Life after Lynch: NIU football moves forward
By the end of business Sunday, one of the best golfers in the world will have survived Pinehurst No. 2 and been crowned national champion of United States golf.
It will be a career-changing event, but not career-ending.
The winner will not quit golf. He will not be satisfied. It won't signal the beginning of the end.
As a major winner, he will simply hunger for more.
If you'll forgive the golf analogy, this is where Northern Illinois University football finds itself today after the greatest two years in NIU athletic history.
The Huskies are coming off 24 victories behind Jordan Lynch, who merely carried NIU to an Orange Bowl and nearly another BCS bowl while finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
It has been an extraordinary time for NIU and its faithful, so unexpected and so thoroughly enjoyable. Never have Huskies fans been so filled with pride.
Some may fear what comes next, but NIU coach Rod Carey sees the antithesis.
"It's like anything in life when you achieve something great," Carey said. "Are you afraid to lose what you achieved or are you ready to do more?
"You're standing still, moving forward or moving back. If you're looking back, odds are you're moving back. We've achieved this, so let's not worry about losing what we achieved. Let's do more. Let's move forward."
Yes, life after Lynch has already begun.
With complete deference and eternal respect for Lynch's historical accomplishments, NIU football won't be caught looking back.
"This is where you have to go as a program, whether you're a coach or a fan or attached in some way to NIU. You have to believe in the program and what we've been doing for a long time," Carey said. "There was never going to be another Michael Turner, and then Garrett Wolfe showed up. Chandler Harnish left and Jordan Lynch shows up.
"Over a long period of time, the program has been successful and what you could classify as a 'once-in-a-lifetime player' has happened a few times, and then along comes another guy you think is once-in-a-lifetime.
"That's not an attempt to downplay what Jordan did. We all know what Jordan did, but Jordan would say the same thing. He doesn't want this to stop now because he's gone.
"He doesn't want all that work to end there. He believes the next guy up should have great success and he wants the program to move forward, not take a step back."
So the questions for now remain about how to move on from the Lynch era, but Carey is a football coach. Coaches don't have time to be sentimental, but they're also realistic.
He'd probably like the question to be about one of his three new quarterbacks, but it's a bit too early in the process for that.
"I don't know that you can change the question until we get on the field and get playing," Carey said. "We'll get that question and that answer and move on when everyone gets back on field."
The focus of the fans and media will be on the quarterback position, where junior Matt McIntosh and sophomores Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie are competing for playing time and hoping to be more than the answer to a trivia question as the guy who followed Lynch.
"If we had a leader in the clubhouse right now, I'd tell you," Carey said. "All three have the ability to play the QB position and play it really well.
"The thing is they're all light on playing time. They've had 15 practices to fight it out and see who the guy is, and that's not enough. Is there different characteristics among them, and do they have strengths? You bet. But it's not even worth getting into right now."
So while Lynch has moved on, hoping to make it with the Bears as a running back, life in DeKalb is as it was, at least in the sense that a college football team doesn't stop trying to win games or keep the fans coming out to the games once a superstar leaves town.
"We have reaped the benefits in so many ways from going to the Orange Bowl and then selling out every game but one," Carey said. "We were in the Top 25 most of the year and knocking on the door again of another conference title and a big bowl berth.
"We know what we can do now from a fan support standpoint and on the program side. There's no reason to fear it or think we can't do it again. Let's go do it again."
One of those chances will come Sept. 6, when the Huskies head to Evanston to face Northwestern. It's not only a test for NIU football without Lynch against the Big Ten -- after wins at Iowa and Purdue in 2013 -- but also a test for NIU alumni.
"We have 200,000 alums in the Chicago area, and playing in Evanston gives our fans a great opportunity to come out and support us in their own backyard," Carey said. "I'd like to think we'd have a good number of fans come out, and I'm really optimistic we will have a big showing that day."
Let's face it. We're all wondering the same thing. After two unthinkably wonderful seasons, what will become of the football team and the terrific fan support?
Life after Lynch was inevitable. Now it's here. And it's no time to throw your clubs in the lagoon.
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