That's the number of wins the Northern Illinois Huskies racked up from 1996 to 1998. 1-10, 0-11, 2-9. Three is also the most number of losses the Northern Illinois Huskies have had in the last five seasons. 11-3, 11-3, 12-2, 12-2, 10-2.
In less than twenty years, NIU has transitioned from Mid-American Conference doormat to Mid-American Conference dynasty. An afterthought to a focal point. A weakling to a power. This despite fluidity in the athletic department and within the university over that time.
The school could have let go of Joe Novak following that 2-9 season in 1998 and been completely validated for it. After all, that was the all-important third year for a new head coach to put his system in place, his recruits in position. But the Huskies kept Novak, believing that he was the program-changing mind every school seeks in spite of the monstrous struggles in the first 33 games. What followed was seven straight winning seasons, five division co-titles and the birth of the new NIU.
For Novak, the most critical season was 2003, the first time NIU garnered positive national attention (having previously earned national fame by ending Northwestern's 34-game losing streak in 1982). Wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State thrust the Huskies into the spotlight, flirting with busting the BCS and forcing a rule change in college football requiring any team to win at least 10 games to be selected for a bowl.
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After Novak's final year in a forgettable 2007, Jerry Kill moved upstate and took Novak's blueprint one step further. Three bowl games in three years, but never breaking through in Detroit. That changed with Dave Doeren, who brought the Huskies back-to-back conference titles and a BCS berth.
Rod Carey, now completing his second full season at the helm, is making his second trip to Ford Field on Friday. Not bad for a year many thought would be a sort of reset for the program. More questions than answers heading into the season that found a way to be answered just enough to win all those insanely close ball games.
The question I've found myself asking the last few days is how. How did this 2014 Northern Illinois Huskies team manage their way back to a MAC West title? The more immediate answer is a powerful running game and an aggressive pass rush. But the bigger reason why a five-peat has hit DeKalb has been twenty years in the making. A dissolving of the program that ended Northwestern's infamy. Patience with the man that had the solution, but not right away. Stability in the machine while the parts changed rapidly. A belief that Northern Illinois... yes, Northern Illinois... is not just the conference's best, not just the state's best, but one of the nation's best college football programs.
So when you tune in on Friday night and likely root against the Huskies, remember this... NIU started from nothing... absolutely, positively nothing... to become what it is today. Prior to that "three wins in three years" stretch, NIU had seven winning seasons in thirty years. Seven! Now, it's a program with remarkable consistency when there has been countless reasons to falter. A program not constructed out of financial windfalls or some misplaced sense of bravado, but rather a belief that something cast aside and left to die can be reborn into something important and impactful.
When running this article idea past our captain, Alex Alvarado, he mentioned his occasional disdain for his football program and how nice it must be to be a fan of this team. He's right, of course. There has been no better time to be an NIU fan or alum. But what NIU should show Alex, and show everyone else, is that any program is capable of a remarkable turnaround. There is no logical reason for NIU to be where they are today after their irrelevancy in the 20th century. But here we are.
The Northern Illinois Huskies. An unlikely dynasty.