Getting to meet Chandler Harnish, one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever played for the Northern Illinois Huskies, is an NIU fan's dream come true.
Harnish was a defining factor in changing the Huskies from a 2-7 team in 2007 to an 11-3 team that won the MAC championship in 2011. By the time he left, Harnish had set more than 30 school records, including the mark for passing yards at NIU, and is ranked fourth all-time for total yards in MAC history.
A few weeks ago, Harnish signed a 1-year, $510,000 contract with the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals will be his third NFL teams since graduating NIU, following stints with the Colts and Vikings. He was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview, discussing his MAC days, his recent signing, and his time in the NFL.
I know every fan has a favorite moment of your time in DeKalb but what's your best memory about your years at NIU?
Definitely winning the MAC Championship game my senior season. It had been 27 years since NIU had won one and to win it the way we did was just amazing. Down 20-0 at halftime, to comeback to win 23-20 was just an incredible feeling. And after the season before, losing the MAC Championship in the heartbreaking fashion that we did to Miami, made it even more special.
We've got a little bit of an internal debate here at Hustle Belt. Half of us feel the NIU/Toledo game is a rivalry game, the other half still has their doubts. How do you see it?
For us, as players, we always looked at Toledo as a rival. We had lost to them so much that there was a feeling of resentment there. They always looked at Bowling Green as their main rival though, but I recently heard that they got a countdown clock in their weight room that says "Beat Northern Illinois" so I think they're starting to see it as one too now. They're a great team and they probably would have won a few MAC Championships if it wasn't for NIU.
You were recruited by Joe Novak, and then played for Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren. How did those coaching changes affect your play?
Well, coaching changes are never easy. But if you're open to it as a player, it can make you stronger and you learn a whole lot more. You get to learn and to understand different styles and playbooks but it prepares you both for the business world and sports. Life is going to throw you curveballs, and they aren't always easy. At the time it was tough to lose a mentor and go through learning a whole new playbook and personality, but it the end it made me a stronger, better player.
What would you tell players that were considering NIU?
I actually just had a parent reach out to me and ask this same question. NIU is a school where you're going to win. They have the best fans, bring in the best crowd in the MAC, and is the most passionate when it comes to football. But you're also going to get a great education and a good social scene. Being so close to Chicago is a huge draw. No one else in the MAC comes close to having something like that. NIU is phenomenal and gets you ready for the next level whether it's in sports or not.
You and Jordan Lynch are probably the biggest names to come out of NIU in the past decade or so. Are you two still close?
CH: Jordan and I are very close. We were at NIU for three years together so we grew incredibly close, and it comes from how different we are. We both have different styles of play, different backgrounds, and different personalities - he's not as Type-A as I am. If he was as Type-A as I am, we probably would have butted heads a lot, and thankfully we never really did. And so, for whatever reasons, we have been able to become like brothers.
Are there any other former players/coaches you're close with?
CH: We're like a brotherhood at NIU. I'm still very close with so many teammates; in fact, I'll be in one of their weddings coming up here. I think that's one of the factors in what has made NIU so successful. We're not an Alabama where you have 100,000 alumni and players coming back. We're a close, tight knit family. We've created long lasting friendships and a brotherhood and that's what makes football so special at NIU.
What are you thoughts on NIU's future? Should they stay in the MAC or look for a P5 conference?
Well NIU has proven that they can win consistently and against strong opponents. That's a great start but they are lacking in getting fans to the game. I mean, last season they only drew like 13,000 per game and that needs to change if they want to move up. NIU needs to find a way to draw in bigger crowds first, either by finding "bigger" opponents to play at home or something. However, playing these MAC teams every season is awesome. It creates good rivalries and there's a long history there. It would be cool to see NIU join the ranks of the P5 boys though.
What's your take on the new stadium expansion?
It's a great idea. You need to keep up with the Joneses and that's what they're doing. Like I said, they have to get creative to get fans in the seats and this could help. You've always got to keep upgrading and expanding, it's just part of the game.
