Unknown, Undefeated Led by in-state kids with something to prove, Northern Illinois has crashed the rankings and become the underdog favorite of 2003

October 12, 2003

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 his
office is a 12-by-15-foot shoebox 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."

Or like senior tailback Michael (the Burner) Turner, who--notice
a trend here--was not offered a scholarship to any other school.
"Illinois called me ... once," says the North Chicago native.
Last year Turner rushed for 1,915 yards, setting up a Heisman
Trophy campaign this season that has been stunted by defenses,
like Ohio's, that stack nine men in the box to stop him and force
the Huskies to throw, which they did last Saturday, 46 times.
"I've had a chip on my shoulder for five years," says Turner.

Or like offensive tackle Shea Fitzgerald of Winnetka, who arrived
in DeKalb in the fall of 2001 at a gangly 6'8", 245 pounds and by
last spring had bulked up to 300. He seemed destined to become
the fourth of Novak's players to make the NFL. Then on June 29,
15 days shy of his 20th birthday, Fitzgerald was at a party in
Chicago, standing on a crowded porch when it collapsed; he and 12
others were killed. This season the Huskies are remembering
Fitzgerald in many ways. His old locker at Huskie Stadium is
enclosed in Plexiglas. His teammates wear a patch on their
jerseys bearing his number, 76. Each week they present a
sledgehammer with SHEA written on the handle to the player
delivering the game's best hit. And before every game they
quietly say to each other, "This is for Shea."

The Huskies still have tough games remaining against conference
rivals Bowling Green and Toledo. If they run the table, they'll
probably lose a loud argument that they belong in a BCS bowl,
satisfying themselves with the MAC's guaranteed berth in the GMAC
or Motor City bowl. Still, the program faces becoming just a
little less quaint. Novak has one year left on a four-year
contract. Northern is willing to more than double his salary to
keep him, but, says Groth, "We can't compete if one of the major
conferences offers him a huge compensation package." (Says Novak,
"I'd be a fool to say I wouldn't listen" to offers.) Also,
blueprints have been drawn up and fund-raising begun for an
office, locker room and weight training complex that will cost a
relatively modest $7 million. "We will not participate in an arms
race," says Peters. "If everybody has a trapeze in their
buildings, we're not going to put a trapeze in ours."

For now there is the joy that comes with dreaming big. Late
Saturday night the Huskies players tumbled off the field into the
tiny dressing room and called for Fleck to lead them in raucously
singing the school's fight song, as he has done after every game
since his freshman year. Soon they were screaming, "Huskies, come
on you Huskies/And make a score or two...."

They yelled and sang deliriously and banged their battered hands
on wooden cubicle walls and metal heating ducts. A small power
making big noise.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS ALL TOGETHER NOW Fleck led a raucous postgame locker room in a rendition of NIU's fight song. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS HEART OF THE HUSKIES Fleck, who had all of one scholarship offer, keyed Saturday's victory with 234 yards on 14 catches, including a late, game-tying 15-yard touchdown. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS BCS BASHERS Under the old-school Novak (inset), Turner & Co. upset Alabama (above), Maryland and Iowa State. COLOR PHOTO: MIKE KITTRELL/MOBILE REGISTER/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS HEAVY DUTY The Husky who delivers the biggest hit in each game receives the hammer bearing the late Fitzgerald's name. COLOR PHOTO: JUSTIN KASE CONDER/ICON SMI COLOR PHOTO: SEAN MEYERS/ICON SMI COLOR PHOTO: DILIP VISHWANAT/SPORTING NEWS/ICON SMI COLOR PHOTO: ALBERT DICKSON/SPORTING NEWS/ICON SMI COLOR PHOTO: JOHN RUSSELL/AP COLOR PHOTO: GARY BOGDON COLOR PHOTO: BILL GREENBLATT/UPI

OCT. 11

Next Up: Shakeout SATURDAY
With a slate of big games that could scramble the Top 25 as well
as some conference standings, these players will have a lot to
say about the outcomes.

OKLAHOMA (5-0) VS. TEXAS (4-1)
Though the Sooners are the nation's No. 1 team, they rank an
uncharacteristic 72nd in rushing, with 140.2 yards per game.
Senior RB Renaldo Works has the size (6'1", 220) and ability to
be the workhorse of the ground attack but has yet to assert
himself. Against Texas (189.0 rushing yards allowed) he might
bust loose.

MIAMI (5-0) AT FLORIDA STATE (5-0)
Big, fast and nasty, 6'4", 280-pound Seminoles DT Darnell Dockett
can cause a fumble with his snarl. Despite frequent double and
triple teams, he has 1 1/2 sacks, six quarterback hurries and 10
tackles for losses. With Miami TB Frank Gore gone for the season
(torn ACL), expect the Hurricanes to go to the air--good news for
Dockett.

OHIO STATE (5-0) AT WISCONSIN (5-1)
The Badgers' ninth-ranked running attack (225.5 yards per game)
will test the Buckeyes' top-rated rushing defense (43.4 yards per
game). Wisconsin senior LG Dan Buenning paves the way for
sophomore RBs Dwayne Smith and Booker Stanley and junior Anthony
Davis, who've combined for 1,256 yards on the ground.

FLORIDA (3-3) AT LSU (5-0)
On a team of playmakers Tigers WR Michael Clayton is king. Along
with a team-high 95.4 receiving yards per game, Clayton has four
touchdowns catches (LSU is tied for the SEC lead with 12), plus
three tackles on kickoff coverage. His athleticism versus
Florida's speedy secondary will be among the day's liveliest
matchups.

AUBURN (3-2) AT ARKANSAS (4-0)
Senior outside LB Karlos Dansby has a team-high 30 tackles and
three sacks for a reborn Tigers defense. He'll have to be at the
top of his game against white-hot Razorbacks senior TB Cedric
Cobbs, who leads the SEC with 140.5 rushing yards per game, and
scrambling junior QB Matt Jones, who's averaging 8.5 yards per
carry.

NEBRASKA (5-0) AT MISSOURI (4-1)
The Huskers lead the nation in total defense (218.6 yards per
game), but if they're to continue their climb back to prominence,
they'll have to clamp down on Mizzou QB Brad Smith. The
multithreat sophomore has completed 67% of his passes, thrown for
eight touchdowns and run for three more scores.

MICHIGAN (4-2) AT MINNESOTA (6-0)
Though a hip strain has limited his production, senior TE Ben
Utecht remains one of the most dangerous weapons in the Gophers'
bag-of-tricks offense. The 6'6" 250-pounder creates mismatches in
the secondary and has big-play ability (21.9 yards per
reception). What's more, he's averaging 38.0 yards as a punter.

SI.com
More college football coverage, including Tim Layden's Insider
and a photo gallery from the week, at si.com/football/ncaa.

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