Carifio: Unwavering belief leads NIU from winless season to MAC title

Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock

DETROIT – Good days or bad days, everyone in the Northern Illinois University program believed in what they were building.

And that, said head coach Thomas Hammock, is why the Huskies are Mid-American Conference Champions after an 0-6 season last year.

“That belief turned into a championship,” Hammock said after the Huskies beat Kent State, 41-23, on Saturday at Ford Field. “When everybody said we would finish last I told our team we are the best team in the MAC until proven otherwise. And obviously, they never proved otherwise.”

In only three years, Hammock has himself a MAC title, and did it with 76 freshmen on the roster. Did it without the projected top running back (Harrison Waylee), defensive back (Devin Lafayette) and wide receiver (Tyrice Richie). Did it when the team was picked to finish last in the conference after an 0-6 season.

And did it to become the first team to go from winless to winners of a conference championship.

“Belief is the hardest thing to get a team to buy into,” Hammock said. “There were a couple times in the offseason I asked [quarterback] Rocky (Lombardi), do you think they believe? He said, I don’t know, but we’ll get them there. All we did is work together as a football team, as a staff. We became a team.”

Lombardi came on board as a transfer from Michigan State and immediately became a leader. The junior said his belief started even before he officially transferred to the program.

“First of all, I believe in myself,” Lombardi said, bringing a big smile to Hammock’s face as he nodded. “I believe in coach Hammock and what he was talking about on the phone. And when I got out there, he was the same guy. Sometimes that always doesn’t happen. I got lucky.”

Lombardi said once the team opened with a 22-21 win at Georgia Tech to start the season – on a last-minute scoring drive and two-point conversion – everybody was in for sure.

“You just need that taste of victory,” Lombardi said. “Once you get that you keep going from there.”

Hammock also mentioned the lack of diversity in head coaches this weekend is not lost on him. Of the 20 coaches leading their teams in championship games, 18 are white. Hammock and Baylor’s Dave Aranda are the exceptions.

“That’s not lost on me in this profession,” Hammock said. “Hopefully, other guys will get the opportunity to lead a program and move this profession forward and have good representation.”

This conference championship will surely go down as one of the unlikeliest of NIU’s six MAC titles in school history – perhaps even the most unlikely, given the 0-6 record last year.

Hammock also pointed out the belief NIU president Lisa Freeman and athletic director Sean T. Frazier had in him.

“I just needed someone to believe in me,” Hammock said. “President Freeman and Sean Frazier believed in me and gave me an opportunity. A lot of people said who are they hiring, and hopefully I proved them right.”

Now, Hammock said, comes another challenge. Starting the climb up the mountain again when the new semester starts Jan. 16 – although a bowl game, to be determined Sunday, awaits first.

Whatever happens in that bowl game, whatever happens in the offseason, whatever the preseason polls say, this Huskies team will consider themselves the favorites for the 2022 title. And they will believe it.

It will, once again, be up to the rest of the MAC to prove them wrong.