Novak penny-wise on the sidelines

By James Nokes

As NIU head coach since 1995, Joe Novak has posted 6 straight winning seasons. A stunning statistic considering from 1969 to 1995, NIU posted only 7 above .500 campaigns on the gridiron. The 60-year-old Novak speaks in a calm and confident tone, his broad shoulders are covered by a black NIU jacket, a silver whistle hangs from his neck and his cheeks are blushed slightly from the cool late-November night. Novak rebuilt NIU when he hitched his wagon to the star of high school recruits and waited for the long-term results, avoiding the quick fix transfer player solution. His players demonstrate a similar resolve. Between 1999-04, 71 percent of his players graduated. The Northern Star chatted with Novak after Monday’s practice and found out why every NIU fan needs to crack their piggy banks around the football offices.

Northern Star: Is this the biggest game you’ve coached?

Joe Novak: It’s the first time we are playing for a championship, so I’d say so. I hate to start rating wins; we’ve had Alabama, Maryland, Toledo and a lot of great wins. But certainly when you talk about playing for a championship, it has to be right up there at the top.

NS: Any pre-game superstitions?

JN: No, no … I don’t get into that. The only thing the players kid me about, and we started this a couple of years ago, I’ve always had the habit that if I am walking around and I see a penny on the ground, I always pick it up.

NS: Heads up for luck?

JN: Oh, no … I don’t care, just if it is there I pick it up. I guess I told the kids a story a couple of years ago and now they kind of make fun of me. I remember growing up as a kid that a penny meant baseball cards to me; if I could get a penny – if I could get five of them – then I could get baseball cards. So, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve just always had that habit. Whenever I find them I carry them with me. The week of Toledo, and at Toledo, I found eight pennies. So I had them in a bag and kept them in my pocket. Last week I only found one. But I do start to get a little bit tight if I don’t find one, so I’m always looking.

NS: Are these games, after shaking the Toledo monkey off your back, almost anti-climactic for you? Do you feel sort of like the 1980 Miracle on Ice U.S. Hockey team that beat the USSR in the semis and had to play another game for the gold?

JN: That’s a good question. I was a little worried about Western Michigan, but there’s just so much on the line. If we weren’t playing for a championship, if we weren’t in the situation we are in, I’d be a little concerned after Toledo. Western Michigan, we had to win to get to the championship, and now we are playing for the championship. With so much on the line no, if it was a different scenario, yeah I would be a little worried about that.

NS: Any family going to the game?

JN: My wife is going. My two boys are working, they are going to have to watch it on TV.

NS: How do you make split-second decisions on the field amidst the semi-orchestrated chaos; how do you pick the right plays?

JN: You know, a lot of the decisions that are made are made during the week. They are on paper, we know what we are going to run on 1st and 10. We’ve got our list of plays, so a lot of those things are prepared. And then after that a lot of them you just have to be ready. You can’t practice and prepare for every single scenario that comes up in a football game. I’ve coached 38 years and have had things happen on the field that have never happened before in my life. I think the biggest thing, and I wasn’t always good at this, is sometimes we coach like we played and that is with too much emotion and you can’t do that.

I think the great coaches are guys that really try to keep themselves under control. However, I’ve been around some great coaches with the ability to raise hell and then turn around and turn it off just like that. But you’ve got to be able to be open minded, if you coach like a player plays, you aren’t going to be a good coach because you are going to be too emotional.

NS: What would a MAC title mean to NIU?

JN: I think it would mean an awful lot to this school; it has been 22 years. We were in and out of this league, and to get back in it and to win this championship … I think our football program, as any athletic program can, has brought a lot of pride back to this university and that’s what athletics can do. I think that championship would just bring so much pride and give us something to shoot for every year.