semi-annual. He attended one game each season, maybe two.
Four years passed. Each day, Novak told himself the Huskies belonged to someone else. He was not the coach. He was not calling the shots, making decisions.
“I don’t want to hang around,” Novak said. “I really believe that when a coach leaves a place, he leaves a place. My time has come and gone.”
And yet, the connection lingered. These back-to-back Mid-American Conference West Division titles are possible because of him, what he built. Chandler Harnish, Pat Schiller, Nathan Palmer – none would be here without him. And for those counting, Novak’s final batch of recruits included five all-MAC first-team members and two Vern Smith Leadership Award winners.
The connection lingered because his presence stayed, even if he left. His vision is seen every time Harnish tucks the football and runs. His influence is felt in Schiller’s leadership, Palmer’s routes. His players will be on the field one last time against a MAC opponent at 6 p.m. today, when NIU plays Ohio for the conference championship at Ford Field in Detroit.
Novak watches most games from his living room with his wife, Carole, where he “still gets nervous, still jumps and screams and yells, just like always.” The games he can’t catch live, he tapes.
Not this one.
Like last year, the self-made barrier couldn’t keep him away. Novak, who only attended the Wisconsin game at Soldier Field this season, will be in the Ford Field stands, cheering the Huskies. Because the connection lingered, his finger prints still all over this program, as long as Schiller is leading, Palmer is receiving, Harnish is running.
“After this,” Novak said, “it’s all Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren.”
But for now, the connection lingers and, try as he might, Novak can’t deny it. Today, his final recruiting class can accomplish what he worked more than a decade to reach, but never could: NIU’s first MAC championship since 1983.
“My wife and I will be there, no doubt about it,” Novak said. “I still have an attachment to the program. There’s still a big part of me in that football team. The one thing we weren’t able to accomplish is win a MAC Championship game.”
Novak always had the great tailback. He wanted a quarterback who could do the same thing.
He thought Britt Davis was the answer, but he was a better receiver. Phil Horvath had the brilliant passing numbers, but that was only one dimension. As a defensive coach, Novak knew the benefit of having a quarterback who was half dropback, half fullback.
“We just couldn’t come up with the athlete that we were looking for,” Novak said.
So the Huskies offense stayed tailback-oriented, all powers and isolations and I-formation. Then Novak found Chandler Harnish. He wasn’t sold at first. Sure, the kid could run. But he rarely passed as Norwell (Ind.) High’s quarterback, and Novak didn’t want to trade one skill for the other.
“I didn’t really know what my role would be when I first came in because when I came in we were doing seven-step, five-step drops as quarterbacks, and that wasn’t my type of game,” Harnish said. “I always kind of thought to myself, though, if I was to get the opportunity, that the offense would kind of build around me.”
The irony is thick. Novak finally brought the offense he wanted to NIU, but not until he left. Harnish, the final quarterback Novak recruited, didn’t play one game for him. But this season, he’s fulfilled Novak’s vision, on pace to become the first college quarterback ever to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,500.
Harnish’s 1,351 yards are 12th-most in the country. He’s added 11 rushing touchdowns. And, most importantly, he proved Novak didn’t have to trade passing for rushing, completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,692 yards, 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions. His 154.4 passer rating is 15th in the country.
It took plenty of coaching for Harnish to develop as a passer, and he’s thankful. He also hasn’t forgotten who’s responsible for bringing him here.
“Coach Novak is a great guy, he’s a legend, and I owe him everything for giving me the opportunity to come play here,” Harnish said. “That’s probably what I want most, is to win one for coach Novak. He’s so deserving.”
Harnish said he never has told Novak. He thinks his former coach already knows. The sentiment is shared throughout the fifth-year seniors.
All Novak knew was the kid wanted to be a Huskie. The particulars, he hadn’t worked out yet. There wasn’t an open scholarship, but Pat Schiller grew up going to NIU games. He wanted to turn down offers from Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Illinois State so he could walk on.
When Novak sat down to chat, he said it would be best for the Geneva High senior to pursue the offers. Take the free education, he told Schiller.
“But he said if anything turned up, he would let me know,” Schiller said. “So I kind of just went away with that. Then a few months later, I was just sitting in a final my senior year.”
Schiller says it was a science test. He remembers because of what followed. A phone call came in for Schiller. Novak was on the other end.
“How would you like to be a Huskie?” Novak asked.
“I said, ‘Definitely,’ “ Schiller said. “I didn’t even have to think about it. I’m just so blessed and thankful that he thought enough of me to give me that opportunity.”
Schiller was shocked. NIU hadn’t recruited him for months. “I was going in blind,” he said. “It was out of the blue.” But he wanted to prove he could play at this level, and here he is – leading a young defense one win from the MAC title.
Schiller wants no distractions. Not this week, not this game. So he calls it motivation: this week, Novak has been on the senior’s mind.
“It would be an unbelievable way to go out and honor coach Novak,” Schiller said. “He gave all of us an opportunity. I know at first, we were actually considered not a very good class that he recruited. If you look, go back to the guys who graduated last year and were part of our class, it shows how great of a class he really did recruit.”
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
Deep inside Soldier Field, the conversation turned to grades and family. Those were the updates Novak really wanted from Nathan Palmer – life’s priorities. Just like old times.
The 2010 MAC title game never came up, but neither have forgot. Novak said Miami’s fourth-and-20 brought back a familiar feeling. The agony of defeat was a reminder of why he retired. It’s something he wants to avoid today. He thinks he will.
“I think the third time is going to be the charm,” he said, also referencing the Luke Getsy-to-Domenik Hixon heartbreak of 2005. “That’s how it’s got to play out.”
Standing in the Soldier Field tunnel – the last time these fifth-year players saw the man who brought them to NIU, until tonight – Palmer knew how badly Novak wanted that MAC championship. He didn’t tell Novak how he felt then. He didn’t have to. The connection has lingered.
“It would be great to see a smile on his face,” Palmer said. “I think everyone can agree that he’s built this program to where it is. He’s made it possible for us to get here, to this point. Winning that championship and helping him get a piece of that ring, that would be an unbelievable thing to me. Words can’t explain it.”