By MIKE KORCEK
Unequivocally, Bill Mallory was a giant.
Whether it was DeKalb, Ill., Boulder, Colo., Oxford, Ohio, or Bloomington, Ind., — the communities where he admirably spearheaded NCAA Division I-A football programs — his achievements, reputation, passion, focus all transcended the norm.
Better yet, as a person, Mallory was off the charts. He cared about everyone. Plus “The Old Man” — as he was affectionately known — still possessed more energy than people 20 years his junior. Integrity? In a 21st century where society and hierarchies are devoid of character, Mallory might have led the NCAA in that category. With Bill, three words come to mind: exceptional human being.
Which is why his sudden death last week at age 82 due to two accidental falls is still profoundly shocking.
Believe me, I’m thankful to have had the privilege of working with him, his staff, and student-athletes. Northern Illinois University is a better place, thanks to Bill—and not just intercollegiate athletics.
“Bill was the best of the best,” said former Huskie defensive tackle Scott Kellar (1982-85), an Honorable Mention Associated Press All-America, an NFL draft pick (Indianapolis Colts), and NIU Athletics Hall of Famer. “There was just something about coach Mallory. He was an amazing man. As a player, you only wanted to return that trust.”
Quarterback Tim Tyrrell, the heart and soul of the 10-2 California Bowl team, the 1983 Vern Smith Trophy recipient, and NIU Hall of Famer, loved Mallory’s no-nonsense approach. “Coach had me at ‘hello’,” Tyrrell recalled. “He was direct. He was a man of his word. Nothing was going to be handed to me. He just wasn’t talking about winning games, but winning at life.”
From the opposite end of the depth chart comes ex-NIU walk-on strong safety Tim Padden (1980-81): “I was so fortunate he gave me a shot. Coach treated us all like we were starters. Everyone was the same under him. No favorites.”
Ask Padden about academics and Mallory’s stewardship in that direction. “I watched coach chase a kid out of Huskie Stadium for missing class. Mallory was 100 percent solid to parents who entrusted their sons to him and his program. In our first team meeting, coach went off on the importance of education.”
Mallory was a winner and gave a fledging NIU program instant creditability. In hindsight, he was among a handful of I-A coaches to take four schools to major bowl games and reach Top 20 status with three programs (NIU’s 1983 Cal Bowl squad finished No. 30 in the final AP poll). Mallory still ranks on the all-time NCAA longevity (301 games) and victory (168) lists.
In 27 seasons as a head coach, Mallory posted a 168-129-4 won-lost-tied record (.565 winning percentage) at Miami (OH) (39-12-0 in 1969-73), Colorado (35-21-1 in 1974-78), NIU (25-19-0 in 1980-83), and Indiana (69-77-3 in 1984-96). He is the only coach in Mid-American Conference history to win loop crowns and Coach of the Year honors at two schools (Miami in 1973 and NIU in 1983).
Mallory’s Huskie resume includes the program’s first MAC grid title, the school’s first triumph over a Big Eight program (Kansas), and first I-A bowl success (Cal State Fullerton). His storied 1983 squad would be inducted into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame and ultimately produced 19 professional players—including seven NFL draft picks.
How and why did Mallory come to NIU? After a historic 11-0 season at Miami (OH) and a triumph over Florida in the Tangerine Bowl in 1973, Mallory was hired at Colorado by his sideline predecessor and new AD Eddie Crowder. After four winning seasons in five years, plus a Big Eight title and Orange Bowl berth in 1976, Mallory’s relationship soured with Crowder and major donor Robert Six, the (then) CEO of Continental Airlines. Despite pleas from the CU players, Mallory was fired.
“We knew what happened at Colorado,” said Jerry Ippoliti, then assistant AD at NIU, former Huskie head coach, and Mallory teammate at Miami (OH). “(To Bill) it was an integrity issue. Bill wanted to run his own program. (Then NIU AD) Bob Brigham said to see if Bill was interested in our job which opened up at the end of 1979.
For Mallory, the 1979 campaign was sort of a sabbatical, a personal halftime in a productive career to evaluate what he wanted to do. He loved the idea of returning to his MAC roots, the potential of the NIU program, and the Chicago recruiting base. “We told him that our program had been up and down, that we could not stabilize it, be consistent,” Ippoliti said, “and Bill liked that challenge.”
In one of the program’s best all-time hires, Mallory was named NIU head coach on January 4, 1980. “Northern Illinois has not achieved its potential,” Mallory told the media. “That’s why I’m here.” Always direct. Our media types loved it.
While Mallory’s five-year plan had the Huskies winning the Mid-Am crown in 1984, his team peaked a year early. By Cal Bowl week in 1983, media reports had Mallory at Cincinnati and then Indiana. You don’t turn down a Big Ten opportunity. In 13 years with the Hoosiers, Mallory took IU to six bowl games. That figure and his 69 triumphs are still Indiana football career bests. Despite winning his final game vs. Purdue and being carried off the field by his IU players, Mallory was released again. To his credit, he said little in the media. He and his wife Ellie remained active in Bloomington.
Indirectly, Mallory helped lead another NIU grid resurrection when Joe Novak, his 16-year defensive coordinator in DeKalb and Bloomington, became the Huskie boss in 1996. “Sometimes when I was talking to teams at Northern (as head coach),”Novak said, “I’d hear Bill Mallory come out of my mouth and I said, ‘you know, that’s OK.’
“Bill was a coach’s coach. Whenever you talked to people and you said you coached for Bill Mallory, everybody, everybody respected Bill Mallory,” Novak added.
Colorado product and ex-Chicago Bear linebacker Brian Cabral called Mallory a “father figure.” “A hard-nosed, tough coach, who demanded that toughness from his players,” Cabral said. “But in his competitiveness, his intensity, and toughness, you could not help but believe that he cared about you and all that he was demanding was your best.”
I’ve lost count in the number of halls of fame Mallory has been enshrined. NIU’s twice, Indiana’s, the Miami HOF and its “Cradle of Coaches” group (two separate entities), plus the MAC’s. But he belongs in one more—the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
There’s only one problem, the College HOF’s criteria for coaches is a .600 career winning percentage. Considering where Bill won (for example, NIU had only three .500 or above seasons between 1969 and 1982), his character, integrity, and advocacy for higher education not only need to be considered, but recognized nationally. In this NCAA scandal-filled age, it’s hypocrisy to not.
Yes, the College HOF and National Football Foundation has been great to NIU the last two decades with numerous honors. But it’s time to evaulate that outdated percentage criteria. There’s no more qualified candidate than Bill Mallory. He’s no flash-in-the-pan.
A winner, father figure, coach’s coach, leader, “The Old Man” was a giant.