Honesty. Integrity. Respect.
These are the principles that have guided Joe Novak, not only throughout his 11-year tenure as head coach of the Northern Illinois football team, but throughout his 40 years as a football coach.
Toughness. Hard work. Accountability.
These are the traits Joe Novak has demanded of each of his Huskie players through the years, instilling them with the skills that enable them to succeed not only on the football field, but in their future endeavors as well.
Teacher. Leader. Winner.
From the day he began his coaching career at Warren (Ohio) Western Reserve High School in 1968, during 22 years as a collegiate assistant coach, and through the challenges and triumphs of his years as the Huskie head man, these are the words that describe NIU's head football coach.
Novak's well-documented challenges at NIU included overcoming a 3-30 start to his head coaching career as he took on the task of transforming not only the fortunes, but the culture, of the Northern Illinois football program. Slowly and steadily, never wavering from his values or in his determination, Novak redefined Huskie football.
Today, Novak leads a team which has posted a school-record seven straight winning seasons. Northern Illinois ranks as the top team in Illinois, and one of the Top 30 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) teams, in terms of winning percentage, since 2000. NIU has won 45 of its last 66 games overall (a .681 winning percentage) and is 31-9 in the Mid-American Conference (.775) since 2002, with seven-game winning streaks in both 2002 and 2003.
The Huskies have played in the postseason in each of the last three years, including two bowl games in the last three seasons; the 2004 Silicon Valley Bowl marked the program's first bowl game since the 1983 California Bowl. NIU has claimed four MAC West Division titles in the last six years.
Novak's teams went from 1-10, 0-11 and 2-9 between 1996-98 to 8-4, 10-2 and 9-3 from 2002 to 2004. The Huskies have won seven games in each of the past two years.
Northern Illinois' resurgence has captured the attention of fans and media in Chicago, across the region, and throughout the nation. Since the 2003 season, 17 Huskie football games have been televised nationally. Overall, 38 NIU games have been broadcast over the last four years with a school record 13 contests - every game - on TV a year ago and five national airings in both 2005 and 2006. NIU inked a ground-breaking radio deal with Chicago's WSCR 670 AM "The Score" - a powerful, 50,000-watt Chicago sports radio outlet, and the Huskies have been the subject of feature stories in the national media - from the New York Times to USA Today, the Washington Post, ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated.
Novak also turned Huskie Stadium into a true home field advantage for his team. Since Northern's streak of winning seasons began in 2000, NIU is 32-8 in Huskie Stadium for a winning percentage of .800. In 40 home games this decade, Northern Illinois has drawn 827,912 fans, and over the last five years, NIU has averaged nearly 23,000 fans per game.
While Novak's focus remains fixed on team success, a multitude of Huskies have earned individual awards under his tutelage. From 1948 through 1999, only three Northern Illinois players were honored as a first, second or third team All-American. Since 2000, five Huskies have been accorded All-America status, with both Garrett Wolfe and Doug Free earning third-team honors last year. Seven of Novak's NIU players have been named to a Freshman All-America team and Huskie players have been named first team All-MAC 41 times. Wolfe also brought home just the second Vern Smith (MAC MVP) Award in school history last year, and became the Huskies' first back-to-back MAC Player of the Year while leading the country in rushing and in all-purpose average.
Novak's Huskies have enjoyed academic success as well. NIU players have earned six CoSIDA Academic All-America honors and two - free safety Patrick Stephen (1998) and quarterback Josh Haldi (2004) - won a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award. Collectively, football completed the 2007 spring semester with the highest cumulative team grade point average in team history. NIU players have been honored on the league's Honor Roll or on the Academic All-MAC team 47 times since 1997.
Northern Illinois' remarkable on-field turnaround under Novak - from NCAA bottom feeder to MAC elite - was a direct result of his plan. Novak, who had served as NIU's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 1980-83 under Bill Mallory, returned to DeKalb with not only a knowledge of the local landscape, but definitive ideas on how to turn the program around. Even in the midst of a 23-game losing streak, he and his staff remained steadfast in their resolve to build the program from the ground up, beginning with a solid foundation.
"We could have tried the quick-fix way," Novak said. "But I felt, at my age, this is my last stop. I decided I'd do what I believe in, or I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
First, he and his staff primarily recruited players from within a three-hour radius of DeKalb, with a heavy emphasis on Chicago-area talent. They recruited student-athletes of character, mined the prep ranks for developing talent and set about turning players with potential into players that produced. They promised little, outside of an opportunity, and demanded much, beginning with toughness.
Every player and every coach who joined the Huskie football team learned, and lived, the program goals.
-Earn an NIU Degree
The sign in the locker room promised "Those Who Stay Will Be Champions," a sentiment Novak admitted he stole from his college coach at Miami (Ohio), the legendary Bo Schembechler. His Northern Illinois has fulfilled that promise with four MAC West titles and the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic Championship.
In building the program, Novak established tradition. Every Northern Illinois freshman learns the Fight Song, which is sung - actually shouted - in the locker room following every NIU victory. Coats and ties are the order of the day when the Huskies travel - be it by bus or by plane. Each time he talks to the team the second of those "program goals" is reinforced. NIU players know that they WILL represent the University in a first class fashion.
