Before Northern Illinois first-year coach Dave Doeren could win a game, a MAC championship or a bowl, he realized he first had to win over his players. Doeren understood that wouldn’t be easy, either.
He wasn’t replacing a fired coach at a losing program. His predecessor, Jerry Kill, had led the Huskies to a school-record 11 wins and a bowl victory. The way Kill did things was proven and trusted by his players.
Doeren tried to keep around some of what Kill did to help the transition. At the same time, he also had his own way of doing things, and that wasn’t negotiable. He felt out his players; his players felt out him. Eventually, the Huskies learned to trust Doeren just as they did Kill.
On Sunday, Doeren and his players will go to battle together again when they face Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
“It took time,” Doeren said. “I told them that I needed them to be flexible. I’m not their old head coach. These coaches aren’t their old assistant coaches. Some things were hard. Some things were easy. Everyone can now see they were good changes.”
Senior offensive lineman Keith Otis felt he and his teammates did have a previous allegiance to Kill.
“Anything coach Kill said, once the senior leadership was behind it, everyone got in line,” Otis said. “In his case, guys bought into things, but it was also because we were successful in those things.”
Doeren’s changes, such as speeding up the offense, were most difficult for Northern Illinois’ seniors. They had become accustomed to Kill’s style of play.
Northern Illinois senior wide receiver Willie Clark never resisted Doeren’s changes, but he admitted they weren’t easy to embrace initially.
“The big one was the no-huddle thing,” Clark said. “We were running 10 plays more than we did last year. That’s always a big thing. They’re just different coaches with different philosophies on offense and defense.”
The Huskies started to warm up to Doeren and his style a bit during spring practice and even more so in early goings of their fall camp. By the time the season rolled around, they were united.
Clark expected that outcome.
“It’s always hard when you have someone new, and someone changes what had been working,” Clark said. “At the same time, you don’t have a choice. We had to buy into what our coaches were telling us. We bought it, and it’s been a success for us. We won a MAC championship for the first time in 28 years. I definitely say we bought in.”
Otis is optimistic their success is just the beginning for Northern Illinois under Doeren.
“I just really hope overall as a group of seniors we can continue to leave our mark as a class that laid the groundwork for a program that becomes special down the road,” Otis said.