DeKALB – Northern Illinois’ 2013 football season was a memorable one.
The Huskies set a school record with 12 wins, became the first Mid-American Conference school to defeat two Big Ten teams in one regular season, won their fourth consecutive MAC West title and went into the MAC Championship with another BCS berth in their sights.
However, NIU suffered a 47-27 loss to Bowling Green in Detroit, and ended the season with its second straight loss, a 21-14 defeat against Utah State, in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Jordan Lynch also was selected as a Heisman Trophy finalist, becoming the first Huskie to be honored in New York City.
Rod Carey’s first season as NIU’s coach certainly was eventful. Last week, Carey sat down with the Daily Chronicle to discuss the 2013 campaign. The following is an edited transcript:
Overall, looking back on it, how do you feel about the season? What grade would you give it as a whole?
I think if you and I were sitting here talking in August, and you could have guaranteed me 12-2, I probably wouldn’t have even asked what two games we were going to lose, and said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do it.’ And so I think when you look at it through that lens, I think it’s historic and a great season at NIU. Really pleased with how the whole thing went.
What do you think the main reason was for the two losses, if you could pinpoint a couple things?
I don’t think you can lump those two (games) into the same category. And I’ve always believed this, too. If you lose and you sit there and you say, ‘Listen, we lost because we did this and we lost because we didn’t do this, and we lost because of those reasons,’ really, what you’re doing, is disrespecting your opponent.
BG beat us. Did we have some things we didn’t do well in that game? You bet. But BG came out and played really well and I’ll give them a ton of credit, just like I did after the game. And I’ve watched that game, I don’t know, 50 or 60 times now and broken it down every which way. And, sure, there’s some technical things in there that we need to do better, you bet.
But we coached, and we played as hard as we did when we won 12 in a row, and you’ve got to tip your hat to BG, they beat us.
Now Utah State, it’s really easy. Turnovers, you can’t turn the ball over and beat a good team like that. Our defense played good enough to win that night. Our offense, plain and simple, turned the ball over. We had an opportunity, in the first half of that game, where we could have been up two scores, maybe three. But we turned the ball over, didn’t hurt us, and the second half we did turn it over, one last time, and that hurt us.
I think they’re two different losses. I think you can find a lot of different ways to lose and a lot of different ways to win. Fortunately, we found 12 different ways to win and only two different ways to lose.
In hindsight, do you think there was any sort of letdown after the MAC title game?
I think that stuff is sexy for the media to talk about. I think that’s good outside perspective looking in, that you can put a label on it and say, they lost the MAC Championship so they weren’t really in to playing that game. That’s a real easy thing to say.
When you’re with us and you’re seeing it every day, in each way, and you look at Jimmie Ward, look at him. You’re telling me he wasn’t ready to play? I think we were ready to play. I think we had our full focus and we had a lot to play for in that game. Just like the Super Bowl this year. Do I think the Seattle Seahawks are that much better than the Denver Broncos? No, it comes down to execution. Denver did not execute to save their life. We didn’t execute in that bowl game at all.
You mentioned the 12 wins. What was the main reason you won 12 games? Besides the obvious, having No. 6 under center.
I think any time you can string together 12 wins, we’ve done it the past two years now, I think there’s differences in both years, because you have different leadership, and that’s really where it comes from. You can’t win 12 games in a row without leadership. I think the consistent in there is that what both sets of seniors brought to both teams was just a pure focus on what’s right now, not looking at what’s ahead. I think that’s probably the consistent theme in both those years, why we were able to win 12 in a row.
It was your first year as a head coach. What’s the main thing you learned and took away from 2013?
I think the thing I learned as a head coach is that you serve a different purpose in here than maybe just being a football coach. You have to be everything to everyone at all times. And so you might be a relationship-builder with a booster one time, you might be a psychiatrist with a redshirt kid who’s having a tough time being on the scout team, you might be the guy that needs to kick a guy in the rear end if he’s not performing the way he needs to, you may be a guy who has to put his arm around a guy, and you’ve got to keep your staff going the right way. All things to everybody at all times. I think that’s one of the biggest things you learn. There’s no training for that. You hear that all the time, but until you go through it, you don’t know.
The other thing I learned is that each team is so different. We had Jordan Lynch in 2012 and 2013, and the two teams couldn’t have been (more) different. I got this advice from a bunch of coaches that I called: If you make the mistake of treating each team the same, you’re going to end up not being as successful as you want to be. Because each team has its own pulse, it’s own heartbeat and it’s own way of going about things, and you need to adapt to that instead of trying to get the team to adapt to what you’re doing. I think those are probably the two biggest things I learned on the whole thing.
Now in February, what do the wins over Iowa and Purdue mean?
It’s something you’re really proud of. When you can look back and say you’re the only MAC team to beat two Big Ten teams in a year, I think there’s a source of pride, not (only) for myself, but for that senior class that went out and for this program. That you have your name on something, like we did the year before, first MAC school to go to a BCS game. Hey, we’re the first MAC school to beat two Big Ten teams. I think that’s where you get that source of pride.
You guys have had a lot of success over the past couple years. What do you have to do to sustain that?
I think you do what you do every year. I think you start over. Everyone always talks about rebuild or reload, which one is it. I think it’s both. I think you have to rebuild to be able to reload. I think you wipe the slate clean and you start it all over again. You know some things are good because they worked. You know you’re going to have to change some things because it’s different people. It all comes down to people, that’s all it comes down to.
Your next time on the field will be spring practice (March 18-April 19). Any different way you’re going to handle the spring this year?
Yeah, we’re going to a little different schedule. We’re going Tuesday and Thursday in the morning and then Friday evenings. We’re going to go over five weeks instead of four. The schedule is going to be a lot different. That’s on purpose, because we get to be with our team for five weeks, instead of four. And when you have new faces that we do, who are going to be trying to earn jobs, the more time that they have to learn outside of practice I think is going to be beneficial for the performance at practice.
Next season, there’s going to be high expectations. What are your expectations and how do you handle those? How do you get the players to handle those?
You don’t have to handle expectations when they’re yours, because you made them up. If you’re talking about outside expectations, we can’t control those. Our expectations are plain and simple, and it’s very neat and tidy. We expect to be in the mix for the MAC title every year, and if we’re doing that, we’re where we want to be. It doesn’t mean that we don’t worry about anything else, you want to win every game you have. That’s everybody. Those are the expectations that we have.