Win Win


It’s a beautiful fall day as I sit down to type out a few words on my smartphone. Blogging gives me a chance to spend a few minutes getting thoughts down, before the moment changes and the feelings are lost. and this is a moment that I want to preserve in some manner.

The arrival of fall brings football season, and my alma mater, the Northwestern Wildcats, are playing well. They’re ranked number 17 in the polls, which is a validation of their play by those people who have accorded themselves the right to judge such things. Where this season will end up is a mystery, but I’m looking forward to tonight’s game against Ball State in a way that I wouldn’t normally do. As the philosopher Pete Rose puts it, the burgers taste better when you win.

The Chicago Cubs, that other great sporting interest of mine, have clinched a wild card spot, and there will be playoff baseball here for the first time in a while. I hope they will finally get to the World Series and win it, but that remains to be seen, as well.

But what’s really great is that these two sports teams that rarely win are doing so at the same time. Rarely do I get to enjoy one team or the other winning on a regular basis, and never have both been successful at the same time. It’s a vortex of success, and I’m not complaining about it one little bit. Well, maybe a younger and more handsome dude than I could be sporting the teams’ gear in the picture above. But I’ll take what’s come along and enjoy it while it lasts.

Changing college sports as we know them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Today–March 26, 2014– is the 35th anniversary of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird title game in the NCAA tournament. I remember watching that game as a ten year-old kid in Springfield, Illinois. It was broadcast on NBC, instead of on CBS. There was no three point stripe, no shot clock, and no possession arrow. The NCAA logo was some silly interlocking letters arranged inside a circle. The game followed a third-place game, where the two teams that lost in the Final Four still had one last chance to salvage something. In short, there were still five men on a side and the team that scored the most points won the game, but otherwise the modern sports fan would hardly recognize it.

And on the anniversary of that game, which arguably changed basketball itself for the next decade, the NLRB handed down a ruling that Northwestern’s football players can vote to form a union. There are many writers and fans bemoaning the ruling, saying that it will “change college sports as we know them.” To which I reply, change happens all the time in life. The NCAA championship game from 1979 (which is within my living memory) is all the proof anyone needs that change is inevitable, in sports and in life itself.

To those who would bemoan the loss of something in college athletics, I would invite them to consider that the athletes on the floor in the basketball tournament, and on the field during the bowl games and in the regular season, are generating millions of dollars for their schools, yet they aren’t allowed to share in any of it. The schools do award scholarships and provide room and board, but they keep the money and in turn make their professional coaches into wealthy men. They give the chattering heads of CBS, ESPN, and a thousand other places something to talk about and write about and take pictures of. They allow the advertisers to reach a captive audience and sell more product. And what do these athletes get in return? Not what they should, if you ask me.

There will never come a time when the NCAA, in its benevolence, decides to share the wealth with the players who do the work and assume the risks. There will never come a time when a school pays for the long-term medical bills of a player who gets hurt playing a game, while wearing their school’s colors. And there will never come a time when a player who can’t keep up with his academics and his team responsibilities is told that academics are why they are in school. Football comes first, or basketball comes first, and everyone understands this. But it’s wrong and it needs to stop.

It’s ironic that the very first Final Four, or the first time that NCAA schools competed on the same floor for a basketball championship, happened on Northwestern’s campus, all the way back in 1939. I know that that was basketball and today’s ruling applies to football, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Northwestern–my alma mater–showed the NCAA the possibilities that a championship tournament offered. And 75 years later the Final Four, and the tournament leading up to it, is a money-making juggernaut. But what Northwestern giveth in basketball, it taketh away in football and–soon enough–in basketball, too.

If making money from the toil of players who don’t get to fully share in the pie they create seems fair, I will respectfully disagree with that premise. Million-dollar coaches don’t play the games; the players do. And the false hope of a professional payday–which the overwhelming majority of college athletes will never get to see–is shameful. It’s gone on for too long, and the sooner it comes to an end, the better.

Kudos to Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team, for sowing the seeds that will one day bring about some much-needed and long-overdue changes in college sports.

Helping the cause?


Today I broke out an old coffee mug that commemorated the 1995 season for the Northwestern football team. Ironically enough, it’s probably very close to the year that most of this year’s freshman class was born. Time goes by in a hurry, that’s for certain.

To this point, 1995 is the standard bearer for Northwestern’s football program. And this year could very well end up even better. Should they get past Ohio State this Saturday night, the buzz will grow louder. It’s sure going to be exciting this weekend.

Go Cats!

Laying 1989 to rest


I was saddened to learn of the death of Francis Peay, the head football coach at Northwestern when I went there back in the late 1980s. He was 69 years old, meaning he was about as old as I am now back when he was coaching the Wildcats. And so it goes.

Northwestern was at the end of an awful run of football teams in the late 80s. In 1989, when I was a senior, the team lost all 11 games they played. After one of the losses at the end of the year, after the team had apparently quit on their coach, a sportswriter for our student paper, the Daily Northwestern, wrote a column that said as follows:

Rules of courtesy say that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Fine.” And what followed was the entire column length in white space. It looked strange, but it made the point about how frustrating it was to be the laughingstock of the Big Ten (back when it really had ten teams).

