It’s been a whirlwind season for Rod Carey. In August, Carey’s duties were working with the Northern Illinois offensive line, and serving as the team’s run-game coordinator.
When offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar’s duties were reassigned after the Huskies’ season-opening loss to Iowa so he could fight his battle with cancer, Carey added play-calling duties to his résumé.
Three months later, he was hired to succeed Dave Doeren as NIU’s head coach. Not to mention, Carey’s first game leading the program will be New Year’s Day in the Orange Bowl against Florida State in Miami Gardens, Fla., in what Carey calls the biggest moment in the program’s history.
In a span of three days last weekend, Carey was part of NIU’s Mid-American Conference Championship game victory over Kent State, learned Doeren was leaving for N.C. State, found out about NIU’s BCS bid and was named head coach.
“My head hasn’t stopped spinning,” said Carey, speaking to reporters Tuesday. “I’ve got a million things going on, I’m trying to get a team ready. All those things put into one and then put into a 36-hour window, it’s been nuts.”
Hearing about Doeren’s departure to Raleigh, N.C., didn’t come as too much of a surprise to NIU’s players, who dealt with the same situation two years ago when Jerry Kill left for Minnesota.
This time, however, the circumstances were different. The players heard about Doeren’s move from Doeren himself the day after the Huskies’ win over Kent State, not from media reports, as was the case in 2010.
Having already dealt with Kill’s departure, this coaching transition was easier. After hearing Doeren talk to the team at the Yordon Center on Saturday, the players gave him a standing ovation.
“The last couple weeks there was a lot of talk coming around about coach Doeren leaving. We kind of expected it,” junior guard Jared Volk said. “... We love coach Doeren to death. Obviously this is something he could do with his family. We love the guy and we’ll always be there for him like we know he’ll be there for us.”
With Doeren out of the picture, NIU athletic director Jeff Compher had to find a head coach for the second time in three seasons. Compher had thought about the possibility of Doeren leaving and even spoke to NIU President John Peters about the matter several weeks ago.
Saturday, after Doeren’s meeting with the Huskies, Compher spoke to the team, and met with the team’s leadership council. The players wanted a players’ coach, and someone who wasn’t going to come in and change everything.
NIU has won 23 games over the past two seasons, and the Huskies wanted a smooth transition.
When Compher started considering the coaches on Doeren’s staff, it was clear to Compher who would make the perfect fit.
“As I looked at who we have on our staff, and have been looking at our staff for quite some time, early, early on it became very apparent to me we had just that right person on our staff,” Compher said before introducing Carey as the school’s next coach Sunday night. “I couldn’t be more proud as to what he’s done and what he’s been able to do to our program.”
One thing Compher saw in Carey was his work with an offensive line with five new starters, and how the group didn’t miss much of a beat. NIU led the MAC with only 10 sacks allowed.
He then saw Carey take over the offensive play-calling in Week 2, and the team ended up leading the MAC in yards and points scored.
“Everything he’s taken on, he’s excelled at,” Compher said. “That’s what’s great.”
Volk and redshirt-freshman center Andrew Ness have worked with Carey for the past two seasons, after Carey came to NIU from North Dakota.
Both players describe Carey as a coach who pays attention to details and technique. Teaching the fine points of playing the game.
To the two linemen, Carey is a coach players like and respect.
“If you mess up and do something wrong that deserves him getting on you, he’ll get on you,” Ness said. “But then he’ll give you praise too if you deserve it.”
The two were pleased when he was promoted to head coach, even if it came as a surprise.
“I was pretty shocked,” Volk said.
When the Huskies take the field at Sun Life Stadium on Jan. 1, NIU’s group of offensive linemen will have played for Carey as their position coach, offensive coordinator and now head coach.
Even though he’s had a pretty nice promotion since the season started, Ness said Carey hasn’t really changed much.
“He’s just stayed the same,” he said. “Same demeanor. Just kept plugging away.”
Carey played his college ball at Indiana for a coach NIU fans certainly know well – Bill Mallory.
On Saturday, Mallory said Compher called him to say he was considering hiring his former player. Mallory’s message to NIU’s athletic director was simple. If he hired Carey, Compher would be getting a quality coach, and a quality guy.
“He’s just a good, good person. The kind of person you want your son to play for, and he’s going to conduct a class program. He’s going to do a good job with the players,” Mallory said. “He’s a good people person. ... He’s not one of these ego guys that’s sitting up on a pedestal.”
When Carey played center for Mallory at Indiana from 1989-93, Mallory saw a player who wanted to coach. The man who led NIU to a MAC title and California Bowl win in 1983 before heading to Bloomington, Ind., saw a player who was focused and had a good work ethic.
Carey has called a number of coaches for advice, including Mallory, Doeren and former NIU head coach Joe Novak, who was Indiana’s defensive coordinator when Carey was in Bloomington.
Mallory congratulated Carey and told him to just go with his instincts.
“[Mallory] said, “Just go with your gut.’ That’s really what coach Novak and coach Doeren have said,” Carey said. “Take all opinions, and you’ve got to go with your gut. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
Novak is the coach who started building the NIU program into what it is now, taking over a team that ranked among the worst in the nation in 1996. Since then, he’s seen Kill and Doeren keep the strong tradition going, and he thinks Carey will do the same.
“I think it was a natural move with this situation the way it was,” Novak said. “Rod was certainly ready. I think he’ll do a great job.”