Link to a piece on ChicagoSideSports

It’s all over but the bowl game now. The college football season was exciting, but ultimately disappointing for me as an alumus of Northwestern University. Not one, not two, but three games got away from the Wildcats, and that’s why there’s no game to look forward to this weekend. That’s why this feels more like 1996–the year that I went to see the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on new year’s day–than like 1995, when a top five ranking was a possibility.

I sometimes deal with disappointments by writing about them. Here’s a link to the ChicagoSide piece. Enjoy it if you can. I like the artwork, though.

Eight wins and disappointment

The world certainly has turned for Northwestern football. I bore witness to exactly eight wins in the entire four years that I was on campus, from 1986 through 1989. There were four wins in my freshman year, and four in the following three years.

We threw marshmallows at each other in the stands during football games to keep our minds off what was happening on the field.

Every victory at home, no matter who the opponent was, was grounds for running onto the field and tearing down the goal posts.

My senior year, 1989, was so bad that the final two games were lost by a combined score of 169-28. Talk about ending with a whimper.

But things have turned around since then, beginning with 1995 and stretching into the foreseeable future. Coach-for-life Pat Fitzgerald has pointed out, correctly, that everyone under the age of 40 only knows Northwestern as a winner. And that’s a change for the better, as far as I can see.

But today’s win against Michigan State marked the eighth win on the season. I should be thrilled at the progress that’s been made over the past 20 years, right?

Well, not so fast. Each of the three games that Northwestern has lost this year was as a result of a fourth quarter meltdown. Double-digit leads were surrendered against Penn State in Happy Valley, against Nebraska in Evanston, and–most shockingly of all–against Michigan just last weekend. If even two of those three games were won, Northwestern is 10-1 and making plans to play in the Big Ten’s first championship game this year. So an 8-3 record could be as much as 11-0 instead. It’s very hard to see this season as anything other than a disappointment, when viewed through that lens.

But it is what it is. Illinois comes in next week, and while I hope the game is competitive, I would be shocked if it actually was. Then comes the ritual of accepting a bowl invitation, travelling to wherever the game will be, and then losing the game. I won’t ever take being in a bowl game for granted (how could I, when the dark days of the late 80s are considered?), but you play the games to win, after all. That’s really the only way to redeem what has been an agonizing eight-win season. And I really did just type that. Wow.

It’s a tribal thing

The first night of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge was yesterday, and the made-for-ESPN event will wrap up this evening. The Big Ten is off to a 4-2 lead so far, and has to win at least two of tonight’s games to claim victory for the season. And a tie goes to the Big Ten, since they’re defending champions from last year, but hopefully it won’t come to that.

When the World Series came around this year, I wanted the Cardinals to win, despite my personal distaste for them, because they were the National league team. By the same token, even though I loathe Michigan, strongly dislike Ohio State, and have a personal antipathy for the blue and orange of Illinois, I wanted them to win their games (and two of the three came through last night, too).  My school held up their end of the bargain, and in the early days of this challenge that usually wasn’t the case.

I give credit to the Big Ten Network for tying the schools together in some meaningful way. They’ve been successful at this because the Big Ten represents the Great Lakes and midwest region of the country, just like the SEC does with the South, and the Big East does with the East coast. The ACC has long fancied itself as the premier basketball conference in the country, so anytime they can be disabused of that notion, it can only be a good thing for the rest of us. And Duke getting blown out? That’s a rare treat.

I’ll be back tomorrow to wrap up tonight’s games. But in the meantime, Go Big Ten!

Hopefully he’ll sit today

At the start of this college football season, Northwestern put up billboards touting Dan Persa as a Heisman trophy candidate. The problem was that he was still rehabbing from an Achilles injury that ended his season–and Northwestern’s as well–against Iowa last year.

I was literally hanging on every play listening to that game in the car, and the joy that I felt when they came all the way back in the 4th quarter didn’t even last a minute, since Persa went down when the play was over. And the final games of the season, when he couldn’t play, were just an embarrassment. But that was last year.

For this season, Northwestern’s athletic department coined the word PersaStrong, and sent out packages to media figures with dumbells bearing Northwestern’s colors and Persa’s #7. Everything looked to be a go for his longshot candidacy to challenge Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who everyone has all but given the trophy to at this point.

