Thomas Hammock pledged years ago to return to Northern Illinois.
He was Wisconsin’s running backs coach when he met Sean Frazier, the Badgers deputy athletic director at the time. Hammock, a former NIU running back from 1999 to 2002, told Frazier: “You know what? I’m going to be the head coach at Northern Illinois University.”
Eight years later Frazier, now NIU’s athletic director, helped Hammock make good on that goal.
Hammock, 37, returned to his alma mater Friday, when he was introduced as the replacement for Rod Carey, who left NIU a week earlier to coach Temple. Hammock spent the previous five seasons in the NFL as the Ravens running back coach after assistant coaching stops at NIU (2005-06), Minnesota (2007-10) and Wisconsin (2011-13).
“This program means a lot to me,” Hammock said. “I’m going to give it everything I have.”
Speaking to reporters in Chicago, he emphasized reconnecting with alumni to boost enthusiasm for the Mid-American Conference champions and increase home attendance. He and Frazier also stressed the importance of taking the Huskies to the “next level,” which likely means winning bowl games after six straight postseason losses.
NIU’s board of trustees has not yet approved the terms of Hammock’s contract.
His hiring has inspired a buzz already, Frazier said.
“We continue to maintain our tradition of ‘the hard way,’ ” Frazier said. “When we talk about that, folks don’t always really know what that means. Coach Hammock knows what that means.”
Hammock’s playing career was cut short by a heart condition one game into his senior season. But he helped create a tradition of strong running backs in the program with Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe following him.
He ranks 13th on the program’s career rushing list with 2,432 yards. He’s one of 10 Huskies to record consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and he ranks eighth all time with 12 100-yard games.
His ties to NIU are deep. His 5-year-old son, Thomas Douglas, got his middle name for Hammock’s NIU residence hall. He and his wife, Cheynnitha, met as students, and he recalled with affection her academic accolades when she graduated.
His 9-year-old daughter, Tierra, already an intense football fan, is looking forward to rooting from the front row of Huskie Stadium.
“All my great memories have started at this place,” he said. “It was always tugging at me. I was only coming back for NIU. I had an opportunity to go to different places. The only job I wanted was this one.”
It wasn’t until doctors diagnosed Hammock with what they thought was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a thickening of the heart muscle that he said his annual checkups now indicate he doesn’t have — that he began to realize he had a knack for coaching.
Turner, who set the NIU rushing record before an All-Pro NFL career, was Hammock’s backup, and Hammock began to mentor him more intently from the sideline. He later served as the position coach for Wolfe, who broke Turner’s school record.
“I was a beast of a player,” Hammock said with a laugh. “Coaches had their hands full with me. I was tough. I was hard-headed. I was young. But when I stopped playing, I was forced to re-evaluate where I was. I realized I missed football. This was my passion.”
A marketing major, Hammock worked in sales for Wells Fargo after college. It didn’t last long.
“That just wasn’t for me,” he said.
He called Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez to pitch himself.
“We played Northern and he came up and introduced himself to me before the game,” Alvarez, now Wisconsin’s athletic director, said in a statement to NIU. “I had a good visit with him. That spring, he had taken a job and he called me and said, ‘Coach, I’ve got a good job, but I really believe I want to coach.’ I told him to come up and work our camp in the summer.”
He became a graduate assistant at Wisconsin in 2003, launching his career.
“He coached like he was a full-time coach the minute we put him on the field,” Alvarez said. “He took extra responsibility.”
Hammock said he heard from many coaches congratulating him on his new position, including fellow black coaches. He is NIU’s first African-American head football coach.
“A lot of my colleagues have reached out to me and said, ‘Make us proud,’ ” he said. “It’s something I take seriously. I want to be a pioneer to help the next group of guys that’s trying to get in the same position. It’s important for us to have opportunities.”
In 2017, 88 percent of Division I head football coaches (FBS and FCS) were white and just 7.7 percent were black, despite 44.2 percent of players being black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. This past season, only 13 of the 130 FBS teams had a black head coach.
Hammock said he took an NFL job to help his resume, trying to shake the “recruiter” label that anecdotally many black college coaches contend with.
“I realized people weren’t going to respect my coaching acumen in college if you’re known as a great recruiter,” he said. “Well, I was a great football coach as well. I wanted to be known for both.”
Hammock said he plans on staying at NIU for years to come.
“This is all I’ve wanted,” he said. “This is all I’ve dreamed of. I want to build a legacy.”