Hammock’s loyalty runs deep for NIU

Head Coach Thomas Hammock and his son Thomas Douglas Hammock share a moment during the NIU football coaches introductory news conference Jan. 18.

James Krause

Thomas Hammock said it may sound cliché to say his dream job is being the head football coach at NIU, but it’s something he’s wanted since he started coaching in 2003.

The 2002 NIU marketing alum saw his goal realized Jan. 18 when he was introduced by NIU President Lisa Freeman and Athletic Director Sean T. Frazier as the 23rd head coach in program history, joined by his wife Cheynnitha and two children, Tierra and Thomas Douglas.

Hammock’s return to NIU is his chance to give back to a place he said has had a lasting impact on his life.

“I met my wife here; [I] have an excellent degree [and] have plenty of friends I’ve made over the years [who] I continue to keep in contact with,” Hammock said. “[NIU is] a special place. I met my wife at Douglas Hall. My son’s name is Thomas Douglas, so it’s good for him to have a chance to learn where his parents went to school.”

Statistics show Hammock made that same impression on NIU when he was a running back for the Huskies from 2000 to 2002, tallying 2,432 rushing yards and 25 touchdown in his career.

He was named back-to-back Academic All-American in 2000 and 2001, gaining 1,000 rushing yards each season, joined only by Tiki Barber from Virginia University.

Hammock said his time under then Head Coach Joe Novak strengthened his passion for the university and its football program.

“I’ve been fortunate to see every side of NIU; as a recruit, as a student athlete, as an assistant coach and as an alumni,” Hammock said. “Novak did a great job building this place, and that’s what I hope to do here.”

Hammock was a game into his senior year when he started to experience chest pains during a practice.

After seeing several doctors, Hammock was diagnosed with a heart condition. Suddenly, his playing career was in question.

“Through the season, my mindset was I was going to be redshirted, come back the following year and finish my career,” Hammock said.

After Hammock’s health issues were made public, the Huskies played their next game on the road against Wisconsin, where Hammock met Badgers coach Barry Alvarez.

“Before the game, Alvarez was told I wasn’t going to be playing,” Hammock said. “He came up, he shook my hand and said ‘If there is anything I can do for you in the future, let me know.’”

Hammock sat out the remainder of the season, serving as a student-coach and helping teammate Michael Turner to a breakout junior season where he finished second in the nation in rushing yards with 1,915.

After graduating in December 2002, Hammock announced his decision to take the advice of medical professionals and end his playing career.

Hammock said this taught him the value of his education, something he wants to instill in student-athletes he coaches.

“Football doesn’t last forever,” Hammock said. “There’s an end date to everybody’s career. When that day ends, you have to be prepared for life. I want [my players] to get the most out of their lives. The way you do that is by getting your degree [and] being able to be a productive member of society.”

Related: NIU hires Thomas Hammock as new football coach

The then 21-year-old spent the next several months working an average nine-to-five in sales, a job that wasn’t for him. Hammock decided to send an email to Alvarez.

“I emailed him, [and] he called me back the next day and said ‘I don’t know what I can promise you, but just come up here and start working and see where it leads,’” Hammock said. “I’ve been hooked ever since.”

It led to was a 16-year coaching career, starting as a graduate assistant with the Badgers for two seasons.

Hammock returned to NIU in 2005 as an assistant coach under Novak, the man who coached him during his playing career.

Hammock said Novak, who coached NIU to a record 63 wins over 12 years, embedded an attitude of loving his players that Hammock has found to transform the way he viewed coaching.

“I was raised on the principal of tough love, but over the course of my football career I’ve learned to flip those words to love tough,” Hammock said. “If you show players you care about them and love them, you can demand a lot more out of them and get more out of them.”

Hammock and Novak coached running back Garrett Wolfe to 3,508 yards over his two seasons as a running back coach.

Those two seasons were enough to put Wolfe at number one in all-time rushing yards at NIU, breaking the record of Hammock’s former teammate Turner.

