Pat Schiller bleeds the red and black of Northern Illinois through and through, but he'll also start to pay attention to what is going on at NC State.
Schiller's journey from undrafted free agent linebacker to the Atlanta Falcons was recently documented by his uncle Charles Siebert in the New York Times. New NC State coach Dave Doeren played a crucial role in helping in his development.
Schiller overcame a prior spring knee injury in 2010, to help the lead the Huskies defense during Doeren's first season. NIU went 11-3 for the second straight season, and Schiller had a team-high 115 tackles, two sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Schiller and quarterback Chandler Harnish, former housemates, both have moved on to making NFL rosters with the latter on the Colts practice squad.
Former NIU coach Joe Novak originally recruited Schiller, but he grew up a life-long Huskies fan in Geneva, Ill., which is in the far western suburbs of Chicago. Novak retired following Schiller's redshirt season, and Jerry Kill arrived from Southern Illinois to coach NIU from 2008-2010. Schiller cracked the starting lineup in 2009 and was third on the team with 82 tackles, but then tore his ACL the following spring. He played in 10 games and had 18 tackles as a reserve linebacker in 2010, and then Kill left for Minnesota.
"Being a junior [at the time] and a upperclassmen, you tend to think rationally, and it is a business," Schiller said. "I do know a lot of the younger guys had never faced anything like that before and were upset.
"It's going to happen at a MAC school because we are a stepping stone for coaches to make more money. I was disappointed, but I didn't look at it as something to bring us down."
Schiller wasn't sure what to think would happen during the coaching search, but then he started learning about Doeren, who arrived after being an defensive coordinator at Wisconsin.
"I was excited because he was a defensive coordinator with a defensive background," Schiller said. "Generally, the coaches we've had at Northern were offensive-minded coaches. It was definitely appealing to me being that it was my last year to play. I also knew I had to prove myself all over again."
Doeren arrived prior to the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl when Northern Illinois whipped Fresno State 40-17 and started to build trust with the players, and in particular the soon-to-be seniors.
"Before one of our bowl practices, Doeren came down and held a team meeting, and that was the first time we've ever met him," Schiller said. "Afterwards, he asked all the leadership guys — we had built our own leadership council, who were basically like captains — and we all stayed back after and talked to him. He wanted to know the questions we had and any concerns and our phone numbers. We built that relationship right off the bat."
Doeren coached Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, a 21-19 loss to Texas Christian and future Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, and he returned to DeKalb, Ill., for good.
"He immediately leaned on the seniors to help him out," Schiller said. "It's tough for a head coach to come in with a team that just won 11 games and say, 'This is how we are going to do things now.' This was a 'If it's not broke, don't try to fix it' kind of deal."
Doeren won over the players pretty much right off the bat according to Schiller. It became clear that he knew what he was doing in his first head coaching job.
"You had the feeling that he had our backs, and as soon as the guys bought in, he meant business," Schiller said. "It took us a while to get rolling."
Northern Illinois lost 45-42 to Kansas in second game, a 49-7 to Wisconsin and former NCSU quarterback Russell Wilson in the third, and then 48-41 defeat at Central Michigan in the fifth. NIU didn't lose the rest of the season to finish 11-3 for the second-straight year.
"He kept fighting and fighting and we ended up winning out our last nine games, and kind of turned the season around," Schiller said. "To win the MAC championship game with a new coach and new coaching staff, and a bunch of young players, that was a pretty big deal."
Schiller and the seniors made sure to give Doeren a parting gift after trouncing Arkansas State 38-20 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
"He didn't let my injury didn't affect me getting out on the field at all," Schiller said. "I was healed and I could play. He trusted me to go out there and play.
"The way we thanked him was dumping a bunch of Gatorade on him. He knows we were thankful."
Schiller kept in touch with Doeren throughout this past season, which resulted in a 12-1 record, No. 15 national ranking, another MAC title and a trip to play Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Schiller and fellow NIU running back alum Michael Turner of the Falcons have been proud to see their program reach new heights.
"What makes him such a great coach is not only his philosophies but he is such a great player's coach," Schiller said. "Any guy who had him will tell you that. He has your back no matter what and is one of the guys sometimes."
Schiller said it wouldn't be surprising to see Doeren stop Northern Illinois' morning practices and have guys do some one-on-ones to spice things up in the middle of practice.
"He can be very intense but he also jokes around a lot," Schiller said. "He's spontaneous, goofy and one of the guys. A lot of coaches now a days are so serious and you feel like you can't relate to your coach. With Coach Doeren, it's way different. He is the epitome of what it is like to be a player's coach."
Schiller said the NC State defensive players will enjoy Doeren's schemes and approach.
"Football is football, and it's all X's and O's, and certain coaches have preferences in how much time they run a zone against one kind of personnel and then man-to-man against another group of personnel," Schiller said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to what your coach calls in certain situations.
The big adjustment for the NC State players is that they'll have to learn a different defensive vocabulary.
"A lot of the things he is going to coach is probably going to be similar to the old coaches, but it comes down to decisions on when he runs it," Schiller said. "He has a bunch of different tricks up his sleeve with blitzes and stunts that have made him successful wherever he's gone.
"He's very good at teaching and not going too fast with implementing too much scheme at one time and get an overload."