In the mid-1990s, the idea of Northern Illinois participating in a prestigious game such as the Orange Bowl was unheard of.
When Joe Novak took over the program in 1996, the school had just finished a string of five consecutive losing seasons under Charlie Sadler.
Novak had worked as an NIU assistant from 1980-83. To him, there always was potential in DeKalb, with a prime recruiting area in Chicagoland. He just needed to change the culture.
"There had never been sustained success there," said Novak, who has retired and now lives in North Carolina. "Just trying to get that changed to the point where people can see now what a good athletic program can do for the school."
On New Year's Day, NIU will play Florida State in the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium in Miami in the most important bowl game in school history.
New Huskies coach Rod Carey will coach his first game, taking over for Dave Doeren, who went 23-4 in two seasons before departing for N.C. State the day after the Mid-American Conference Championship. Before Doeren, Jerry Kill went to a bowl game in each of his three seasons at the helm of NIU.
But it was Novak who helped jumpstart the program, and Tuesday, he'll be watching his Huskies in south Florida.
"Honestly, it's probably still a little surreal," he said. "I'm certainly very proud of it, and these kids have earned and deserve it. Anxious to see it on the big stage."
NIU football has come a long way in the past 30 years, and it certainly wasn't an easy road.
MAC title and switching conferences
Bill Mallory already had won a MAC title before even stepping foot on the NIU campus in 1980, having led Miami (Ohio) to a league crown seven years earlier.
After five seasons at Colorado, Mallory came to DeKalb and won the conference in his fourth year, 1983, with Novak serving as his defensive coordinator. After a victory in the California Bowl, Mallory was off to Indiana, and he said Indiana's administration wasn't interested in hiring any of his assistants then.
In came Lee Corso, who went 4-6-1 in one season before heading off to coach the Orlando Renegades of the USFL. Jerry Pettibone followed and stayed for six seasons, going 9-2 in 1989 and 6-5 in 1990 before leaving for Oregon State.
During that period of time, NIU left the MAC and became an independent.
"That was what (former athletic director) Dr. (Bob) Brigham felt like was going to be the best thing for the direction of the athletic department, and I agreed," Pettibone said of the school leaving the MAC. "So we took that on and did the best we could."
The Huskies competed in the Big West from 1993-95, and was an independent once again in 1996 before rejoining the MAC in 1997. Mallory, a MAC guy through and through, couldn't believe NIU actually would leave the conference when he heard about it.
To him, the MAC is the best fit for NIU.
"Northern belongs in the MAC," Mallory said. "It's a great conference for them to be involved in."
Novak's slow start and continued success
When the NIU job came open after the 1995 season, Mallory thought Novak was the perfect fit.
"First of all, the kind of person he is, he's just a quality individual. Joe's a very humble person, very much of a people, team-type person," Mallory said. "He had a great rapport with the players, they had a great respect. Very intelligent individual."
However, it took a while. Novak suffered through four losing seasons before NIU went 6-5 in 2000. In 2003, Novak's Huskies got wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State, and finished 10-2.
It was a sign that the program was hitting a turning point. Novak went on to lead NIU to a 34-21 victory over Troy in the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic, and the Huskies then played in the Poinsettia Bowl, losing to TCU, in 2006, before Novak retired after the next season.
While Novak had success at the end of his career, he credits former NIU athletic director Cary Groth, who now holds the same position at Nevada, for a lot of the team's achievements.
Groth stuck with Novak during those tough first years, which allowed him time to build the program.
When Novak arrived, players had to pay for their own summer school, so many of them weren't on campus after the normal school year ended. Groth changed that, and now it's common for players to work out all summer.
In 2007, the Jeffrey and Kimberley Yordon Center, was completed in the north end zone of Huskie Stadium and sometime next fall, the Kenneth and Ellen Chessick Practice Center, NIU's new indoor practice facility, will be finished and ready for use.
Novak credits Groth for not only riding out the tough years, but also getting the academic support and facility upgrades started.
"All those little things that are behind the scenes that are so important, that they started to make a commitment to," he said. "And again, that was Cary starting to stick her neck out.
Everything comes to fruition
The BCS was put into place in 1998 and other mid-major schools such as Boise State, Utah and TCU have made BCS bowl games in the past. Now it's NIU's turn, as the Huskies are the first MAC team to earn a berth.
When the new four-team playoff system is instated in 2014, the top team from the "Group of Five" conferences will get an automatic bid into one of the six access bowls, meaning there's a better chance for schools like NIU to be in a prestigious contest such as the Orange Bowl.
"It's great. It's good for the Mid-American Conference, it's good for college football," Pettibone said. "It's refreshing."
Mallory always thought NIU had vast potential as a program, and he's not surprised to see the Huskies here.
"I was just really, really happy to see that they had the opportunity to go into the Orange Bowl," Mallory said. "It's a nice challenge for them. I know those guys will be ready."