Tell Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey that beating Iowa carried significance beyond being his first victory as a head coach and he lapses into language like someone destined for a career spouting cliches.
"It means we're 1-0,'' Carey said in an interview with the Tribune. "That's a good quality win over a quality opponent. But it still just counts as one in the win column.''
Success has spoiled NIU football, huh?
However mundane, Carey's perspective indeed makes sense. The best team in the state of Iowa this year might be the Arena Football League's Barnstormers. The next Iowa caucus could be called to vote on the six agonizing years and $18 million left on Kirk Ferentz's contract. The lousy Iowa team NIU beat at Kinnick Stadium on a field goal with four seconds left won't remind anybody of the Chuck Long era.
But it still avenged the Huskies' only regular-season loss of 2012 and alerted the country that more polished NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch was back to posting video-game-like statistics. It guaranteed the Mid-American Conference a seventh straight season with a victory over a Big Ten team. When a MAC team full of players overlooked by the Big Ten beats any team from that conference, it always matters.
Most significantly, it forced the college football world to briefly consider whether NIU could make the 16th and final season of the Bowl Championship Series as controversial as the rest. The Huskies' remaining nonconference schedule includes Idaho, Eastern Illinois and struggling Purdue before MAC opponents sure to test NIU beckon. Premature or not, somewhere a DeKalb T-shirt maker ponders a "12-0" design.
Even if the polls' complicated math wouldn't necessarily add up to a second straight BCS berth, surviving a season-opening road scare suggested NIU can overcome adversity. The comeback also demonstrated how continuity in a program can build confidence Carey never assumed this NIU team would inherit.
"Each team is new, but I learned they don't panic and that's been a trademark around here,'' Carey said. "When you're a senior, it's kind of like parenting. You have to take care of your job and make sure you're consistent in your life so the kids behind you see that and do the same thing.''
The maturation of the Huskies encompasses Carey, the low-fuss, likable 42-year-old who acknowledges learning on the job he has yet to do for a full season. A successful fake punt in Iowa territory, when down 24-17, revealed a coach who will be bold. "He's definitely more aggressive,'' safety Dechane Durante said of Carey.
A defense replacing seven starters clinching victory with an interception by Jimmie Ward depicted an offensively trained coach who hasn't neglected the other phase. "In the offseason he really got to know the defensive side of the ball,'' offensive lineman Jared Volk said.
Carey's resume inspires every assistant coach toiling in anonymity: He spent six years at Division III Wisconsin-Stout, one at Illinois State and two at North Dakota before coming to NIU as offensive line coach in 2011. Carey nearly left coaching to run a golf course in Wisconsin, but the former Indiana University center ultimately decided there were more huddles to call.
Now, a year after calling plays for the first time when ex-NIU offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar stepped away to battle cancer, Carey finds himself navigating the program through increasing national exposure after succeeding Dave Doeren last December.
"Everybody always talks about pressure being a bad thing and in a negative light, but I've never understood that,'' Carey said.
The last time America saw Carey, he had lost his composure and the Orange Bowl and was ranting at reporters who dared to ask about Lynch's pregame comments, which Florida State had used as motivation. Lynch wasn't the only Huskie who had a deer-in-headlights look that night.
Instead of purging memories of that embarrassing loss, Carey put them away for special occasions. To keep focus on the future, Carey prohibited players from wearing Orange Bowl gear during workouts but reserved the right to use the experience to dress them down, if necessary.
"When you lose your last game of the year, your offseason tends to suck a little, but the best thing probably was the bad taste in our mouths served as a daily reminder whenever we got too full of ourselves,'' Carey said. "Just because we were there, doesn't mean we accomplished anything.''
What NIU accomplished against Iowa eventually could force ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, a noted skeptic, to care where the Huskies belong again.
"To be honest, I don't care if Herbstreit has a positive or negative opinion on us,'' Carey said. "But I do know this: Herbstreit talking about us on ESPN is kind of cool.''
Such is the price of relevance, one NIU happily will pay for another college football season.