When Northern Illinois athletic director Jeff Compher hired Dave Doeren as football coach in December 2010, Compher knew he’d likely be undertaking another coaching search in the not-too-distant future.
It’s the cruel truth that comes with being in the Mid-American Conference. Once you have a quality football coach, it’s only a matter of time before a BCS program snatches that coach away.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly were once in the MAC. Every MAC Coach of the Year from 2007-2010 -- Turner Gill, Brady Hoke, Al Golden, Mike Haywood -- departed for more high-profile jobs. Even Compher’s hire of Doeren was the result of Jerry Kill leaving the Huskies for Minnesota after three consecutive bowl berths.
And now, in Doeren’s second season at Northern Illinois, Compher appears bound to deal with that reality sooner than later.
As the Huskies head into Wednesday’s MAC matchup with Toledo at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN2, Doeren has guided them to becoming one of the nation’s most successful programs over the past two seasons. The Huskies own the country’s longest home winning streak at 20 games and the longest conference winning streak at 14 games. Northern Illinois, Alabama and Oregon are the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs to win 18 of their last 19 games.
“If you look at some of the best football programs in our conference, many major universities and conferences come chomping in the MAC,” said Compher, who became athletic director in June 2008. “That’s what we anticipate down the road. Whether or not that’s something this year or five years down the road, we always have to be prepared for that. We’re very happy with Dave. We want him to stay a long time.”
There were rumors the 40-year-old Doeren was being sought after last season, but he said they were untrue. ESPN college football analyst Chris Spielman said they’ll more likely be real this offseason.
“I would hire him,” said Spielman, who will be part of the broadcast team Wednesday. “If you’re looking for a coach, he’d be on my radar, absolutely, because of what I know about him and the time I’ve been around him and how he operates and what he’s done to have Northern Illinois on the streak they’re on. I’m not saying he improved what Jerry Kill did, but he’s kind of built on it and kept it going.
“I had no doubt once Dave got a shot he’d be a fine coach. He’s intelligent, personable, a nice guy, intelligent on offense and defense, extremely organized. I know one thing: He can recruit.”
Doeren proved all that in his first season, and Compher rewarded him in December 2011 by adding another year to his contract, which now runs through June 30, 2017, and bumping his salary from $371,000 to $420,000. The contract was announced after Doeren coached the Huskies to their first MAC title in 28 years and before their win over Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Compher also made sure that Northern Illinois will get paid if another school persuades Doeren away. If Doeren had left after his first season, the Huskies would have received $1 million. NIU would get $750,000 if he departs before June 30, 2013, $650,000 in 2014, $550,000 in 2015, $500,000 in 2016 and $450,000 in 2017. The Huskies received $300,000 from Minnesota for Kill’s departure.
Doeren doesn’t promise he won’t move onto a BCS program one day, but he isn’t rushing out the door.
“I truly believe if you take care of where you’re at, opportunities will come your way and then you have to make decisions,” said Doeren, who arrived to Northern Illinois after being Wisconsin's defensive coordinator. “I’m not worried about that right now. I’m focused on Toledo."
What has helped keep Doeren smiling in his second season was the contract extension and Compher’s effort to get the Huskies an indoor football facility, which will be completed next year. In the past, the Huskies have practiced outdoors or rented gyms during inclement weather -- not exactly a recruiting tool.
“Obviously, [the contract] proves they want you,” Doeren said. “I think you kind of prove your worth. Coming off a Rose Bowl season and the success we had at Wisconsin and getting this job, that’s one thing. But after Year 1 here and to tear [the contract] up and make it better, that says a lot about the commitment to me, my family and coaching staff.”
As for that coaching staff, it’s one area where Doeren has had to face some adversity. He has replaced three offensive coordinators for various reasons in two years and seen two other coaches move on. Despite the turnover, the Huskies haven’t lost a beat.
“I really don’t believe in flinching,” Doeren said. “I don’t know if things happen for a reason like they say. Whether they do or don’t, you just deal with them. There’s never a reason to panic.
"There’s no one player who is going to cost us the season, and there’s no one coach who is going to cost us the program.”
On the field, Compher has seen that same characteristic from Doeren in how his teams have battled back in games. The Huskies have come back to win from a second-half deficit seven times in the past two years. Last year, they were down 31-14 to Ball State and rallied for a 41-38 victory. In their most memorable comeback, they were losing 20-0 to Ohio at halftime of the 2011 MAC championship game and pulled out a 23-20 win.
“I think he prides himself, as I would, that he doesn’t get flustered,” Compher said. “He doesn’t get too down and doesn’t get too up. I think he’s a pretty steady guy. But he balances that with competitiveness. It’s a rare trait I’ve seen from coaches.”
Unfortunately for Northern Illinois, the one comeback it wasn’t able to pull off was to Iowa in the 2012 season opener at Soldier Field. With seven new offensive starters, Northern Illinois fell 18-17 to Iowa, the Huskies’ only loss of the season.
If Northern Illinois had won that game, the Huskies would likely be in the national conversation and junior quarterback Jordan Lynch, in his first season starting, would probably be discussed as a Heisman Trophy long shot. Lynch leads all quarterbacks with 3,517 total offensive yards, 1,342 rushing yards and 210 points responsible for. He holds the NCAA record for most consecutive 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback with eight, hasn’t thrown an interception in six games and is 21st in the country in passing efficiency with 19 touchdown passes and three interceptions.
“He’s so good and valuable to the team,” Spielman said of Lynch. “He’s a tailback who throws the ball well. That’s a luxury to have to run an offense like that. That’s not saying he’s a bad quarterback. I watched the Western Michigan game, and he made some nice passes. I’m not taking anything away from him. If I’m a spread team at one of the BCS programs, I would think you’d like him.”
Lynch and the Huskies have defied expectations. Lynch was following in the footsteps of Chandler Harnish, who was drafted into the NFL, and Doeren was losing a number of Kill’s veteran players and fielding a less-experienced team.
But Doeren never stopped believing the Huskies would repeat their success.
“I’ve never done anything where I don’t expect to be successful," Doeren said. "I’ve never taken any job without the determination I’m there to win.”
It was with that mentality Doeren sold Compher during the interview process. So when Compher was asked whether Doeren had exceeded his expectations, Compher said no.
“He expected to come in and do well, and so did I,” Compher said.