- Jared Shanker, ESPN Staff Writer
What’s one sign of a program on the rise? How about when it goes through a coaching change and its top commitment -- who has a BCS offer -- doesn't even bat an eye?
That is the transformation Northern Illinois has undergone the past two seasons, culminating with a berth in a BCS bowl against a former national champion.
“It’s made my commitment very exciting,” said Corey Winfield, a three-star prospect out of St. Louis Riverview Gardens and the Huskies’ top commit. “I’m ready to move on and be a part of the team.”
He isn’t concerned about Dave Doeren moving on to NC State, either, despite the fact that Winfield owns a Big Ten offer from Purdue and has several other options. In fact, he said in July when he committed that he would officially visit other schools, but that is no longer the case, as he’s done and “ready to go to Northern Illinois right now.”
Northern Illinois, which is in the midst of its most successful two-year run in program history, is making a big impression on future prospects as well. With most programs’ 2013 classes close to wrapped up, coaches are already waist-deep in the 2014 class. The Huskies, owners of a 23-4 record since 2011, have made an impression on junior prospects, too.
Chicago Mount Carmel running back Matt Domer earned an offer from NIU this past summer. Going into the season, he already liked how new coach Rod Carey ran the offense while he was the offensive coordinator. Having watched the nearby program make it to the Orange Bowl to play Florida State, Domer said the Huskies are among one of his early favorites.
“I was already impressed with how they played and were dominating, but playing in a game against FSU, I’m like, 'Wow,'” Domer said. “They’re making a real big impression on me in the recruiting process.”
But NIU wants to forge its own path.
"Well, I’ll tell ya, someone said, 'Do you want to be the next Boise State or TCU?' And those are great programs and they’ve been down a similar road that we’re going, but I don’t want to be either of them. I want to be the next NIU," Carey said at an Orange Bowl news conference. "So what will it do for us in recruiting, it’ll give us a boost, it gets our name out there more, it gets our university’s name out there more, NIU. It’ll help, but we’re not going to necessarily change who we are because of what game we’re in right now."
The Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day will be added exposure for the Huskies, and winning the TV battle can often play a big part in winning the recruiting battle down the line. Exposure is key in recruiting, and the Huskies received a good amount of it during the season.
That’s because the MAC played several games in prime time during the week, in all playing 13 conference games this past season on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Often it was the only football game on TV.
On election night, MAC program Ball State played conference opponent and nationally ranked Toledo in a game that was not decided until Ball State broke a tie with less than two minutes left. Cardinals coach Pete Lembo said that over the next few days he heard from some people he had not spoken to in 20 years.
“I didn’t appreciate the kind of exposure of a win like that or just being in a competitive game,” Lembo said. “If you’re hearing from people you haven’t spoken to in 15 or 20 years, just imagine what that’s doing for your recruiting.”
Lembo is a big fan of the midweek games for the MAC, which have often turned out to be competitive, high-scoring games that help draw in the casual fan and, more importantly, recruit. If that win against Toledo came on a Saturday, he is not sure it would have made the front page anywhere outside of Muncie, Ind.
With that game being played on a Tuesday, however, Lembo said Ball State was at the top of the headlines for close to a 48-hour period.
“It’s really priceless on so many different fronts and recruiting being a big one,” Lembo said.
MAC football has become a trending Twitter topic, too, garnering the #MACtion hashtag for the league’s high-scoring midweek contests. Lembo is not sure how much of an impact the Twitter talk does for a program, but he knows that anytime people are talking, it is a good thing. Fans looking for a midweek football fix can watch #MACtion a few times a week sometimes.
“It’s a brand and an identity,” Lembo said. “... The MACtion has really been for me a really great experience, and I do think it will have future benefits to recruiting.”
Lembo just finished up his second season at Ball State and has one of the best recruiting classes in the MAC. He took over a team that went 4-8 the year before he arrived and won six games his first season and nine in 2012.
A winning program helps, and having Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl will be “a great selling point” for the Huskies’ recruiting efforts and the conference’s as a whole, Lembo said.
And class of 2014 tight end Denzel Tolliver, who has a Northern Illinois offer, said it’s all about winning.
Tolliver says of winning: “It will play a big factor.”
541dTom Luginbill and Craig Haubert