Slowly, ever so slowly at first, NIU made strides. On October 17, 1998, the Huskies ended the nation's longest losing streak at 23 games with a landmark 16-6 victory over Central Michigan in a driving rainstorm. A week later, Northern Illinois earned a road win at Eastern Michigan.
The team won just two games that season, but it was a start. In 1999, NIU won five of their last seven games and posted a 5-3 mark versus league competition on a team that featured future NFL players Justin McCareins and Ryan Diem.
More talent followed and when Northern Illinois defeated Central Michigan, 40-6, on the last day of the 2000 campaign, the Huskies achieved the program's first winning season since 1990 and started the current string of success.
In an 8-4 campaign in 2002, NIU got a historic 26-17 victory over 20th-ranked Bowling Green as three of NIU's four losses came by a total of nine points. Novak won the 2002 MAC Coach of the Year honor, but that season turned out to be just a precursor for the storybook season of 2003.
It began with a packed Huskie Stadium, a national television audience, and the No. 15 ranked Maryland Terrapins in town. After NIU claimed a 20-13 overtime win over the Terrapins, just the third win in school history over a Top 25 team, the Huskies dispatched Tennessee Tech and headed to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the Crimson Tide became Northern's next BCS victim, 19-16. By mid-October, the unheralded Huskies ranked No. 10 in the initial BCS standings and No. 12 in the Associated Press poll. Novak's team set a school record with 10 regular season victories and, at the end of the season, the coach was named the Region 3 Division I-A Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA). The Ohio native also was one of just nine coaches to receive at least one vote in balloting for the 2003 AP National Coach of the Year Award.
He was selected to coach in the 2003 Blue-Gray Classic and was back on the sidelines for the 2005 Hula Bowl. In June 2005, he was the recipient of the prestigious Ray Meyer Coach Award at the Giant Awards Dinner in Chicago.
The last three seasons have brought more success, and post-season appearances, for the Huskies, further enhancing Novak's status as a program builder. In 2004, NIU finished 9-3 and defeated Troy in the Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, Calif. in the school's first bowl appearance since 1983. The next season brought postseason heartbreak as the Huskies fell to Akron, 31-30, on a last-second touchdown in the 2005 MAC Football Championship Game. Northern went bowling in California again in 2006, advancing to the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
A member of the AFCA Board of Trustees, Novak is justifiably proud of sending a long list of assistant coaches on to successful positions. Of the 25 former Novak assistants who have gone on to other coaching positions, 18 left to take a position at a BCS program while one took an NFL job. His protégés are scattered throughout the country at places like Louisville, Purdue, Stanford, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Miami (Florida).
Novak has climbed the Northern Illinois and MAC coaching charts in 11 years at the helm. He ranks second all-time at NIU in games coached (127) and is third in all-time victories (62). His 60 wins as a Mid-American Conference coach are tied for ninth on the all-time list, while his 46 league wins are tied for 10th.
Thanks to the winning tradition established by Novak's NIU teams, Northern Illinois will realize the first significant upgrade to its football facilities in nearly 20 years this fall with the opening of the Jeffrey and Kimberly Yordon Center, located adjacent to the North End Zone of Huskie Stadium. The 62,000-square foot building will house the NIU football coaches' offices and meeting rooms, the football locker room, a weight room, athletic training facility and equipment area. The Student-Athlete Academic Support Services center in the bottom floor will directly and significantly impact not only Huskie football players, but student-athletes in each of Northern Illinois' 17 sports programs and is named in honor of Novak and his wife, Carole.
Novak was hired as NIU's 19th gridiron coach on December 22, 1995 after 22 seasons as a full-time assistant at the NCAA Division I-A (FBS) level at his alma mater (1974-76), Illinois (1977-79), Northern Illinois (1980-83) and Indiana (1984-95). He served as the defensive coordinator at both Indiana and in his previous stint at NIU, working for Mallory on some of the most successful teams in the modern history of those two schools.
At NIU, the Huskies went 10-2 in 1983 and defeated Cal State Fullerton in the California Bowl, finishing 30th in the final Associated Press poll. At Indiana, he was a part of 65 Hoosier triumphs, seven winning regular seasons and six post-season bowl appearances in 12 years. His 1993 Indiana defense produced three shutouts during an 8-4 campaign while finishing seventh in the country in scoring defense. Between 1984-94, IU claimed six first team All-Big Ten selections on defense and seven defenders were picked for at least one post-season all-star game.
Novak's association with the MAC dates back to his days as a player on back-to-back MAC Championship teams (1965, 1966) at Miami, where he lettered at defensive end. He began his collegiate coaching career as an assistant there under Dick Crum when the RedHawks won two league titles and appeared in a pair of bowl games. He worked for Gary Moeller as defensive line coach at Illinois before joining up with Mallory at Indiana.
A three-sport letterman at Mentor (Ohio) High School, Novak began his prep coaching career as defensive ends boss at Warren (Ohio) Western Reserve High School in 1968. Elevated to head coach five years later, Novak led Western Reserve to a 12-0 record and Ohio's large school division state title to earn 1972 Coach of the Year honors. He took Western Reserve back to the state finals a year later with an 11-1 record.
Novak was inducted into the Mentor High School Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. He received a bachelor's degree in education in 1967 and a master's in education administration from Miami in 1968. He and his wife, the former Carole Hinkel of Mentor, have two grown sons, David and Jeremy, and three grandchildren.
ALL-TIME MAC WINS
MAC Games Only
RECORD AT NIU
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