Thomas Hammock is coming home to Northern Illinois.

The former star running back for the Huskies was announced Friday morning as the 23rd head football coach -- and first African-American -- in the program's history. Hammock, 37, spent the last five seasons in the NFL as the Ravens running backs coach.

"I can't describe it," Hammock said in a statement. "It's an unbelievable feeling to have the opportunity to come home to a place that I love, to the school that has meant so much to me. I can't wait to get started with the players and have a chance to put a product on the field that the alumni and fans will be proud of."

He succeeds Rod Carey, who left last week after six seasons to become Temple's coach.

"This is a huge hire," athletic director Sean Frazier said in a statement. "To be able to bring back a part of our tradition, particularly from the (Joe) Novak era, and really unite all of our Huskies, and quite frankly, have someone who's iconic in our history books, is fantastic.

"I've known Thomas for a while, even before coming to NIU. He's always talked about NIU, The Hard Way, the tradition, the hard work, and the grit. All those things make it special to make this hire."

Originally from Jersey City, N.J., Hammock ranks 13th on NIU's career rushing list with 2,432 yards, posting 1,000-yard seasons in 2000 and '01 before having to retire from playing as a senior in 2002 because of a heart condition. He coached the Huskies running backs in 2005 and '06 before taking jobs at Minnesota (2007-10) and Wisconsin (2011-13).

sryan@chicagotribune.com

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