It’s already been a satisfying December for Joe Novak.
The retired Northern Illinois football coach spent last week on the road with pre-Christmas trips to the Cleveland area and Bloomington, Ind., celebrating the holidays with his children and grand kids.
But perhaps the most gratifying trip is yet to come as Novak heads to Miami to watch his the old team battle Florida State in the New Year’s Day Orange Bowl.
“You bet I’ll be there,” said Novak, who guided the Huskies from 1996 to 2007.
“We often thought about championships in the MAC (Mid-American Conference) and great years, but I don’t think honestly we ever thought about the Orange Bowl,” he added. “That was a little bit of a reach for our dreams.”
But a big time bowl is the new reality for this generation of NIU staff and athletes.
And playing on Jan. 1 along with the nation’s elite -- the most prominent stage ever for Northern Illinois football -- will have far-reaching benefits for the university in recognition and recruiting.
“When your name’s Notre Dame, you automatically get your foot in the door,” Novak said. “Something like the Orange Bowl for Northern Illinois gets their foot in the door.”
The Orange Bowl appearance is not just a testament to how far the program has come, but a tribute to the man who put in the foundation during his 12-year tenure.
Novak, a onetime Miami (Ohio) defensive end, has spent 34 years in coaching as an assistant at Miami, Illinois, NIU and Indiana before taking over the Huskies top job in 1996.
He inherited a program that had been on the rise in the 1980s under Bill Mallory and fell into disarray in the 1990s.
“When I went in there, there were no expectations,” Novak said. “I was 51 when I got that job and felt it was going to be my last. In talking with Cary Groth, the athletic director, and John LaTourette, the president, I knew it was going to take a few years because it wasn’t very good. We had to pare it down to make it better.”
The Huskies went 1-10 in 1996, 0-11 the next year and 2-9 in 1998. Novak endured a 23-game losing streak -- the eighth-longest in NCAA football history -- in that span.
But a turnaround was under way. Winning returned in 2000 with the first of back-to-back 6-5 seasons. By 2002, the Huskies went 8-4 and won the MAC West title as Novak was named conference coach of the year.
The 2003 season was arguably the greatest in Novak’s tenure. The Huskies beat three BCS teams: No. 15 Maryland at a sold-out Huskie Stadium, No. 21 Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Iowa State. When initial BCS standings came out, the Huskies were a lofty No. 10.
But late season losses to Bowling Green and Toledo -- both ranked in the nation’s Top 25 -- cost the Huskies a MAC division title. And no bowl invitation was forthcoming despite a 10-2 finish.
That changed in 2004. Novak guided Northern Illinois to a 7-1 MAC finish and 9-3 overall mark and a 34-21 victory over Troy in the Silicon Valley Football Classic, the program’s first bowl appearance since the 1983 California Bowl.
The Huskies won a third MAC West title in 2005 on the way to a 7-5 season. They also had a winning 2006 campaign (7-6). Novak announced his retirement following a 2-10 season in 2007.
Novak built the foundation the right way. He ran a clean program and stressed performance and academics.
“I went in there with the idea that I wanted to do it right,” he said. “I wanted to set a foundation, I wanted to build it right so that it could last and I think it has ... I think now they’re reaping the rewards.”
NIU football has never been subject of an NCAA investigation and academic performance is among the nation’s best, at least according to a survey of 2012 BCS schools.
The Huskies recently ranked second to Northwestern among the 25 BCS programs while Notre Dame was fifth.
The rankings, compiled by the New America Foundation, looked at which schools were best at balancing academics and athletics as well as percentage of both black and white players graduating.
Further, three Huskie players were selected a Capital One Academic All-Americans, the most of any NCAA Division I program.
Defensive end Alan Baxter was a first team pick while noseguard Nabal Jefferson and tight end Jason Schepler were second team. The three picks were the most among any NCAA Division I program.
During his tenure, Novak fought for an all-in-one athletic training and academic support center and an indoor football training facility.
“Those two things were a big part of our focus,” Novak said. “I probably got in trouble for whining and crying about facilities, but that needed to be addressed. The facilities we had were awful when I got there.”
One is already a reality. The Jeffrey and Kimberly Yordon Center opened in behind the north end zone in 2007. And just outside Huskie Stadium, the foundation is in place for a new indoor football training facility set to open in 2013.