More than four months after being hired, the Northern Star caught up with first-year head coach Dave Doeren of the NIU football team Wednesday morning. The former Wisconsin defensive coordinator filled the vacancy left by Jerry Kill, who accepted an offer for the Minnesota head coaching job in December. Doeren details his meteoric rise from a high school coach to the head coach of a football team coming off a 10-3 season capped with a Humanitarian Bowl victory.
Northern Star: Just to get to your interview with NIU Athletic Director Jeff Compher in December; you had to drive through a Wisconsin blizzard. What made this job so important to you?
Dave Doeren: I've been wanting to be a head coach for a long time. This is my 16th year coaching, and I just thought this was an opportunity to come into a program that had a lot of the same standards as [Wisconsin]. I wanted to be on a winning team with champions. I wanted to be in a place where I knew how to recruit that geography that wasn't far from my current family...They have already built this facility, the Yordon Center. There were just a lot of things that were right.
NS: Was this really the perfect time for you to take the leap and become a head coach, after making stops at, Drake [linebackers coach/defensive coordinator], USC [graduate assistant], Montana [secondary coach/recruiting coordinator], Kansas [linebackers coach/recruiting coordinator] and Wisconsin [defensive coordinator/linebackers coach?
DD: I mean, I haven't skipped any stops. I was a graduate assistant, I've coached at the high school level. I have worked from the ground up, and I was at a point where I was ready for the challenge. Not that I didn't love where I was, but my goal has always been that if I'm going to leave somewhere, I'm going to leave it in better shape than I got there, and I felt like I did that. I left Wisconsin after a Rose Bowl season.
NS: Coming from a small school yourself in Drake, do you feel like you are in somewhat familiar territory coming to DeKalb?
DD: Not to discount Drake, but we were a non-scholarship football program. So I look at NIU as a program on the rise that is chipping at a lot of BCS schools. At Drake, we were the fifth or sixth story in the paper. If we won a game we might get a line or two. So there are a lot different expectations here than there was there.
NS: How much does it help you as a coach coming from an appearance in the Rose Bowl, knowing what it takes to get to that big game?
DD: It was big. I told the players I've been there. I've been fortunate to be on two national championship teams at Montana, been to eight bowl games [and] four conference championship teams. I know not only how to get to the big game, but to win it, and I think that's huge for our guys knowing that when we get there, their coach isn't going to be wide-eyed.
NS: What was the experience like at Montana, when as the secondary coach, your team won the 2001 FCS National Championship?
DD: We went to back-to-back championships in 2000 and 2001, and we were 28-3 in those two years. It's an amazing experience to go through the playoffs; it's a great experience for the guys. At that one moment when the clock runs out and you are better than everybody at your level. It's a pretty exciting feeling.
NS: How has your philosophy on recruiting changed since being the recruiting coordinator at Montana?
DD: You have to look at what you can get, what you have, what your blueprint is. My philosophy has always been that you take your state, you draw a fence around it and then you go to the states that border your state and talk to those guys. A lot of them will have family that lives in your state. When you cross outside those states, you look at who has the most connections back here. That's what we are doing right now, we are going to go to Florida, because I have some connections down there.
You also have to decide what your stance will be on junior college players. Here, we are looking at a lot of them. Every school is a little different in the talent you can attract. I'm going to try and do as many live evaluations as I can instead of just watching video. Don't think you can go see a prospect once and think you're going to get him. Coaches need to build a network.
NS: In recent years, most incoming freshmen on the football team have hailed from Illinois. Your first recruiting class only had four Illinois natives. Are you going to stress going outside the state?
DD: We are going to get the best guys we can get. I would love if they all come from Illinois, but that just won't happen. This year, a lot of the best guys were already committed so we couldn't get them. If we can't find those guys, we are going to go elsewhere. The goal, though, is to get as many guys as close to where we are as we can.
NS: As far as your game plan for next season, you decided to install a no-huddle offense. What went into that decision?
