The world in which Rod Carey is still the head football coach at NIU is not a difficult one to picture. Only a few dominoes had to remain upright.
Had Mark Richt not decided to retire at 58 from Miami, there would be no reason for Manny Diaz to leave Temple after only two weeks on the job. Temple then would not have been looking for a head coach, and Coach Carey’s cellphone would not have gotten a career-altering call from the 267 (Philadelphia) area code.
That world is not our reality. Richt did retire, Diaz did go back home to Coral Gables, and Carey was announced Friday as the new head coach of the Temple Owls. This chain of events leaves NIU in a familiar position. They’ve lost successful head coaches before. When Jerry Kill left in 2010 for Minnesota, Dave Doeren seemed to slide seamlessly into the role. Maybe too seamlessly, as a 24-3 record over two years quickly brought out Power 5 suitors, and he was whisked away to NC State. Athletic Director Sean Frazier kept scaling the Kill coaching tree and anointed Carey the Huskie’s next football coach, a post he held for the last six years. In that time, he accumulated a 52-30 record with an 0-6 bowl mark.
The MAC is most often used as a stepping stone to the Power-5 for coaches. The really good ones don’t last very long. Nick Saban got his start as a head coach at Toledo. Urban Meyer was a Bowling Green Falcon long before he was hoisting titles as a Florida Gator or an Ohio State Buckeye. The list goes on and on.
NIU can go and probably find another Rod Carey, one who can curate an above-average recruit, pull off an upset once a decade, and lose another bowl game. Those coaches, while not a dime a dozen, are apparent to any AD worth his or her salt.
The more difficult choice is to find another Dave Doeren, the kind of coach that takes every Power-5 opponent to the wire, gets you into the top-25, and takes you to high-caliber bowls. The obvious downside is that coach won’t be long for DeKalb. Indiana might need a new coach, or Cal may want to go blue-collar with their next hire. Given what we’ve seen this month, who’s to say the Pittsburgh Steelers won’t dip into the college ranks in the next couple years.
That’s the price of greatness in the MAC. To be the group of 5 team that has a right to complain in December about not getting into the College Football Playoff, you have to be willing to ride the Coaching Carousel every 2-3 years.
What Frazier and his staff must recognize, however, is that the ground has never been more fertile to fight for in-state attention. Lovie Smith has not been able to steer out of the skid in Champaign, and the Illini are staring down the barrel of another bowl-less season and a big buyout for Smith. Pat Fitzgerald got his first whiff of the NFL interest this offseason. Mark Murphy’s marginal interest was not enough to get Fitzy to travel up to Green Bay for an interview, but what happens next year when another franchise has real interest? Yeah, Northwestern is his preferred destination at the college level, but ego and competitive spirit usually win out with coach-types. Plus Northwestern has poured its entire marketing budget into Chicago, which draws to mind images of the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 undeniably brave Wildcats marched into slaughter at the hands of 10,000 Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and…. well whatever the hell the White Sox’s mascot is.
Point being, there are acres upon acres of real estate in Illinois with folks looking for a college team to latch on to. For all the Huskies’ success, attendance numbers clearly indicate an unfinished mission. Becoming the breeding ground for successful Power-5 coaches is an easy way to sway recruits that aren’t in the 13% of high-schoolers that can get into Northwestern, that want to win more than they would at Illinois, and grew up watching Jordan Lynch play in the Orange Bowl.
The Huskies could go with an NIU alumnus like Raven’s RB coach Tommy Hanmock, or Saints DL coach Ryan Nielsen who coached under Doeren in 2011 and 2012. They’d be better served chasing Matt Canada, one of the most prolific offensive minds in the game who spent the last year as the interim coach at Maryland, or kicking the tires on Wisconsin D-Coordinator Jim Leonard, who is a fast-rising star in the industry.
They’re not career Huskies, but they would help NIU mightily in its fight for state-wide relevance. Shooting for the stars isn’t easy, but NIU would be better off for the trouble.
— Jake Logli, Sportsfan 1330