Rod Carey began the college football season as Northern Illinois' offensive line coach. The Wayzata High graduate will finish it in the Orange Bowl as NIU's head coach.

"Isn't that nuts?" Carey said by phone last week. "I've got to pinch myself a little bit."

He probably also needed to splash cold water on his face to make sure he wasn't dreaming. After all, there are big days in our lives. And then there are BIG days.

And then there's what happened to Carey, who, in a span of a few hours last week, became a first-time head coach and found out his team had crashed the BCS party and will play Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Not a bad way to make a coaching debut.

"Just absolutely head-spinning is how I would describe it," Carey said. "But a good head-spinning. That's an unbelievable thing for NIU. I feel like my deal, becoming a head coach -- while I'm personally excited -- it pales in comparison to NIU going to the Orange Bowl."

The convergence of those two events left Carey running on adrenaline and euphoria as he pinballed between recruiting, bowl obligations and media requests. The whirlwind began after NIU defeated Kent State in double overtime to win the Mid-American Conference championship. North Carolina State hired NIU coach Dave Doeren the next day.

Carey took over as NIU's offensive coordinator in September after Mike Dunbar stepped down to focus on his fight against cancer. The Huskies finished the season ranked No. 15 nationally in total offense (485.7 yards per game) and ninth in scoring offense (40.7 points per game) while quarterback Jordan Lynch led the nation in total offense (4,733 yards).

Athletic director Jeff Compher didn't look far for Doeren's replacement. Instead, he moved quickly to promote Carey, 41, who joined the program two years ago after Jerry Kill accepted the Gophers job and brought his staff with him.

"It doesn't make me a better coach than anybody else, but when you have success, good things tend to happen," Carey said. "Timing and positioning is everything in this thing."

Carey wasn't sure he even had an interest in coaching after finishing college. An all-state center at Wayzata and three-year starter at Indiana University, he initially considered a career path outside of football. But he agreed to join former Wayzata coach Roger Lipelt's staff as offensive line coach in the mid-1990s. Current Wayzata coach Brad Anderson coached quarterbacks at the time.

"It was an unbelievable staff," Carey said. "It was so much fun. It was ridiculous."

Carey realized his life's calling at that point. Former Gophers coach Glen Mason hired him as a graduate assistant in 1998 and he spent two seasons helping Joker Phillips coach wide receivers. That launched Carey's college coaching career that has included stops at Wisconsin-Stout, Illinois State and the University of North Dakota.

And now the Orange Bowl. The fact that Carey's team earned a ticket to a BCS bowl game wasn't exactly embraced by some inside the college football world, including ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who called it an "absolute joke" and a "sad state for college football."

That anger is misguided, though. Northern Illinois didn't do anything wrong. The Huskies went 12-1 (losing to Iowa in the opener) and finished No. 15 in the BCS standings. That automatically qualified them for a BCS bowl game by virtue of meeting requirements for a non-BCS team -- a Top 16 ranking and finishing ahead of a champion from an automatic qualifying league (Wisconsin and Louisville both fit).

The Huskies didn't create the BCS. They just took advantage of it. Any blame or anger lies with a flawed system that can't be replaced by the playoff soon enough. Blame the bozos who adopted those rules.

"I have been watching the BCS since it came out and love all the controversy that goes around it every year," Carey said. "I think that's the genius of the BCS. It didn't matter this year if it was Northern Illinois or somebody else, there was going to be something for someone to say. That's what makes it go around. And the fact that it's Northern Illinois, I think that's great."

Those slights also provide Carey motivational material: small school going against legendary program in a game that nobody thinks they can win, much less keep close.

"These kids already have a chip on their shoulder from [playing in] the MAC," he said. "They've been told by the Big Ten that they weren't big enough. They already have a chip on their shoulder and now they're getting this? Come on. It's awesome for them."

And for their new coach.

Chip Scoggins •