DD: The no-huddle can be fast, it can be slow, [and] has the ability to change the tempo throughout the game. We aren't the fast-paced, get as many plays off as you can in the game, but we have the ability to do that. I believe time of possession is a big statistic that goes unnoticed, but our offensive coordinators have had great experience with it. I believe it's tough to defend. It can change the pace of the game and that's something I want our guys to have. When I look at our offense through a defense's eyes, I want what we do to be aggressive. I want to be physical. I want defenses to use all their rules with us. I've given my offensive coordinator everything that would be tough for me to defend.
NS: You come into this program after Jerry Kill left it. He, much like you, was considered a riser in the coaching ranks when he got here. People are understandably a little wary of embracing another coach. What are your goals while in DeKalb?
DD: My goal isn't to leave it. My goal is to win while I'm here, and I'm going to be here as long as they let me be here. That's how I've always taken every job I've had in this profession. If you do the best you can at every job, someday somebody may offer you something. I'm not going to worry about that. I want to win the conference championship every year I'm here and that's my goal. We want to be the team everybody in the MAC wants to be.
NS: What are the ingredients to becoming one of the mid-majors that consistently wins its conference, and is seemingly always in the BCS picture?
DD: Boise State and TCU are two programs run very much run like a Wisconsin. They have great facilities. They are run just like Big Ten programs. TCU is in the Big East now, so they aren't a mid-major anymore.
They don't just talk about it, they do it. Obviously you have to have consistency in your staff. Boise State's staff has stayed remarkably intact. They have lost a few coaches in recent years, but head coach [Chris] Peterson had done a really good job at keeping away schools looking to hire them. Are we going to be able to do that here? I don't know. But that's what really helps you win. When you can keep your coaches around, you have continuity. You aren't constantly training people to do what you want. They already know what you want. This school hasn't had many 10-win seasons consecutively. Last year it spiked, but our goal is to maintain a high level of success.
NS: What have you learned about your team through three weeks of spring practices?
DD: They love football. These guys love going to practice. We ask them to do some tough things. They get up early in the morning. We don't have an indoor practice facility so they are out in the cold weather. The guys don't balk. They don't complain. They enjoy competing against each other. They are a really tight-knit group and recent adversity has made them even tighter. It's never a situation where we have to ask them to play hard.
NS: The team seemingly had a lot of energy in Saturday's practice; the first practice since linebacker Devon Butler was put in the hospital with a gunshot wound. What is your impression of their response to tragedy?
DD: I think it was a lesson on perspective to our coaches and players. We get so focused on catching and blocking, getting after a kid for not being in the right place...then all of a sudden one of your best guys is fighting for his life, and he can't do any of those things that you think are so important. We need to enjoy what we have when we have it.
NS: After watching film of practice for three weeks, have your expectations increased?
DD: I'm excited where we're at some days. Right now we're a long way off now; we're just a bunch of guys trying to create a conference championship. All the pieces aren't here. If you go to practice, half our starters are out on defense. None of them are major injuries, but they are all things that are keeping them from being what they can be. There is a lot of offensive momentum because of that. I'm just excited to get our entire team out there with all the signees.
NS: What do you want your team's identity to be?
DD: I want our defense to be aggressive, be physical, be a team that doesn't hurt itself. We want to force takeaways and create opportunities for our offense. We aren't going to be a team that blitzes 90 percent of the game. We are going to be a team that makes the other team beat itself.
NS: How much interaction have you had with new men's head basketball coach Mark Montgomery?
DD: I've been around him a few times. I know he is similar to me in his intensity. He loves the game he coaches. He has a lot of passion for recruiting like me.
NS: Do you plan on pursuing a parking spot at Fatty's like Jerry Kill did?
DD: Right now, I'm staying at the Best Western, so I am walking everywhere I go, and I don't really need a parking spot. I met their owner, though, and it's a great place.