Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
They've won nine straight football games, including four by a margin of 30 points or more, they own one of the top 10 offenses in the nation and a top-20 defense, and they are just one spot away from the AP Top 25. They are the Northern Illinois Huskies, and they've got two coaching staffs -- their own, and Minnesota's -- taking a great measure of pride in their success.
"We all watch. We're very, very happy for what those young men are doing," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "It's neat to see guys who were on the work team (two years ago), who weren't the stars, have stepped into the spotlight now and taken it to a higher level."
That level, higher even than when Jerry Kill was their coach and most of the Gopher assistant coaches were on the NIU staff, is both a model and a goal for what they hope they can accomplish in Minneapolis.
"Every place we've been, that's one thing I'll say -- as a staff, we've built it right. It takes a little bit more time, but every place we've left, they've continued to win for the next few years," said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, pointing to the continued playoff run of Southern Illinois in the mid-2000s, too. "We left an awful lot of good young kids there. Everybody gets frustrated because maybe it's not going fast enough here, but if you do it right, (you'll) have a consistent winner."
The Huskies, 9-1 this season, certainly fit that definition. Kill and his longtime employees left after leading the Huskies to a perfect 8-0 record in the Mid-American Conference in 2010 (though NIU was upset in the conference championship game), and the university hired former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren to replace him. Utilizing a roster mostly assembled by Kill and his recruiters, Doeren has coached the Huskies to a 20-4 record over two seasons, including 14 consecutive victories over MAC opponents and a victory in last December's godaddy.com Bowl.
"A large amount of those kids, you know, we recruited, the majority of them. So we're part of it," Kill said. "But I'm very proud of Coach Doeren for doing a great job of coming in and making the transition easy for those kids."
Gopher coaches discuss NIU's latest exploits each week, and watch with amazement, pride -- and even a little guilt -- at what's going on in DeKalb.
"You feel bad, because you recruit those kids there, and then you leave because of how well they play," Claeys said. "It makes you feel a little bit guilty for leaving, so it's great to see them continue to win."
The Huskies are playing so well, the school has even launched a longshot campaign to promote quarterback Jordan Lynch's Heisman Trophy candidacy. The junior, finally getting a chance to play after school record-holder Chandler Harnish graduated, leads the nation in total offense and touchdowns, and is second in rushing. He set a new NCAA record for quarterbacks this year by rushing for more than 100 yards in seven consecutive games, largely using the same offense Kill installed.
"He's a great player and a great kid. Great family," Kill said, before admitting that he didn't really recruit Lynch -- he just did an old friend a favor.
Frank Lenti, who owns more victories than any other coach in Illinois high school football history, was Lynch's coach at Mt. Carmel High, near the south Chicago lakeshore. Lenti's offense was an option attack, with few passing opportunities for the quarterback, so recruiters were ignoring Lynch.
So Lenti called Kill. "He said, 'You've known me for a lot of years. He can throw the ball, I'm telling you,' " Kill recalled of their conversation. " 'I'm trying to help you here. Trust me.' So I trusted him, and that's been an awful good decision for Northern Illinois."
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