Hammock hoping to continue success he helped start at NIU
Thomas Hammock was both an observer and participant in Northern Illinois' remarkable climb to football relevance.
He was watching from the stands on a recruiting visit when NIU began the turnaround with a victory over Central Michigan Oct. 17, 1998. The win snapped a 23-game losing streak and ended with students tearing down a goal post, carrying it out of the stadium and tossing it into a nearby lake.
When Hammock's four years in DeKalb were over, the Huskies rose to No. 12 in the AP poll in 2003 after wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. Hammock had to watch that season from a distance, because a heart condition put an end to his playing career and he'd moved on to become a graduate assistant at Wisconsin.
So for anyone wondering why Hammock would leave the NFL -- he'd been the Baltimore Ravens running backs coach for five years -- to become head coach at Northern Illinois, that's why. He had a great college experience and wanted to pay it forward.
Hammock will officially begin his tenure as Huskies head coach Saturday night when NIU opens the season against Illinois State at Huskie Stadium.
"I just think NIU has always been a special place to me," he said. "It helped me grow from a boy to a man. A lot of the things I learned about being a student athlete here I still carry to this day. I met my wife here. So this has always been a special place."
These days, Northern Illinois' football success is second nature. The Huskies have played in seven of the last nine MAC title games, are the defending conference champs, took a trip to the Orange Bowl in 2012 and had a player (QB Jordan Lynch) finish third in Heisman Trophy voting.
When Hammock arrived in DeKalb as a college freshman, the program was in terrible shape. He came in with future NFL running back Michael Turner and current Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, and the Huskies began climbing the ladder. Even Joe Novak, the head coach at the time, isn't sure why it all worked so well.
"Those are the guys that came in on a leap of faith," Novak said. "Our facilities were awful, our record was awful and I'm not sure why they came, to be honest with you. But they believed and they bought in and they worked their tails off and set the foundation with the work ethic and their attitude.
"It was a group of different people, different personalities, as most teams have, but they were close. Again, they all bought in. We had no dissenters. I really didn't have any big discipline issues. They did what we asked."
Hammock rushed for 1,000 yards in the 2000 and '01 seasons. In the '02 season opener, he carried the ball 38 times for 172 yards in a 42-41 win over Wake Forest. After that game, though, he experienced difficulty breathing, took some time off and eventually retired from playing football because of the heart condition.
Hammock returned to NIU for a two-year stint as running backs coach in 2005-06, then moved on to work for Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Ravens. He had an interesting run in Baltimore, arriving just as the Ravens released three-time Pro Bowl participant Ray Rice. The Ravens had four different leading rushers during the past four seasons.
"One thing I preached up there was competition," Hammock said. "I think sometimes people have a tendency to get complacent. I wasn't afraid to play the next guy. I worked for a head coach that allowed me the flexibility to play the guys that I thought gave us the best chance to win."
It's natural to expect that Hammock will stress a strong running game at NIU. He said this week he hopes to be one of the best rushing teams in the country, which should make junior running back Tre Harbison (1,034 yards last season) and a veteran offensive line the focal point of the offense.
Hammock has not announced the starter at quarterback, but said Tuesday he has an idea of who it will be. Junior Marcus Childers, who has started the past 22 games, has battled grad transfer Ross Bowers from Cal.
All-America defensive end Sutton Smith moved onto the NFL, but the defense figures to remain the Huskies' strength. That group features seven returning starters, led by linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis, the team's leading tackler last year.
One interesting part of NIU's football success is it's spanned several coaches. The surge began under Novak and continued through Jerry Kill, Dave Doeren and Rod Carey.
"Certainly I feel a sense of responsibility, for the simple fact that it's my alma mater," said Hammock, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind. "Nobody wants to win more than I do. I want this program to be great. Developing young men on and off the field is something we take very seriously."
Illinois State at Northern IllinoisWhen: 6 p.m. Saturday at Huskie Stadium, DeKalb
TV: ESPN+ Radio: WIND AM-560, WLBK AM-1380
Last meeting: NIU 52, ISU 0 Sept. 9, 2000
Fast facts: NIU begins its 117th season of football and the first under former Huskie running back Thomas Hammock who, in his first career start, gained 140 yards the last time NIU played ISU. Hammock is the first alum to be named head coach in the Huskies' FBS history. The last five years Hammock, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., was running backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens.
Who's who: Marcus Childers or Cal transfer Ross Bowers will start at quarterback. Hammock said earlier in the week it would be a game-day decision.