Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Dave Doeren was going to be a head coach. It was just a matter of time, really.
Doeren, then Wisconsin's defensive coordinator, was offered the job at FCS member Cal Poly after the 2008 season. Doeren then was offered the post at FCS powerhouse Montana following the 2009 campaign. He rejected both. But when Northern Illinois came calling in December, Doeren took the plunge.
"It's a great job," says Doeren, who had spent the previous five seasons at Wisconsin and helped the program to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth in 2010, the school's first trip to Pasadena since the 1999 season. "The facilities here are great."
And so is the potential, which is why Doeren is in DeKalb, Ill. He knows Northern Illinois is arguably the best job in the MAC.
Doeren (DOOR-en) knows all about Joe Novak, who laid the foundation at NIU from 1996-2007, guiding the Huskies to two bowls, three MAC West co-titles and a MAC West championship before retiring.
"He beat Alabama, he beat Maryland," Doeren says. "He was very successful."
Doeren also knows all about Jerry Kill, who arrived from Southern Illinois in 2008 and enhanced what Novak built, leading NIU to three bowls in three seasons before leaving for the coaching job at Minnesota.
The bar is set high for Doeren. How much higher can he take the program?
"We will find out," he says. "Our expectation is to take this place and make it as good as we can. I think the goal of every non-BCS team is to be the next Boise or TCU. Will we have the financial backing and support those teams have? I don't know.
"There is a huge commitment at those universities from a football standpoint. I haven't been here long enough to gauge that."
The MAC: A closer look
The MAC may not feature any BCS-buster teams such as TCU and Boise State, but it's an underrated league on many levels.
There were 13 MAC alums on the active rosters in the most recent Super Bowl between Green Bay and Pittsburgh. Among the MAC players were Packers running back James Starks (Buffalo), wide receiver Greg Jennings (Western Michigan) and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (Central Michigan), and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (Miami) and linebacker James Harrison (Kent State).
The MAC scored two wins over Big Ten schools in 2010, giving the MAC eight victories over Big Ten foes in the past three seasons. NIU has two of them, over Minnesota in 2010 and Purdue in '09.
Toledo has been the MAC's biggest "giant killer." The Rockets have notched a win over a Big Six team in each of the past five seasons: Purdue (2010), Colorado (2009), Michigan (2008), Iowa State (2007) and Kansas (2006).
The Huskies are coming off one of the best seasons in school history, capping a 10-3 season with a 40-17 Humanitarian Bowl rout of Fresno State. Expectations are high as NIU pushes toward the start of spring practice on March 22.
"I would rather come to a place where a lot is expected," Doeren says. "We won't be a lot different on offense with nine starters back. Some formations will be tweaked, but [offensive coordinator] Matt Canada doesn't need to reinvent what they are doing.
"On defense, they played a 4-3 with a lot of zone, which is what I'm used to doing. As much as we can carry over philosophically, we will. But we lost about eight starters on defense, so there is work to do."
Doeren, 39, isn't afraid of the expectations. He has been preparing for this since graduating from Drake in 1993. It has been a slow, steady and calculated climb.
He began his career as a high school assistant in 1994, and moved on to Drake from 1994-97. He then spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at USC before being hired at Montana, where he served as secondary coach for two seasons under Joe Glenn. "Great personal skills, great with players, families, boosters," Doeren says of Glenn, who went on to coach at Wyoming. "You really cared about him and didn't want to let him down."
Doeren then was hired at Kansas, where he worked from 2002-05 under Mark Mangino. "He was a micro-manager, involved in everything," Doeren says of Mangino, who now is out of coaching. "That was part good, part bad. He had great vision. He could stay on the vision, and there were a lot of bumps in the road. He laid out a plan and nothing derailed him from that plan."
Doeren left for Wisconsin after the '05 season and was one of the first hires for Bret Bielema.
"He is a very organized guy," Doeren says of his former boss. "He isn't a micro-manager but he's a multi-tasker. There weren't many times where you thought he was surprised. He was on top of things. He also was generous with his time and treated you with respect. He expected you to do your job and made it very clear how he wanted it done, but he allowed you to do it with your own stamp. As a worker, I really appreciated that."
Hey, it's one of the new guys
There were 21 coaching changes in the FBS ranks this offseason, and no league underwent more turnover than the MAC. Northern Illinois' Dave Doeren is one of five new coaches, and four came from Big Six schools.
Ball State: The Cardinals hired Pete Lembo, who had been coach at FCS member Elon.
Bielema did what he could to keep Doeren, who also interviewed for the Vanderbilt and Indiana coaching jobs after the 2010 season.
"It's difficult to keep the good ones," Bielema says. "I knew Dave had had opportunities to leave before. He really feels like he can be successful down there. He is a highly motivated and smart coach who has passion for what he does."
Doeren's optimism is fueled by the success of Novak and Kill at NIU. Doeren also knows the unique niche that Northern Illinois possesses. NIU is the only MAC school in its state. That isn't the case for some other MAC schools.
"All the kids Illinois and Northwestern and other Big Ten schools don't take, we aren't fighting other MAC schools in the state for talent," Doeren says. "That's not the case is some other MAC states, like Ohio and Michigan. Those states have multiple MAC schools that are competing for players."
One of Doeren's best players this fall will be quarterback Chandler Harnish. He led the MAC passing efficiency and ranked 11th in the nation last season, hitting 189-of-292 passes for 2,530 yards, with 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
"When [Doeren] got hired, we didn't know much about him," Harnish says of NIU players. "We did our research and found out he's a good fit and well-qualified. He spoke to us right before we left for our bowl, telling us to just keep doing what we are doing.
"He loves football and is really excited. He has a similar style and philosophy that we have. We can't wait for spring practice to start."