DEKALB — Every Thursday night during football season, the man Northern Illinois hired last February as offensive coordinator called his daughter to reveal the first play of Saturday's game.
Wherever he has called plays, Mike Dunbar always shared that secret with his little girl, Lori, now an adult living in Phoenix, since she was old enough to know vertical stretch didn't mean reaching high on her tippy-toes. Dunbar, a coaching lifer, even occasionally asked his wife of 40 years, Linda, to leave the room so only Lori would know.
"It always has been a father-daughter thing,'' Dunbar said.
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So Dunbar upheld the family tradition with the blessing of the NIU coaching staff even after the 63-year-old took a leave of absence Sept. 3 to resume chemotherapy. Every week, Dunbar, officially reassigned as an NIU special assistant, still consulted on game plans in-between cancer treatments. Every week, Dunbar reminded Rod Carey, his replacement as play-caller and now NIU's head coach in the wake of Doeren's departure to North Carolina State, of his longtime ritual.
"We'd script the first few plays and he'd ask, 'You don't mind if I share this, do you?''' Carey said. "I knew what it meant to him. I thought it was great, whatever he wanted.''
Doing so provided what Dunbar needed; a comforting bit of normalcy cancer couldn't steal and evidence the most meaningful decisions NIU coaches made this magical season didn't involve football.
"If this was going to happen, it couldn't have happened at a better place,'' Dunbar said in his first public comments since stepping aside. "I needed them more than they needed me, to get out of the house. That was very important to me to still be around and deal with the health situation.''
Discussing his health situation remains uncomfortable for Dunbar, a former head coach at Northern Iowa who also served as Northwestern offensive coordinator under Randy Walker. He intentionally avoids specifics, saying only the cancer exists "around my lungs,'' and stressing the way NIU treated a guy employed for months like he had been there for years. The only hint of vulnerability came when Dunbar stared into space recalling the surreal feeling upon hearing his diagnosis last spring.
"There's a psychological battle you go through when the doctor mentions the 'C word' … You're like, 'What? Do you have the right guy?''' Dunbar recalled.
Besides his family, Dunbar told nobody at NIU except then-coach Dave Doeren. He coached spring football because practices were spread out enough so he could recover from chemotherapy. But surgery and a second round of chemo later in the summer made it impossible to keep from the NIU staff and players.
"Chemo kicks your fanny from an energy perspective,'' Dunbar said. "There was just no way. I told Dave that probably the best thing we could do was promote Rod (Carey) and make Joe Tripodi full-time.''
After calling his only NIU game, the season-opening loss to Iowa, Dunbar put his health and family ahead of his career to attack a different kind of opponent. Carey always will remember the way Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, a friend of Dunbar's, banged on NIU's locker room door afterward to wish Dunbar well.
"That's the coaching community,'' Carey said. "All's fair in love, war and recruiting. But whenever somebody's struggling, we reach out.''
Which was what Carey encouraged Dunbar to do as much as possible given his new reality. Graduate-assistants dropped off game-plan information on days Dunbar couldn't swing by the office to interact with players. Dunbar confessed to spending inordinate amounts of time "doodling,'' ideas Carey welcomed.
"I flat-out told him, 'Coach, you're going to have to tell me to stop calling you,''' Carey said. "He took care of me. He would tell it like it is. He'd say, 'I don't like that play. We should think about this.' And I'd say, 'You're right.'''
Last week Carey turned the tables with a suggestion for Dunbar: Speak at Sunday's team banquet. Carey knew Dunbar was leaving Wednesday for Las Vegas to begin a new treatment opportunity because "the chemo stopped working,'' in Dunbar's words, and wanted him to address the Huskies.
"It was special,'' said Carey, who presented Dunbar the Huskie Spirit Award.
His speech elicited joy and sadness, tears mixed with laughs.
"The joke is I told the team, 'Coach Doeren asked me to mentor Rod and the offensive staff and obviously I did a helluva job,''' Dunbar said.
He won't be in Miami for the Orange Bowl. Instead Dunbar will be surrounded by family watching the culmination of a historic NIU season to which he contributed. Dunbar cannot predict how he will feel 2,500 miles away. But he takes solace knowing two Dunbars in the room will know what to expect from the first play.