But Persa’s rehab hadn’t gone as well as everyone would like, and he was scratched from both the Boston College and Eastern Illinois games in the first two weeks of the season. Kickoff for today’s game against Army is still at least an hour away, and I don’t know if Persa will be in the lineup today. I actually hope he isn’t, for two reasons:

First off, the team has seen Kain Coulter emerge as the kind of a credible backup QB that Northwestern did not have last year. His time will come next year after Persa’s time is up, but it certainly can’t hurt to let Persa continue to heal for one more week, with a bye week coming up next Saturday. This would give Persa two full weeks to heal before  the Big Ten season begins two weeks from today.

The second reason is that non-conference games just don’t mean the same as conference games do. Army doesn’t have a conference, so they have to get up for every game the best that they can. But Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, and others are the opponents I really care about, not Army. The Wildcats can win today’s game or lose it, but the season really begins with the Illinois game on October 1.

The Heisman isn’t going to Dan Persa this year, but I hope he didn’t choose Northwestern to boost his Heisman chances. He would be the first one to ever do this, if that’s the case. A week off is actually two weeks to continue healing, and I’m more than willing to wait that long to see him in the huddle. My hope is that coach Pat Fitzgerald feels the same way.

Go Cats!

Why college football is better than the NFL

I watched the Michigan/Notre Dame football game last night at a friend’s house, and I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the hype that preceded it. And boy, was I ever wrong! It was a roller coaster in the fourth quarter, the likes of which I can’t recall ever seeing before. Nothing the NFL has to offer, from today’s opening games until the Super Bowl next year, is going to top that.

Football itself did not originate with the NFL, but with elite colleges like Harvard and Yale. And it’s not hard to see why, either. The idea that a team is made up of students from the same school is where the sport first took root, and it grew and flourished for decades until one of college football’s greatest players, “Red” Grange, bucked tradition and began playing football for a living. So you could say that colleges had a jump of at least four decades or more on the pros, where football is concerned.

I watched last night’s game in Ann Arbor, with its announced crowd of almost 115,000 in the “‘Big House,” and wondered whether the NFL could ever attract a crowd of that size for a single game. I can’t imagine that many fans in one place without parking nightmares, fights breaking out, and all kinds of issues coming up. And I also can’t imagine any team in the NFL shelling out the kind of money it would take to build a stadium so large. It just wouldn’t happen.

So does the size of a crowd determine the relative merits of a sport? Of course not. But it does suggest that the fan base for a college spots team is different from that of a pro sports team. Students, obviously, make up a sizeable chunk of a college team’s fan base, along with the school’s alumi and, in the case of a large state school like Oklahoma or Nebraska, just about anyone who lives in that state, if they choose to identify with that school and its sports teams.

But the NFL is different. For starters, fans are generally those who live in or around the city where the team play its home games, but not always. The Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t really be able to call themselves “America’s Team” if all of their fans were from Dallas. It’s also quite possible that Peyton Manning’s legions of fans don’t all live in or near Indianapolis, but are willing to cheer for whatever team he happens to be the quarterback for.

But the biggest difference, that I can see, is that the players themselves have to know that their chances of playing professionally after college aren’t very good. For every guy like Michigan’s Denard Robinson, there are hundreds of other guys who know that, come next season, their football careers will be over. But they play anyway, risking long-term damage to their bodies, because they love the game and probably can’t remember a time when they didn’t play football.

There’s some talk of paying players in college athletics, so that they can share in the money they bring to their schools. But this won’t happen, since it would drastically change the landscape of sports as we know it. In the NFL, at least, players can’t go pro until four years after they finish high school. (We have none other than Red Grange to thank for that rule.) So where else are they going to go, if they love the sport and/or see it as their ticket out of wherever they came from? They may as well keep on playing the game until they can go pro, if that’s their intention.

There’s only two weeks of college games in the books, and one week of the NFL, but I can tell you that my interest in the college games is already peaking. There may not be another thrilling game like the one in Ann Arbor last night, but I’m willing to keep looking for one, all season long.