There are rules, dammit. To succeed in big-time college football you must play your games in a massive coliseum, practice on vast acres of country club grass and dress in a sprawling locker room donated by alumni with big egos and deep pockets. Your weight center must be the size of a Home Depot, and your training room must have the amenities of Canyon Ranch. You must pay your coach like a sultan and give him an office straight out of MTV's Cribs. You must recruit blue-chip players from all over the continent, and when it rains, you must practice indoors in a facility slightly smaller than the Astrodome. You must do all this or you do not get into the club.
Northern Illinois hasn't gotten the memo. Twenty miles past Chicago's westernmost suburbs, amid the cornfields of DeKalb, Ill., an improbable force has risen. Last Saturday the unbeaten (5-0), 16th-ranked Huskies opened their Mid-American Conference season with a 30-23 overtime victory over Ohio. It was a courageous comeback win by a poor man's powerhouse, made possible largely by senior P.J. Fleck, a too-small (5'10", 185 pounds), too-slow (4.6 in the 40) wide receiver from nearby Sugar Grove. Like many Northern Illinois players, he was offered only one athletic scholarship and snapped it up on the spot, despite the coaches' suggestion that he sleep on the decision. With 1:42 to play Fleck made a foot-dragging, 15-yard touchdown reception to force overtime, and then he set up the game-winning score in OT with the last of his 14 catches. (He finished with 234 receiving yards.) The game was a program in microcosm: an overlooked player saving a team that will not leave the party it has crashed.
Northern Illinois already had three non-league victories over BCS conference schools—home wins over Maryland and Iowa State and, most startling, a 19-16 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a game for which the Huskies got a $450,000 guarantee, ostensibly to show up and lose. "What a sound it was to hear 80,000 people whispering, 'These guys are good,' " says Northern Illinois president John Peters, who took office in 2000. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine us having this sort of success in football."
Not only did the Huskies boot three members of the ruling class of college football, but they left deep footprints. "It was not a fluke," said Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines. "They're a good football team."
Northern Illinois is the latest mid-major to intrude into the Top 25 (see: Marshall, late '90s; Fresno State, '01), a Hyundai racing past Lincolns. The team plays its home games in 30,000-seat Huskie Stadium and practices there, too. When a cold autumn wind slices across campus, coach Joe Novak tells his players, "It's real cold in our indoor practice facility today." Players dress in a cramped bunker beneath the west stands and during the week get their ankles taped on makeshift tables across from a concession stand. Novak earns $140,000 a year, about enough to cover Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops's visor budget, and Ms office is a 12-by-15-foot shoe-box that recruits never see. "It's amazing what he's done with so little," says Northern Illinois athletic director Cary Groth, who in 1995 hired Novak from Indiana, where he was defensive coordinator.
The Huskies' success has brought fresh life to the 108-year-old school that has more than 15,000 undergraduates and is both blessed and cursed by its proximity to Chicago. "People think of it as a suitcase school," says assistant basketball coach Carl Armato, "because kids always head home for the weekend." Yet last Saturday traffic moved in the other direction, cars tracing a long, slow line from Interstate 88 to the stadium two miles away. At twilight the grounds abutting Huskie Stadium were buzzing with tailgate parties and the type of carnival atmosphere that separates mere football games from football Saturdays.
For this vitality the school can thank Novak. He was 51 when he took over a program that hadn't had a winning season in six years. "I wanted to be a head coach," says Novak, who had worked at Northern under Bill Mallory from 1980 through '83. "I was resigned to never getting another chance if I didn't take this one." He brought a heaping dose of old-school attitude. His father, Joseph, who pounded and straightened aircraft valves on an assembly line for 40 years, told his son, "I don't want you to do this." Novak arrived as a freshman defensive end at Miami ( Ohio) the same autumn as the new coach, Bo Schembechler, and spent four years soaking up the hard-hat philosophy Schembechler learned from his coach, Woody Hayes. Run the ball, stop the run, follow rules. "Old-fashioned and dull," says Novak.
A Schembechlerism is posted on the wall of the Northern Illinois locker room: THOSE WHO STAY WILL BE CHAMPIONS. That message of perseverance was severely tested in Novak's first years. He chose to build the program gradually with high school recruits, instead of trying for the quick turnaround with junior college players. He tightened team discipline, insisting on 100% classroom attendance and a punishing conditioning program. Twenty-six scholarship players quit or were thrown off the team in the first year, and the tangible effects of the new regime were abysmal: Novak's first three teams went 3-30 and endured a 23-game losing streak that lasted into the middle of the 1998 season. "There were many times when I said to my wife, 'What the hell am I doing?' " says Novak. "But we stayed the course."
Groth was patient, and slowly the Huskies climbed to respectability, from 2-9 in 1998—the losing streak ended with a rainswept victory over Central Michigan, after which students carried the goalposts down the middle of Lincoln Highway—to consecutive 6-5 seasons in '00 and '01 and 8-4 last year.
Novak doesn't fight the Big Ten in recruiting. "We aren't funded like a Big Ten program," he says, "and we can't beat the Big Ten on a player." What the Huskies can do is find good players with something to prove. Like senior linebacker Nick Duffy from nearby Wheaton, who wasn't offered a scholarship by any other school and told Novak during his sophomore year at Northern, "Coach, I want to play in the Big House [ Michigan Stadium]. I want to show people that we can play with anybody."