You were taken in the 2012 draft by the Indianapolis Colts. We've all heard that speed is the biggest difference between college and the NFL. But besides speed, what did you find to be the biggest difference between the MAC and the NFL?
Defensive play. The complexity of the playbook and schemes also, but mostly just defense. The MAC is known as an offensive league and hasn't really had any strong defenses, like some of the P5 teams do, so I didn't really see a lot of that at NIU. The biggest gap in play is on the d-line. These are men. They're fast and smart and, coming from the MAC, you're just not used to a great pass rush like that. I think my senior season I was sacked 5 or 6 times, I remember I was sacked like 12 times in one preseason game my first year. It's crazy.
Do you think you had a good opportunity in Indianapolis to showcase your talents?
Yes, and you never want to burn bridges, but I just didn't perform as well as I wanted. I felt like every day in practice I would improve and play well but then, in the preseason games, I just wouldn't perform like I should have. People were saying that the line didn't protect and things like that, but at the end of the day, it falls on the QB and I didn't perform like I needed to.
You recently signed with the Cardinals. Arizona has 7 players and two coaches, including the head coach, Bruce Arians, who were in Indianapolis with you. How has having those familiar faces helped your transition to the Cardinals?
Oh it's absolutely been helpful. I've already reached out to all the players and coaches and been talking to them. They've been helping me get used to this new system and things like that. But at the end of the day, like I said earlier, it comes down to performance and I think the comfort level I have with Bruce is going to help me be a better QB. I'm excited for this type of offense and this opportunity.
What are you goals for Arizona?
CH: Straight up, make the team. I mean, I'm somewhat of a realist though. They've got Carson Palmer coming back this year, who's a great quarterback, and then they've got Drew Stanton - who I played with in Indy for a year - and Logan Thomas, out of Virginia Tech, all ahead of me. So it feels like I'm going up against a brick wall, but I like that kind of pressure. I've just got to play my game and act like the starting quarterback. I'm going to do that and let the chips fall where they may.
Now that you've been around for three years, what has been your best memory of the NFL?
On the field, I had this amazing 40-yard TD pass against the Bengals in a preseason game. That was probably my favorite. But overall, I think beating the Chiefs in the playoffs, coming from a 35-7 deficit and winning. Or possibly the best weekend ever was back in 2012. I flew from Indy to Detroit to watch NIU take on Kent State in the MAC Championship, which the Huskies won in double-overtime! Then just two days later, that Sunday - the very next game played at the stadium - we (the Colts) played the Lions. Down by two scores with less than three minutes left, we had a great comeback and won on a TD pass as time expired. Two great games back-to-back: it was an unbelievable weekend!
What would you say are some of the weirdest pre-game rituals or superstitions you've seen? And what are some that you have?
Off the top of my head I can't think of anything too out of the ordinary. You see a lot of dancing and music in the locker room. For me, it's prayer, collecting my thoughts, and Barry Manilow. Especially his song "Mandy". It really calms me down, puts me in a good mood, and gets me focused. There is so much time before a game that you just spend waiting that you can drive yourself crazy, so calming down is crucial.
Do you have any plans after your football career?
That's still open. The NFL is a great opportunity to network. I may get into business later and it's great to have this chance here. I've always wanted to do something with leadership. I don't know if it's hereditary or what, but feel I have a great personality and great ability to lead and motivate, so that's something I want to get into. Right now, I also have a vitamin and supplement business that I do as well. But you never know though.
Finally, do you still follow NIU football closely? And do you have any predictions for this years team?
Oh I still follow them really closely. I watch as many games as possible and try to get back for some, as well as events hosted at NIU. They are my family and I have a lot of great memories there.
As for this year's team, I hate to put pressure on them but there's no reason they can't get back to the MAC Championship game and win it. There's a lot of talent returning at the skill positions and on defense. As Coach Carey said a little while ago, "on paper we're pretty darn good." The hardest thing isn't getting to the top, it's staying on top. And so everyone is gunning for them. Toledo wants a win, PJ [Fleck] has Western Michigan playing well, so it's not going to be a simple task but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. I'm excited for the season though. It won't be an easy road, but we've got another solid team this year.