SHREVEPORT, La. — Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill has played for championships in a playoff format at every level.
In his first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision, he’s quickly formed an educated opinion in the playoffs vs. bowls debate as the Huskies prepare to face Louisiana Tech today in the Independence Bowl.
“I’m all for the bowl system, I really am,” Kill said. “I don’t think we should ever get away from the bowl system in college football.”
Kill is now an interested party, of course. Without that system — no matter how flawed critics say it is — Northern Illinois (6-6) and Louisiana Tech (7-5) wouldn’t be in the postseason, after all. Both teams looked like they would be shutting it down in November after stumbling in their season finales.
Neither the Southeastern Conference nor the Big 12 was able to fulfill a commitment to the Independence Bowl, however, creating openings for the Huskies of the Mid-American Conference and the Western Athletic Conference’s Bulldogs.
Northern Illinois defensive end Larry English remembers thinking after a 16-0 loss to Navy that he was stripping off his black and red uniform for the last time.
“Our chances, to be blunt, were honestly bleak at 6-6 in that conference,” said English, the MAC defensive player of the year and the Bowl Subdivision’s career sacks leader with 31.5. “I can’t really stress how happy we are to be here.”
There was plenty of griping about how the current postseason structure rewards mediocrity when the matchup was announced, but Louisiana Tech and Northern Illinois were rewarded for milestones.
Kill moved over to DeKalb from Southern Illinois, where he led the Salukis to five straight Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances. The Huskies made a giant step, improving from 2-10 a year ago to set a school mark for biggest turnaround, and were just a handful of plays from making a real splash after four-point losses at Minnesota and Tennessee. But after winning five of six during a midseason stretch, Northern Illinois lost three of its last four.
Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley, the son of Georgia coaching great Vince Dooley, led the Bulldogs to a 22-14 upset of Mississippi State to start the season. They stumbled after that, losing four of six, before rallying to win four of their last five to earn the trip to the bowl, which is about 70 miles from Ruston. The Bulldogs hadn’t played in the postseason since 2001.
Neither coach is familiar with the demands of a bowl trip as head coach, so both relied on the advice of others. Kill turned to friend Gary Patterson, who just led No. 11 TCU to a 17-16 win over Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. And Dooley picked up the phone and called Alabama coach Nick Saban, whom he coached under for seven seasons.
Dooley went to several January bowls and won a national championship with Saban at LSU before leaving with him for the Miami Dolphins. Yet he was still surprised by the time demands faced by a coach this time of year.
“It’s very different,” Dooley said. “I’ve given more speeches this week. I’ve been on the rubber chicken circuit more than I like. You see it on the schedule when you’re an assistant, but you really don’t feel what it’s like.”