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Novak having a ball in retirement

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WOODRIDGE – After a full season away from coaching college football, Joe Novak can't stop smiling.

Sure, he misses the competition and the players, but the list of what he's seen and done since retiring as the Northern Illinois University football coach in Nov. 2007 is starting to read like a lifetime's worth of achievements.

Novak has traveled with his wife, Carole, to France. They're hopeful to head to Italy soon. He finally got to read James Michener's best-selling book "Hawaii."

"I was always afraid of the length (1,056 pages) when I was coaching," Novak said at Friday's Brigham-Novak Classic at Seven Bridges Golf Course. "I'd never be able to finish it. It was great."

He got the chance to go see the Army-Navy game for the first time in his life.

"It was a wonderful, great experience," he said. "You need to do it sometime."

Novak always has been one of the good guys in college sports. That's why it was difficult for some people to watch him retire after a rough 2-10 final season. Someone who had built up NIU from the depths deserved a storybook ending.

The past year of traveling the world, watching games without enduring the overwhelming pain of losses, doing some of the things he always has wanted to do but never had time for ... this is the storybook ending.

"Sometimes I pinch myself and say I shouldn't be having this much fun," Novak said, "but I am."

Like many coaches with the experience Novak had, the final few seasons of a long career lack the fun he now enjoys.

"I don't miss losing," he said. "At the end my career, winning wasn't as much fun as it used to be and losing was worse than ever. I don't understand why it's that way, but really at the end it was worse than ever. I go to a game now and I go home afterward and do the next thing."

Despite no longer coaching NIU, the connection Novak has with the Huskies remains just as strong.

Current NIU coach Jerry Kill played host to the Novaks on Thursday, and on Friday he brought Novak to campus where the former coach spoke with some of the current players.

"That was really neat to see," Kill said. "It's always important to go back to your past and listen."

Kill and Novak have become close since Kill took the reins from Novak. Kill calls every couple of weeks just to talk and keep the elder coach informed of what's going on in DeKalb.

Sometimes the calls are a little more frequent.

"The day they beat Toledo (38-7 on Oct. 18), before he even got off the field he was on the cell phone because he knew how much I hated Toledo," Novak said with a laugh. "Then they sent me the game ball.

"He's really done a great job of staying in touch and he doesn't need to do that but he's been great."

Novak still reads up on the Huskies. He recruited more than half of the players on this year's roster.

It's late July, two weeks from the start of practice, and the old coach likes the Huskies' chances.

"I really think they're in a position to have a really nice year," Novak said. "And who knows what that means. They've got to stay healthy. The kids have to develop but I think [Kill has] done a super job."

And Novak can keep on smiling at what he sees on the field, even if it's now from a distance.

• John Sahly is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at jsahly@daily-chronicle.com.

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