The words are seared into Jimmie Ward’s memory. Thinking back on what one of his coaches said to him is like running his fingers across a scar.
“He basically said, ‘Oh, you’re not good enough,’” Ward said. “He was supposed to help me with recruiting, but he didn’t do much good for me.”
The road to college football was hard. Ward found a coach who did believe in him. He went to camps, trying to get his name to stick in the minds of recruiters. Ward became a safety for Northern Illinois, and is now held in high esteem with some of the top defensive backs in the country. But those doubts a coach told him years ago have never left him.
This origin story is a common one among the Huskies, mostly a group of lightly recruited players who were once told they couldn’t hack it in Division I football.
Cameron Stingily is a 1,000-yard back at the program that was one of few that took a chance on him. Jordan Lynch was an option quarterback with one offer in high school, but years later, he was invited to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“Yeah, it’s kind of surreal,” he said. “But I’ve always set high expectations for myself.”
Northern Illinois is the kind of program that embraces such lofty aspirations. The program believes so much in its slogan, “The Hard Way,” that it put the phrase on the backs of its jerseys for Senior Day.
“Everybody here had dreams of going to the big schools and were told they couldn’t do it,” Stingily said. “We’re showing them otherwise. We’re all doing it the hard way.”
That approach has paid dividends for Northern Illinois, which has won at least 11 games in each of the past four seasons and two MAC championships. Last season, the Huskies went to the Orange Bowl — they lost, but they still went.
Utah State’s Poinsettia Bowl opponent shares many characteristics with the Aggies: a blue-collar background, an intimate school setting, players who maintain consistency through coaching changes. But the Huskies have also accomplished things Utah State still hopes are in its future.
“Three different head coaches and one result, and that’s a winning program, a bowl team, and a team that competes for championships,” USU coach Matt Wells said. “I think that it is a program, as I look from the outside looking in with not any direct knowledge, that I hope that our program would be like in three more years.”
The path, Wells said, will be different. But one thing Utah State would like to emulate is the consistency the players bring year after year. The Aggies say, “Players make plays.” The Huskies say the program is “player-driven.”
That’s why, when offensive coordinator Rod Carey became the team’s third head coach in three years last December — another odd parallel to Utah State — the players weren’t planning to slide back. Lynch recalled working on routes with his receivers no fewer than four nights a week in the offseason.
Those hours, those days, those weeks of work have taken him and the Huskies to places even they didn’t always expect.
“We are always looking for something bigger,” Lynch said. “We play with a chip on our shoulder.”
Northern Illinois has at least 11 wins in each of its past four seasons:
2010 • 11-3, won MAC West, won Humanitarian Bowl
2011 • 11-3, won MAC title, won GoDaddy.com Bowl
2012 • 12-2, won MAC title, went to Orange Bowl
2013 • 12-1, won MAC West, going to Poinsettia Bowl
O At San Diego
Utah State vs. Northern Illinois
Thursday, Dec. 26
TV • ESPN