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Unlikely new NIU football coach Rod Carey was players’ choice

Facing FloridState Orange Bowl will be baptism by fire for new Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey. | J PCarter~AP

Facing Florida State in the Orange Bowl will be a baptism by fire for new Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey. | J Pat Carter~AP

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Updated: January 7, 2013 1:29PM

Northern Illinois earning a BCS bowl berth was the last thing on Rod Carey’s mind. While the countdown to Sunday’s announcement was under way, Carey was trying to convince athletic director Jeff Compher that he was the best candidate to replace coach Dave Doeren, who had accepted the North Carolina State job after the Huskies won their second consecutive Mid-American Conference championship on Friday night.

“I didn’t really ask the question [about a BCS berth] until I knew we had an agreement,” Carey said. “I said, ‘What do you think? Do you think it could happen? He said, ‘I think it might.’ Then it did, 15 minutes after they announced me [as the new head coach]. That was crazy.”

The last few days have been such a whirlwind for Carey that you don’t know whether to envy or pity him. The man who was promoted to offensive coordinator after Mike Dunbar was diagnosed with cancer after a season-opening loss to Iowa will make his head-coaching debut against Florida State’s No. 2-ranked defense in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day in what is easily the biggest game in NIU history.

As of Tuesday, Carey had watched tape of the Seminoles. He hadn’t decided whether he would relinquish play-calling duties. He hadn’t even had time to move into Doeren’s old office, which is down the hall and behind glass doors from his current quarters.

“Three months ago, if you would have told me I would be the head coach at NIU, I would have bet a lot of money against it,” he said.

Carey’s unlikely ascension is mostly due to three factors, the first being his own job performance. His offensive line became a strength despite replacing five starters. The offense became more prolific after he became coordinator.

He was also the players’ choice, another factor.

“[Compher] asked the leadership council what we wanted in a head coach, and the key thing we said was we don’t want things to change,” quarterback Jordan Lynch said. “We want to stick with the same stuff. I think it rang a bell in his head.”

Compher still wasn’t convinced. He knew just whom to call. Bill Mallory coached Carey at Indiana. He also knew NIU, having been the last coach before Doeren to win a MAC title (in 1983).

Mallory made it unanimous.

“What’s good is [Carey is] there,” Mallory said. “He knows the program, the school. He understands the climate and the Mid-American Conference and what it’s about.”

Carey coached the offensive line at North Dakota for three years before coming to NIU. He was an assistant as Illinois State and Wisconsin-Stout before that.

He was influenced most by Mallory and high school coach Roger Lipelt. Carey began his coaching career under Lipelt at his alma mater, Wayzata (Minn.) High, before becoming a graduate assistant at Minnesota.

Mallory was a disciplinarian. Lipelt isn’t so easily categorized.

“Roger was a dreamer,” current Wayzata coach Brad Anderson said. “The wins and losses were not about Roger; the successes were not just on the field but things that took place off the field. He saw himself as a member of the community first, then an educator and then a football coach.”

Carey has called his former mentors in recent days with the exception of Lipelt, who died of cancer this fall. He admits his head is still spinning.

He still is trying to take in all the nuances of his new job.

“The best piece of advice I’ve gotten is don’t rush into anything,” Carey said, “which is hard to say after 36 hours like this, isn’t it?”

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