Novak thrilled about NIU's success


Novak thrilled about NIU's success

Its already been a satisfying December for Joe Novak.

The retired Northern Illinois football coach spent last week on the road with pre-Christmas trips to the Cleveland area and Bloomington, Ind., celebrating the holidays with his children and grand kids.

But perhaps the most gratifying trip is yet to come as Novak heads to Miami to watch his the old team battle Florida State in the New Years Day Orange Bowl.

You bet Ill be there, said Novak, who guided the Huskies from 1996 to 2007.

We often thought about championships in the MAC (Mid-American Conference) and great years, but I dont think honestly we ever thought about the Orange Bowl, he added. That was a little bit of a reach for our dreams.

But a big time bowl is the new reality for this generation of NIU staff and athletes.

And playing on Jan. 1 along with the nations elite -- the most prominent stage ever for Northern Illinois football -- will have far-reaching benefits for the university in recognition and recruiting.

When your names Notre Dame, you automatically get your foot in the door, Novak said. Something like the Orange Bowl for Northern Illinois gets their foot in the door.

The Orange Bowl appearance is not just a testament to how far the program has come, but a tribute to the man who put in the foundation during his 12-year tenure.

Novak, a onetime Miami (Ohio) defensive end, has spent 34 years in coaching as an assistant at Miami, Illinois, NIU and Indiana before taking over the Huskies top job in 1996.

He inherited a program that had been on the rise in the 1980s under Bill Mallory and fell into disarray in the 1990s.

When I went in there, there were no expectations, Novak said. I was 51 when I got that job and felt it was going to be my last. In talking with Cary Groth, the athletic director, and John LaTourette, the president, I knew it was going to take a few years because it wasnt very good. We had to pare it down to make it better.

The Huskies went 1-10 in 1996, 0-11 the next year and 2-9 in 1998. Novak endured a 23-game losing streak -- the eighth-longest in NCAA football history -- in that span.

But a turnaround was under way. Winning returned in 2000 with the first of back-to-back 6-5 seasons. By 2002, the Huskies went 8-4 and won the MAC West title as Novak was named conference coach of the year.

The 2003 season was arguably the greatest in Novaks tenure. The Huskies beat three BCS teams: No. 15 Maryland at a sold-out Huskie Stadium, No. 21 Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Iowa State. When initial BCS standings came out, the Huskies were a lofty No. 10.

But late season losses to Bowling Green and Toledo -- both ranked in the nations Top 25 -- cost the Huskies a MAC division title. And no bowl invitation was forthcoming despite a 10-2 finish.

That changed in 2004. Novak guided Northern Illinois to a 7-1 MAC finish and 9-3 overall mark and a 34-21 victory over Troy in the Silicon Valley Football Classic, the programs first bowl appearance since the 1983 California Bowl.

The Huskies won a third MAC West title in 2005 on the way to a 7-5 season. They also had a winning 2006 campaign (7-6). Novak announced his retirement following a 2-10 season in 2007.

Novak built the foundation the right way. He ran a clean program and stressed performance and academics.

I went in there with the idea that I wanted to do it right, he said. I wanted to set a foundation, I wanted to build it right so that it could last and I think it has ... I think now theyre reaping the rewards.

NIU football has never been subject of an NCAA investigation and academic performance is among the nations best, at least according to a survey of 2012 BCS schools.

The Huskies recently ranked second to Northwestern among the 25 BCS programs while Notre Dame was fifth.

The rankings, compiled by the New America Foundation, looked at which schools were best at balancing academics and athletics as well as percentage of both black and white players graduating.

Further, three Huskie players were selected a Capital One Academic All-Americans, the most of any NCAA Division I program.

Defensive end Alan Baxter was a first team pick while noseguard Nabal Jefferson and tight end Jason Schepler were second team. The three picks were the most among any NCAA Division I program.

During his tenure, Novak fought for an all-in-one athletic training and academic support center and an indoor football training facility.

Those two things were a big part of our focus, Novak said. I probably got in trouble for whining and crying about facilities, but that needed to be addressed. The facilities we had were awful when I got there.

One is already a reality. The Jeffrey and Kimberly Yordon Center opened in behind the north end zone in 2007. And just outside Huskie Stadium, the foundation is in place for a new indoor football training facility set to open in 2013.

Home run ball continues to sting Cubs' starting pitching


Home run ball continues to sting Cubs' starting pitching

Cubs' starting pitchers have been on a roll recently, anchoring the team during its 30-day stretch without a day off. Over each of their last six starts (entering Wednesday), Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and José Quintana have been flat-out dominant.

Mike Montgomery has been stellar lately as well, allowing two runs or less in five of his last six starts. One common trend, though, is that Cubs' starting pitchers have been susceptible to the long ball as of late.

Hamels has allowed five home runs total in his last three starts, including two Wednesday night. The veteran left-hander surrendered a three-run blast in the first inning as well as a two-run shot in the sixth inning.

Lester has not allowed a home run since Aug. 27 against the Mets, but Hendricks has allowed one in two of his last three starts. Quintana allowed two solo homers in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Reds, while Montgomery has given up one in each of his last two starts.

