Carey leads NIU to brink of another BCS bowl bid
Rod Carey could have been on the golf course. As alternatives go, this isn’t bad.
He has a shot at a conference championship and a chance to crash the BCS party again as he winds up his first full season as Northern Illinois’ head coach.
With Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch at quarterback, the 16th-ranked Huskies will try to remain unbeaten and capture their third straight Mid-American Conference championship when they meet Bowling Green in the title game in Detroit on Friday. Win that and they could be busting the BCS again after playing in the Orange Bowl last season.
For Carey, that would be another turn on a ride that rocketed him from offensive line coach at the start of last season to offensive coordinator and, finally, a head coach making his debut in the biggest game in school history. The Huskies followed that up by going unbeaten in the regular season for the first time as a major college program and 8-0 in conference play while winning the MAC West.
For Carey, none of this would have happened if not for a decision he made with his wife, Tonya, seven or eight years ago. That was to continue to try to become a Division I head coach rather than take over her parents’ golf course in Colfax, Wis.
”She said, `Well, you want to be a head coach in D-I, that ain’t going to happen if we take over the family business,”’ he said. ”So we kind of said, `Let’s see what kind of opportunity comes first.”’
The offensive coordinator and line coach at Division III Wisconsin-Stout at the time, Carey decided to keep pursuing his goal and his wife’s sister took over the course.
Not that he wasn’t tempted.
An avid golfer, he said he loves getting up at the crack of dawn to cut greens. He thinks about what his life would have been like and what he would have missed out on, too, had he chosen that path.
”Both are rewarding,” Carey said.
For Carey, the lure of leading his own Division I program was just a little too strong so he kept pursuing it. He coached Illinois State’s offensive line in 2007 and spent three years in a similar role at North Dakota before joining Dave Doeren’s staff at NIU in 2011.
When last season kicked off, he still was the Huskies’ line coach. Then, offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar left to focus on a cancer fight he ultimately lost.
Carey stepped in and the Huskies went on a roll that carried them all the way to a BCS appearance, the first ever for a MAC school. The biggest change came the day NIU got invited to the Orange Bowl. That was Carey being introduced as the head coach after Doeren left for North Carolina State.
The Huskies fell 31-10 to Florida State, but they’ve been rolling along ever since then. They’re 14th in the BCS standings, and a win over Bowling Green will likely mean another BCS bid. Carey insisted he’s not thinking about that just yet.
”Nothing’s guaranteed,” Carey said. ”Those polls don’t mean anything until the last poll comes out, and that’s after this game.”
The numbers are impressive, though.
Since the start of the 2010, no FBS team has more victories than the Huskies with 46, a run that started under Jerry Kill and continued with Doeren and Carey.
They’re headed to their fourth straight conference title game after going unbeaten during the regular season for the first time as a major college program. They won at Iowa and Purdue, giving them as many Big Ten victories as the two Big Ten members in Illinois; the Illini and Northwestern each won one league game.
While it helped to inherit a talented team, don’t underestimate Carey’s role. Doeren recalled the big-picture focus he showed in his interview.
”When you talk about certain plays on the board, some guys just get up there and describe how you block it,” Doeren said. ”That’s what the linemen do – block. He was getting into a lot more detail than that.”
He was describing how different plays could affect defenses, offering a perspective that Doeren was seeking. He also appreciated that Carey had worked his way up, starting with a four-year run coaching at his alma mater, Wayzata High School in Minnesota, in the 1990s after playing at Indiana.
So did former athletic director Jeff Compher. He also wanted to maintain continuity when Doeren left, and Carey was a logical choice.
Compher liked what he saw of him as an assistant. His ties to former Northern Illinois coaches Bill Mallory and Joe Novak didn’t hurt, either. Novak was Mallory’s defensive coordinator at Indiana when Carey was the Hoosiers’ starting center.
”He just to me had the whole package,” said Compher, now the athletic director at East Carolina. ”A lot of people didn’t know him, but that’s the kind of person that he is. He’s not looking for a lot of accolades.”
Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said his boss is more interested in solutions, about fixing problems when they crop up rather than spreading blame. That’s one thing, he said, that sets Carey apart from some other coaches
Another was how he handled the transition at the end of last season.
”There are guys who have been head coaches for years who couldn’t have functioned as well as he did,” Niemann said.
For Carey, the biggest surprise when he became the head coach was this.
”How many people come and ask you a question – and that they think you actually care,” he said, laughing.
”What uniforms are we going to wear?” Carey said. ”I’m not wearing the uniforms so I don’t care. I just put that on our seniors and people are a little shocked when they hear me say, `I don’t care.’ I don’t.”
When it comes to the program, the organization, that’s another matter. But he insists he goes home every night, sleeps in his own bed, whether it’s at the end of an eight-hour or 18-hour day.
He can’t rest too easily now. After all, the MAC championship game is approaching and another BCS appearance could be coming, too.
As alternatives go, that’s not bad.