In the mid-1990s, the idea of Northern Illinois participating in a prestigious game such as the Orange Bowl was unthinkable.
When Joe Novak took over the program in 1996, the school had just finished a string of five consecutive losing seasons under Charlie Sadler.
Novak had worked as an NIU assistant from 1980-83. To him, there was always potential in DeKalb, with a prime recruiting area in Chicagoland. He just needed to change the culture.
"There had never been sustained success there," said Novak, who's retired and now lives in North Carolina. "…Just trying to get that changed to the point where people can see now what a good athletic program can do for the school."
New Year's Day, NIU will play Florida State in the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium in the most important bowl game in school history.
New Huskies head coach Rod Carey will coach his first game, taking over for Dave Doeren, who went 23-4 in two seasons before departing for N.C. State the day after the Mid-American Conference Championship. Before Doeren, Jerry Kill went to a bowl game in each of his three seasons at the helm of NIU.
But it was Novak who helped jump start the program, and Tuesday, he'll be watching his Huskies in south Florida.
"Honestly it's probably still a little surreal," he said. "I'm certainly very proud of it and these kids have earned and deserve it. Anxious to see it on the big stage."
NIU football has come a long way in the last 30 years, and it certainly wasn't an easy road.
MAC title and switching conferences
Bill Mallory had already won a MAC title before even stepping foot on the NIU campus in 1980, having led Miami (Ohio) to a league crown 7 years earlier.
After five seasons at Colorado, Mallory came to DeKalb and won the conference in his fourth year, 1983, with Novak serving as his defensive coordinator. Following a victory in the California Bowl, Mallory was off to Indiana, and he said Indiana's administration wasn't interested in hiring any of his assistants back then.
When the NIU job came open after the 1995 season, Mallory thought Novak was the perfect fit for the position.
"First of all, the kind of person he is, he's just a quality individual. Joe's a very humble person, very much of a people, team-type person," Mallory said. "He had a great rapport with the players, they had a great respect. Very intelligent individual."
However, it took a while. Novak suffered through four losing seasons before NIU went 6-5 in 2000. In 2003, Novak's Huskies got wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State, and finished 10-2.
It was a sign that the program was hitting a turning point. Novak would go on to lead NIU to a 34-21 victory over Troy in the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic, and the Huskies would compete in the Poinsettia Bowl, losing to TCU, in 2006, before Novak retired after the following season.
While Novak had success at the end of his career, he credits former NIU athletic Director Cary Groth, who now holds the same position at Nevada, for a lot of the team's achievements.
Groth stuck with Novak during those tough first years, which allowed him time to build the program.
When Novak arrived, players had to pay for their own summer school, so many of them weren't on campus after the normal school year ended. Groth changed that, and now it's common for players to work out all summer.
Everything comes to fruition
The BCS was put into place in 1998 and other mid-major schools such as Boise State, Utah and TCU have made BCS bowl games in the past. Now it's NIU's turn as the Huskies are the first MAC team to earn a berth.
When the new four-team playoff system is instated in 2014, the top team from the "Group of Five" conferences will get an automatic bid into one of the six access bowls, meaning there's a better chance for schools like NIU to be in a prestigious contest like the Orange Bowl."
Mallory always thought NIU had vast potential as a program, and he's not surprised to see the Huskies here.
"I was just really, really happy to see that they had the opportunity to go into the Orange Bowl," Mallory said. "It's a nice challenge for them. I know those guys will be ready."
2012 Orange Bowl
Northern Illinois (12-1) vs. Florida St. (11-2)
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 1
TV/Radio: ESPN/670 AM
Line: Florida St. by 13