 

At 26 years old, Hammock helped coach two of the best running backs in NIU history into national spotlight. For Hammock, his experience as a student-athlete and a running back has helped him relate to his players.

“It certainly helps because you understand what student-athletes are going through,” Hammock said. “From an academic standpoint, an athletics standpoint [and] a family and friends standpoint, it helps you understand the time management and the things you have to do.”

Hammock spent the next four seasons as a running backs coach at the University of Minnesota before returning to Wisconsin.

During his second stint at Wisconsin, where he was eventually promoted to Assistant Head Coach, Hammock coached Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball, pro bowler Melvin Gordon III and Super Bowl champion James White.

Hammock coached his backfield to three straight seasons in the top 15 in the nation in rushing yards, establishing Wisconsin as a school for running back prospects. White, now with the New England Patriots, said Hammock and the coaching staff challenged him to be great.

“It was the perfect fit for me, just being challenged there by all the coaches and learning as much as I could,” White said at a Super Bowl 53 media day on Jan. 31. “Hammock, I have to give him a huge credit, he challenged us as running backs learning formations, learning the plays and what everyone else was doing.”

Gordon, now with the Los Angeles Chargers, said as much of an influence as Hammock was on the field, he was just as much off of it.

“He was definitely one of my toughest coaches,” Gordon said. “He’s made me mentally stronger on and off the field. He helped me become a smarter player and gave me advice that will last a lifetime. He not only stayed on top of us as athletes but as students as well. He made sure all his players were in class and on time, and I respect him for it all.”

Gordon said it wasn’t just Hammock leaving an impression on his players, but him getting the chance to evaluate high-level talent on a daily basis. Hammock said he learned what to look for in a football player, beyond skill and athleticism.

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“Each individual, they were all competitive,” Hammock said. “That’s what we’re looking for, highly competitive individuals. Competitiveness is number one, [then] toughness, discipline [and] a willingness to out work other individuals”

After three seasons producing some of the best rushing offense in college football, Hammock signed on to become the running backs coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2014.

During his five seasons with the Ravens, the team reached the playoffs twice, and he coached fullback Kyle Juszczyk to a 2016 Pro Bowl selection.

Hammock said his knowledge of management was strengthened in Baltimore, which he attributes, in part, to Super Bowl winning coach John Harbaugh.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is how to manage players,” Hammock said. “The players are the biggest investment, and you can’t just run them into the ground to where they can’t perform at a higher level.”

The 2018 season for the Ravens ended Jan. 6 with a loss to the Chargers with Hammock’s former player Gordon rushing for 40 yards and a touchdown. By the end of that week, Rod Carey departed from NIU to take a position at Temple, leaving the door open for Hammock to return to DeKalb.

Hammock came to DeKalb and was interviewed by members of the Athletic Department, including Frazier, who worked in Wisconsin’s Athletic Department while Hammock was coaching.

Frazier said he knew he wanted to bring Hammock back to NIU at a Jan. 18 news conference.

“It’s just been so emotional,” Frazier said when introducing the coach Jan. 18. “You get to a point where you’ve done so much and you’ve gone through the process to get the guy you want and to get the guy to come back home.”

With endorsements from former teammates, coaches and co-workers, Hammock signed a five-year deal for $2.5 million.

The goals of Frazier and Hammock are clear. They want to put NIU back in the national spotlight with championships and bowl appearances.

“We win championships here, and we graduate at the highest level,” Frazier said. “It’s time for us to get back to those New Year’s Six bowls. We were there; we know what that looks like. The players have made it very clear that it’s their objective.”

For Hammock, it’s also about following in the footsteps of the coaches he’s worked with and building a legacy that exceeds expectations.

“The reason I want this job is I wanted to build a legacy,” Hammock said. “A legacy is not what you leave behind; a legacy is what you leave within. All those qualities Novak instilled in me, I want to instil lin future players.”

Hammock has begun his legacy, with the construction of his coaching staff and gathering recruits from across the country in states like Michigan and New Jersey. The results of his first few months of work will be on display Aug. 31 at Huskie Stadium against Illinois State.