Home runs by the oppposition haven't hurt the Cubs much recently, as they are 18-11 in their last 29 games. The pitching staff has been excellent down the stretch, outside of Wednesday's 9-0 loss.

Even then, though, the offense scored zero runs on one hit, so the three home runs that the pitching staff allowed ultimately did not matter.

Come October, though, it could be something to look out for, when one swing of the bat could change a game or series instantly.

Is latest bullpen implosion a sign White Sox need to go shopping for relief help this offseason?

Is latest bullpen implosion a sign White Sox need to go shopping for relief help this offseason?

The White Sox bullpen imploded Wednesday night in Cleveland. It sent Indians fans home happy. It sent White Sox fans scrambling for their computers.

I'd like to see the Google data. How many people in Chicagoland — the ones not flooding the streets of Northbrook to celebrate Jason Kipnis' walk-off grand slam — frantically searched "free agent relievers 2019"?

The results are pretty enticing, to be honest. Craig Kimbrel's going to be on the market. So is Cody Allen. So are Jeurys Familia and Kelvin Herrera and Zach Britton. And some guy named Andrew Miller.

It seems like a good idea, right? Ink one of those guys, two of 'em, even, and the bullpen troubles are gone. No clinging to a pillow and crossing your fingers when Rick Renteria comes out of the dugout in the late innings. No more outcomes like Wednesday's, when a trio of White Sox relievers entered the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 lead only to load the bases and surrender a walk-off salami.

But a couple points.

First, the White Sox don't need a lockdown bullpen right this second. In a point that will come up again and again this offseason, the team is still in rebuilding mode. Spending big bucks might not be prudent at this juncture because the White Sox have not yet transitioned from rebuilding mode to contention mode. Spending big on high-priced free agents is something teams do when they're in win-now mode. And while a big acquisition can certainly carry a team into win-now mode — just look at what the Cubs did when they signed Jon Lester ahead of the 2015 season — it could also be jumping the gun when there's still a year or two of development that needs to happen for the team's young players to grow into the contending group of the future.

Plus, spending big on bullpens isn't exactly a magic bullet. The Indians and the Colorado Rockies both spent huge sums on their bullpens this past offseason, and while both teams could end up in the postseason, they rank near the bottom of the game in bullpen ERA: Cleveland's 24th out of 30, and Colorado's 26th.

Contending teams often make a habit of trading for bullpen pieces, a strategy that makes a lot more sense considering those deals usually come midseason, when a team is clearly established as a contender. But those deals have their downsides, too. The White Sox have shown how valuable stockpiling prospects in trades can be. The Cubs got their ring but probably would like to have Gleyber Torres right now after shipping him to the New York Yankees in 2016. The Indians are division champs again, but will there be a day when they'll wish they hadn't sent Francisco Mejia to the San Diego Padres in this summer's trade for Brad Hand?

But that, of course, is more of a "cross that bridge when you come to it" situation. The White Sox aren't at that bridge quite yet, as good a point as any that spending on a 30-plus closer two years ahead of when the playoff pushes could come is a risky proposition.

Second, the White Sox are still trying to figure out what they've got when it comes to the bullpen.

Last year and in the first half of this season, the White Sox relief corps was primarily an audition ground for midseason trades. That strategy worked well for Rick Hahn's front office in both seasons. Last year, a big trade with the Yankees sent two relievers out of town and returned a package that includes Blake Rutherford, the No. 7 prospect in the farm system. The White Sox dealt five relief arms last summer. This season, a trade that sent Joakim Soria to the Milwaukee Brewers brought back minor league pitcher Kodi Medeiros, an arm currently ranked as the system's No. 19 prospect. Soria was one of three bullpen arms traded.

In the second half of this season, however, young arms have reached the South Side that have the potential to make up a future bullpen that's mostly homegrown. The ERAs aren't pretty — especially after Wednesday's four-run ninth — but if ever there was a time to play the "small sample size" card, it's now. Ian Hamilton, Ryan Burr, Caleb Frare, Jose Ruiz and Aaron Bummer all put up big numbers in the minors this season. Jace Fry has been at the major league level almost all season. They're getting their opportunities now, and unless the White Sox produce their own episode of "Extreme Makeover: Bullpen Edition" this winter, they'll get their opportunities next year, too. A homegrown bullpen on a contending team is a hard thing to pull off, of course, but these guys — and the heretofore unmentioned Zack Burdi, many's pick for the closer of the future — have the opportunity to do just that.

As is the case with everything surrounding this rebuilding team, there is the luxury of time. The young group of arms does not need to be championship ready right now or in 2019. These guys will take time to develop just like the Yoan Moncadas and the Lucas Giolitos and the Tim Andersons and the Reynaldo Lopezes. Growing pains are to be expected. Until they're given the chance to either succeed or fail, the White Sox won't know what they have, which makes charting a long-term course in one offseason difficult.

Obviously the White Sox don't want to lose games like they lost Wednesday night's battle in The Cleve. But is it a sign that the checkbook needs to come out this winter? The bullpen of the future might not need to be bought at all. It might need to simply be given the opportunity to grow.

There will always be a free-agent market. There will always be a trade market. And shopping at those markets are always more exciting than playing the waiting game. But that's what rebuilding is all about.