DEKALB, Ill. -- Rod Carey's first decade in college coaching mirrored those of many others in the profession. The last three and a half months of his career might be unprecedented. One wild weekend certainly was.
Beginning in 1998, Carey made the gradual, typical climb up the coaching ladder, from graduate assistant (Minnesota) to Division III offensive coordinator (Wisconsin-Stout) to FCS offensive line coach (Illinois State, North Dakota) before reaching the FBS as Northern Illinois' line coach in 2010. He was smart, extremely organized and ambitious -- undoubtedly a future coordinator, quite possibly a future head coach, but a guy who "understood chain of command" and "never really stepped on toes," according to his former boss, Dave Doeren.
When Northern Illinois kicked off its season Sept. 1 against Iowa, Carey served as the team's offensive line coach and run game coordinator. When NIU plays Florida State on Jan. 1 in the Discover Orange Bowl, Carey will make his head-coaching debut in the biggest game in team history.
"Ridiculous," Carey said. "Everything's been Mach 10 for me, career-wise."
Most coaches wait years to move from position coach to coordinator to head coach. Carey has held all three jobs in the same season.
"You plan for it, you want it, but you don't know when that opportunity's going to come," said Carey, 41. "Well, I didn't think it was going to come right now."
Carey laughed when reminded that his chief challenge this past summer was figuring out a way to replace all five starters along the Huskies' offensive line, including two first-team all-conference selections. Northern Illinois' offense put up big numbers in 2011, ranking 11th nationally in total offense (476 ypg) and 12th in both rushing (234.1 ypg) and scoring (38.3 ppg). Although NIU lost record-setting quarterback Chandler Harnish, it had a promising junior named Jordan Lynch ready to step in. But would anyone block for Lynch?
The offensive line was such a huge question mark that Doeren, the Huskies' second-year head coach, decided not to promote Carey to coordinator after Matt Canada left for Wisconsin.
"He wanted it," Doeren said. "I just felt like putting a new duty on a guy, plus five new offensive linemen, was a lot to ask."
Instead, Doeren hired veteran Mike Dunbar, who had been an offensive coordinator at five other FBS programs. But two days after the season opener, the team announced Dunbar would give up his coordinator duties to continue his fight against cancer. Dunbar had been diagnosed in February and had received an aggressive round of treatment in the spring, with the hope he'd be recovered for the season.
An update on his condition forced him to step away and receive additional treatment. Dunbar, who had never met Carey before joining NIU's staff, told Doeren to promote Carey.
"It was a no-brainer," Doeren said. "He by far had the best command of our offense. It was what had to happen for the offense to be successful, and he did a great job with it."
Carey called plays and coached the line (he received help from Joe Tripodi, who was elevated to full-time assistant after Dunbar stepped away) for the final 12 games. Under Carey's leadership the Huskies' offense surged to ninth nationally in scoring (40.8 ppg) and rushing (250.2 ypg) and 15th in total offense (485.8 ypg). Lynch led the FBS in total offense (4,733 yards) and ranked third in rushing (1,771 yards).
As for that potentially leaky offensive line? NIU ranked 15th nationally in fewest sacks allowed (1.08 per game), eclipsed 200 rushing yards nine times and 300 rushing yards five times and had an All-MAC selection in left tackle Tyler Loos.
"He was in our meeting room every day, didn't change at all, didn't skip a beat," Huskies guard Jared Volk said of Carey. "He knew a little bit more about what we were going to do and what plays we were going to call, but other than that, it was the same thing the whole time."
Carey credits Dunbar for guiding him through the change. The two men met daily and communicated constantly, even after Dunbar began treatment. Dunbar had set up a specific teaching plan for fall camp, which Carey kept in place after taking the coordinator role.
"He had to make the decision he made," Carey said, "but it was tough because he has an ego, we all do, and he put that completely aside. Most guys would be like, 'OK, it's yours, see ya.' He didn't do that.
"He checked me along the way those first couple weeks. And then once he knew I got it, he stepped further and further away from it. That transition is super easy because of the person Mike Dunbar is."
But not even a midseason move from position coach to coordinator could prepare Carey for the weekend of Nov. 30-Dec. 2. In less than 72 hours, he went from assistant on a MAC championship team to the head coach of an Orange Bowl squad.
At 10:47 p.m. ET on Friday, Nov. 30, NIU cornerback Demetrius Stone intercepted a pass in the second overtime to secure a 44-37 win against Kent State at Detroit's Ford Field that gave the Huskies their second straight league title.
