December 14, 2024 | The Historic Cramton Bowl

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December 14, 2024

9:00 pm ET/8:00 pm CT on ESPN

Montgomery, Alabama



NIU PROFILE: Rocky Lombardi

Posted December 20, 2023

By Tim Gayle

He has the perfect name for a football player, so it’s hard to imagine Rocky Lombardi doing anything else.

The seventh-year senior is just days away from ending his collegiate career, but Lombardi can’t imagine life away from the gridiron.

“I’m excited to be done and to get my shot to play professional ball,” he said. “That’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life. It has been a long journey, but I’m ready to move on. I’ve thought about coaching a little bit (or) broadcasting (if professional football doesn’t work out). I love the game, so it would be hard to do something outside of football.”

He grew up as the son and grandson of coaches, so football has been a sport he’s been around all his life. Then there’s the unique journey that carried the Iowa native to Michigan State for four years and Northern Illinois for three. At Michigan State, he engineered a memorable win over Michigan, but by 2020, a coaching change in East Lansing convinced Lombardi it was time to move on.

“The program was at a turning point,” Lombardi said. “Coach (Mark) Dantonio, who was I recruited by, had retired and there were just a lot of uncertainties with the direction Michigan State was going so I decided it was in my best interest to leave. I had a couple of offers in the transfer portal where I wanted to go and Coach (Thomas) Hammock told me we’re one quarterback away from winning the championship. They were 0-6 the season before I got there and I came in and we won a championship.”

The Huskies, which had lost all six conference games in the Covid-shortened 2020 season, would rebound with Lombardi at the helm of a young, inexperienced team as Northern Illinois won the Mid-American Conference before losing to Coastal Carolina 47-41 in the Cure Bowl.

“A lot of players aspire to be at a Power Five level and to have a quarterback come into your program from a Power Five program like Michigan State, he has instant credibility among his teammates,” Hammock said. “He’s come in and worked his tail off to earn the respect of his teammates and he’s been a leader for our program the last three years.”

A lot of players recruited to play for Power Five programs jump into the transfer portal with plans to transfer to another Power Five program. Thankfully for the Huskies, Lombardi didn’t think that way.

“It definitely wasn’t my intention to go Group of Five,” Lombardi said. “It just kind of fell into place. I had Power Five offers and could have gone to a Power Five school. I enjoyed playing at the Power Five level, for sure. It just felt like NIU was the place for me.

“I wanted to be somewhere where I could make an impact right away. Not just on the team, but on the program as well.”

After the MAC title, Lombardi would return for his Covid season in 2022, but suffered a season-ending leg injury against Vanderbilt the third week of the season and was granted a medical redshirt, allowing him to return for a seventh year in 2023. That type of experience is invaluable, Hammock said.

“You can put a lot on his plate,” the Northern Illinois coach said. “We have a diverse offense. We ask a lot of the quarterback position and a guy that’s played seven years obviously has a tremendous amount of experience and expertise. You can’t surprise him. We look forward to him going out there and competing at a high level and doing things right.”

Lombardi’s 5,316 passing yards are sixth on the school’s record list, while his 421 completions and 716 attempts are both seventh. His average of 183.3 passing yards per game is currently second. More than the numbers, however, his leadership in 2021 and again in 2023 is unmatched.

 “On the field, off the field, in the film room. I do a lot of coaching and try to get our guys as prepared as possible,” he said, before adding, “Without overstepping, I guess. But I enjoy watching people improve, trying to make people better, pushing people in the right direction.”

Lombardi and the Huskies (6-6) will be trying to erase a postseason drought when they facce Arkansas State (6-6) in the 10th annual Camellia Bowl at Cramton Bowl on Saturday. Northern Illinois hasn’t won a bowl game since capturing the MAC title in 2011 and beating Arkansas State in the Bowl in Mobile.

“I think it means a lot to our players and to our program,” Lombardi said. “It hasn’t been the season that we wanted, but we found a way to make it to a bowl game. We haven’t won a bowl game in 12 or 13 years, so it’s an opportunity for us to put our name in this program’s history books — this was the squad that came out and finally won a bowl game after a long drought.”