Northern Illinois made the first trip to a BCS Bowl game for a MAC school, and to new head coach Rod Carey that means nothing.
Carey moved his office down the hall on Dec. 4 to take over the head coaching job after Dave Doeren accepted the same position at N.C. State on Dec. 1. Carey was the offensive coordinator under Doeren, and he hopes to keep the trajectory of success going at NIU.
While the Orange Bowl appearance was a great step forward, he said, it was only one step and capitalizing on the appearance in recruiting has to be the next one.
"We haven't arrived yet," Carey said. "We went to an Orange Bowl -- and we are OK that people didn't like that we were there -- but we want to get back. We want to be great. Doing something like that once does not make a program. It showed people that we had a good team, but a good team is something that sticks out for one year and a good program is a threat to do it every year.
"We look back at the bowl game, and it didn't go how we wanted. We played one of our worst games but still had a chance to tie the game in the third quarter. We couldn't make the plays, but we were in the game. We have to take that and move forward. We will see if this team is hungry to get back, and we won't know it until we step onto the field against Iowa. But right now we have to use this as an opportunity to open more doors in recruiting."
Northern Illinois did not capitalize on its momentum with the class of 2013. It signed 24 players, only two of whom were three-stars, and it was ranked No. 109 in the country. The class of 2012 was ranked No. 94 and included eight three-star prospects.
Carey said third-party evaluations of recruiting may not give an accurate measure of the classes, although he acknowledges that Northern Illinois hasn't risen to the place where four- and five-stars are going to consider the program.
"I think we -- and a lot of other teams in the MAC -- have eaten away at a lot of the negative perceptions about this conference, but we still know our place in the pecking order," he said. "The evidence is still there that says, no matter our relationship with a kid and his parents, if a Big Ten school comes calling late in the process we do not fare well. We are getting in the mix with some kids, but we are still not a Big Ten program."
As Northern Illinois attacks that perception, it has signed on to play multiple Big Ten programs over the next seven years.
With so many things pointing forward, Carey said, it is important to stay on a proven path and not get wrapped up in the hype.
"I believe you fail to move forward if you don't take the time to look behind you and make sure you stay true to what you are and where you have been," he said. "The success we are having now is because of Coach (Joe) Novak, Coach (Jerry) Kill, and Coach (Dave) Doeren. We will stay true to much of what those men did because it has a proven track record.
"We will play tough, hard-nosed, physical football, and we will recruit kids who play like that. Fortunately for us, that type of football is played right here in Illinois and there are enough kids in Chicago that we can stay here. We will do our best to get into Florida, but for the most part Huskie football is deeply rooted in Illinois and that is where we will find success."
In the last four recruiting classes, Northern Illinois has signed 40 players from its home state. It has signed 13 from Wisconsin and nine each from Florida and Missouri.
Carey said that expanding recruiting efforts is a lot like dating.
"It is like having a redhead, a blonde and a brunette," he said. "Not everyone is going to like Northern Illinois, not everyone is going to like Kent State, and not everyone is going to like Western Michigan. Oftentimes, you aren't comparing yourself to those schools as much as you are just trying to see if you have what the player wants, and that makes it difficult, too.
"If you do have what they want, you need to make sure you are compatible because sometimes the player wants you but you aren't really that interested in them and you get a wandering eye, but once that letter of intent is signed it is a marriage certificate and you have to make it work. In that respect, everyone has to do the right thing in the process. You don't want to sell them a bill of goods, and you don't want to be sold one yourself."
As the new face of the program, Carey said, he has to sell himself.
"Keeping things the same is why I got the job," he said. "We wanted continuity, and as much as we like to say that kids commit to the university and not the coach, I do have to go out and let everyone know we are going to be keeping things the same.
"With what we accomplished, we wanted to let the prospects know that we would be keeping on that track, but I did have to make relationships with more of the kids than I did as a coordinator."
Carey said his plan is in place and it is time to execute with the goal of staying the course -- even at the risk of making more naysayers.
"We don't want people saying bad things about this program, and I don't think anyone truly likes hearing negative things about them," he said. "But we want to get back to where we were and, if that means angering some people, so be it. If they are talking about us before another January bowl game, that means we are in the forefront of college football and that is where we strive to be as a program."