Here's what happened in the following hours, in the words of those who lived it:
Carey: "See, you travel back from the championship game. You don't stay the night in Detroit, which I hate. So we got on a bus at 1:30 in the morning and drove six hours back. I got to my house at 7. I've got an 8- and a 6-year-old. They'd been sleeping on the bus off and on all night. So they were cooked, I was cooked. Three hours later, Dave calls."
NIU AD Jeff Compher: "[Doeren] said there were some potential schools that may be in touch with him or would be in touch with him. I kind of expected that. With maybe three or four games left, I started thinking about what I would do. Coach Doeren called me early that morning, maybe 10 o'clock, and said, 'It looks like I'm going to have an offer from NC State, and it looks like I'm going to take it.' I thought I would have more time, to be honest. I thought maybe things might happen Monday, but they happened a lot sooner."
Carey: "Dave called, said, 'Hey, I think Jeff's gonna call you. He might want to talk to you about hiring you.' I said, 'For what?' He said, 'The head coaching job.' I hang up the phone and Jeff calls, says, 'Hey, c'mon in.' I had no sleep, it was crazy. So you went off adrenaline for two days."
Compher: "When things went down with Coach Dunbar and Rod had to call the plays, I saw first-hand how good he was. He dealt with adversity and stepped up and never complained once. You notice those things. When schools started talking to Dave, I told him I'd like to talk to his staff before they [received other offers]. He was like, 'Who?' I told him, and he said that's a really good choice. He said if that were to happen, you'd have smooth sailing."
Doeren: "[Carey's] very organized. He takes a tremendous amount of pride in what he does. He'll listen to the players when they have issues. He's a tireless recruiter."
Bill Mallory (coached Carey at Indiana, former NIU coach): "Jeff called me and said, 'I'm strongly considering Rod. He's my first choice. What do you think?' And I said, 'He'd be a great choice for you. He would bring stability. He knows the players, the players know him. He's got a great pulse on NIU.'"
Compher: "It became very apparent to me that I was heading down the right road with him, especially after I talked to the team. They used some of the same descriptions Coach Doeren did. I met with Rod, and then I introduced him to our president John Peters that evening and spent a long time talking. It all really came together Saturday night."
Lynch: "We wanted someone who knew the offense. We didn't want someone who came in and changed things. The best coach was Coach Carey."
Carey: "We met again on Sunday, Jeff and I. Then we went back and forth, got a deal done."
Volk: "Once we found out it was Coach Carey, we jumped up, screamed and yelled and gave him a standing ovation."
Offensive lineman Logan Pegram: "He's not a real emotional guy, but you could tell it was getting the best of him. It's something he's worked his whole life for. I mean, he started from the bottom."
Carey: "Seriously, we shook hands on the deal, and Jeff introduces me [to the team]. And 15 minutes later, we're in the Orange Bowl."
At a brief introductory news conference after the Orange Bowl announcement, Carey noted that at a place like NIU, it's not what you change but what you keep. He's keeping the staff together through the bowl game, even though several assistants have accepted offers to join Doeren at NC State.
Any other imprints Carey puts on his program -- staffing, schematics or otherwise -- will come after Jan. 1.
"We've got this bowl, which is the biggest game this football program is going to play in, and we owe it to these kids to make sure everything's in line," he said. "So I have changed literally nothing. If I'm the one who has to change, I'll take the change right now."
He has experienced more change than he ever imagined in recent weeks, which isn't always easy for a guy who admits multitasking isn't his strength.
"My wife called me four nights ago and goes, 'Hey, we have an 8- and a 6-year-old, and the Christmas tree is a pretty big deal to them. I think we should have one,'" Carey said. "So we went out and did that."
Carey uses the word whirlwind a lot these days. He recalls the advice a good friend in coaching recently gave him: slow down. Few coaches in any sport have made a debut like this one, but those who best know Carey think he's up to the task.
"This was something he had in his mind -- he wanted to coach," said Mallory, who coached Carey, a center at Indiana, from 1989-93. "You just knew he was a great fit for the profession. He'll have 'em ready. He'll have his jaw locked."
Doeren also has faith in his former assistant, although he acknowledges the Orange Bowl will be surreal.
"That's definitely a big stage for your first game as a head coach," Doeren said. "If he can get out of the tunnel without falling down, he'll be all right."
He'll be running at Mach 10.