Joe Novak plans on shaking a lot of hands and getting a lot of hugs this weekend.
It will be an eventful weekend for the former Northern Illinois football coach. At 7 p.m. Friday, Novak will be inducted into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Holmes Student Center. Former NIU offensive tackle Ryan Diem, who won Super Bowl XLI with the Indianapolis Colts, is also among the inductees.
Saturday, Novak and the other Hall of Fame newcomers will be honored at halftime of NIU’s homecoming game against Akron.
Novak’s 2003 NIU team, which went 10-2 and had wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State, also will be honored, as will the 1983 team that won the school’s first MAC title and major bowl game. Novak was the defensive coordinator for that squad.
“A lot of good friends, a lot of good memories and a lot of really good kids that we coached,” Novak said. “Both of those teams.”
After Novak arrived in 1996, the school’s Hall of Fame was the furthest from his mind. When Novak got to DeKalb from Indiana, NIU had endured five consecutive losing seasons under Charlie Sadler. The Huskies, who were in the Big West from 1993 to 1995, spent the 1996 season as an independent before re-joining the Mid-American Conference in 1997.
There certainly wasn’t talk of the school competing in a major bowl game during the initial Novak years, and the Yordon and Chessick Centers were still a long way from completion.
When Novak and the rest of those former players are at Huskie Stadium – NIU’s 1963 College Division national champion will also be honored, the nearly completed Chessick Center will tower above the field and Yordon Center in the north end zone.
They are only two of many signs showing how far the program has come since Novak first took the reigns.
“When we went there in 1996, facilities were some of the first things we started working on,” Novak said. “... As I said way back, [the Chessick]’s going to help Northern attract coaches in the future. It’s going to help them attract recruits in the future.”
Since Novak left, Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and now Rod Carey have benefitted from what he built.
Carey and Novak have a connection, as Carey played at Indiana when Novak was an assistant in Bloomington.
“You look at what this program was when he came and what it was when he left. You can put it up there with some of the great turnarounds in college history with Bill Snyder and what he did at Kansas State and a few others,” Carey said. “I’m just so happy for Joe. It’s so well-deserved. He just locked his jaw and did it his way. He did it his way through a lot of adversity so I’m thrilled for him.”
This will be the second consecutive year Novak has been honored by a MAC program. Last fall, the Miami (Ohio) alum and former RedHawks assistant was inducted into the school’s Cradle of Coaches Association. Other names Novak is included with at Miami are former NIU head coach Bill Mallory, Woody Hayes, Paul Brown and Bo Schembechler.
Getting honored by those two schools isn’t something Novak was thinking about in his early tenure at NIU.
“I was just hoping to keep my job, much less Hall of Fame,” Novak said. “It’s certainly a great honor. I look at both schools and I look at the people who were in those groups at Miami and at Northern, it’s a humbling thing. It certainly is.”
Also in the hall
Mick Coyne (men’s swimming, 1998-2001), Denise Dove (women’s basketball, 1987-91), Susan Henrichsen (women’s swimming, 1979-83), Dan Jaques (men’s track and field, 1969-73), the 1991 women’s gymnastics team and Walt Owens (baseball/instructor/mentor, 1970-2007) are also in this year’s class.
AKRON ZIPS (1-5, 0-2 MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE)
Last game: Lost, 43-3, vs. Ohio
Last meeting with Northern Illinois: NIU 37, Akron 7 on Oct. 20, 2012
Key players: QB Kyle Pohl, RB Jawon Chisholm, CB Malachi Freeman, LB Justin March, ROV Anthony Holmes, WR Zach D’Orazio
Observations: It’s been yet another struggle for the Zips, who haven’t had a winning season since winning the MAC in 2005. Akron did play Michigan in a close game, losing 28-24 at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sept. 14, and suffered a 35-30 defeat to 3-2 Louisiana. The Zips are fifth in the MAC in rushing defense (165.3 yards a game), but 12th against the pass (270.8 yard a game).
Rod Carey’s take: “In my estimation, and this is my opinion, I think they lost the Michigan game but Michigan did not beat them. They pushed around Michigan all day. I know they had some opportunities they wished they capitalized on and certainly had opportunities to get that win. So when you turn on that film, that tells you how improved they are.”
Key stat: Akron hasn’t defeated an FBS team since 2010, when the Zips beat Buffalo in their final game of the year.
– Steve Nitz, firstname.lastname@example.org, @SNitz_DDC