But I’m sure that he was trying his best, even if the results weren’t what we wanted. Coach Peay (pronounced “PAY”) was replaced by Gary Barnett in 1992, and things have improved markedly since then. They had to, really, because it had fallen so far by then.

That sportswriter couldn’t say anything nice about the football team back in 1989, but I’ll say something nice about Francis Peay. Coaching a football team–even a bad one–can’t be an easy thing, and the fact that he had a chance to do it in the first place is quite a feather in his cap.

Time marches on, and the marshmallow fights that we had in the student section during those games, in order to divert our attention from the bad things happening on the field, are now a thing of the past. But they are moments in time, all the same, and Coach Peay deserves credit for doing a difficult job in a difficult place. May he rest in peace.

The world has turned


Mine wasn’t the first undergraduate class to experience a winless football season at Northwestern, when they went 0-11 during my senior year of 1989. The team was also winless in 1978, 1980, and 1981, and just missed it in 1977 and 1979, as well. The late 1970s and early 1980s seem to be the true dark ages for Northwestern football.

In fact, the very first game I went to as a freshman, in the fall of 1986, was a victory over Army. This won’t be so bad, I thought to myself. But eventually, it did become that bad. The last game that I witnessed on campus was a 63-14 loss to Illinois in 1989, which put the finishing touches on the type of season that Northwestern will hopefully never see again.

So when the team starts out this year at 2-0, and has a ranking in the 16-17 range of the weekly polls, it feels pretty good. I always have been, and always will be, proud of my alma mater for reasons that have nothing to do with football. But having been on the other end of the spectrum before, I intend to enjoy this season–and all the other seasons that Pat Fitzgerald is around–as thoroughly as I can.

Go Cats!

Purple Pride, win or lose

NU Deering

Image from

Last night I went to see my daughter in Romeo and Juliet. She’s an amazingly talented kid, and I marveled at her and the others in the cast. In just a few weeks, they’ve come together from all different places and brought this story to life. We give teenagers a bad rap sometimes, but knowing there are kids like this out there, who are willing to put their time and their energies into pulling this off–and without being paid to do it–leaves me very hopeful for the future.

As I was getting ready to attend opening night last night, I pulled on a purple Northwestern sweatshirt. I’ve always been proud of my alma mater, because it’s one of the best universities on the entire planet. Everybody says that about their own school, of course, but there’s evidence to support this, too. When people hear about colleges and universities, they usually associate the schools with their football team. Or maybe their basketball team. But the assumption–unless you’re MIT or an IVY League school–is that you’re only as good as your football team. Or maybe the school only exists to provide another college football team to the world. Neither of these is the truth, of course.

I didn’t put on my Northwestern sweatshirt to represent the football team, either. I’m genuinely proud of where I went to school, as everyone should be proud of the school they attended, wherever and whatever it is. Education is a sign of achievement, and if you’ve reached a level where a school grants you a degree or a diploma, go ahead and tell the world about it.

The football team was miserable when I was on campus in the late 1980s. When I was a senior, in the fall of 1989, they didn’t win a single game. So to see them resurrect the football program, under the masterful leadership of Pat Fitzgerald, has been gratifying to see. They’ve finally won a bowl game, even, and this fall should be one like I never thought I’d see.

I can’t wait to see what happens on October 5, when the B1G (or the Big Ten, for an old-timer like me) sees its game of the year played in Evanston when Ohio State comes calling. But win or lose, I’ll still wear the purple proudly. I’d much rather win, of course, but nobody wins all the time in life. Thank goodness nobody loses all the time, either.

Purple Reign

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

In anticipation of this year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans, Rolling Stone put together a list of the Top Halftime shows from years gone by. The top show, at least in my opinion, was Prince’s turn at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. In case you’ve blocked it out over what happened to the Bears on that day, here’s a quick recap:

Fireworks and pyrotechnics; two fine-looking dancing women; jaw-dropping guitar work; a marching band; some shadowy images of Prince’s, should we say, unique guitar; and a hypnotic, show-stopping finale; all against the backdrop of a healthy rainstorm.

In short, Purple Rain was performed in the purple rain. How does it get better than that?

Since watching this performance again online, Purple Rain has been stuck inside my head for nearly a week. And it was against this mental soundtrack that Northwestern University and the Chicago Cubs announced a partnership that will significantly raise the profile of both parties in the years ahead. It certainly points toward some very good things in the near future..

Northwestern could never build a 75,000 seat football stadium on Chicago’s North Shore. The neighbors wouldn’t stand for it, and the Wildcats’ fan base, as supportive as it is, sometimes struggles to fill up the 50,000 seats of Ryan Field. But who needs to do that, now that the Cats have access to iconic Wrigley Field?

And don’t think that this recruiting tool is going to go unused, either. What high school prospect–when faced with making the biggest decision of his young life–won’t jump at the chance to step onto the field at Clark and Addison? And who among us wouldn’t do the same thing, if we had that chance?

This arrangement, along with with the new sports facility being planned along the lakefront on Northwestern’s campus, is a sure sign that Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald isn’t going anywhere. That’s going to be another huge advantage Northwestern will have in recruiting during the years ahead.

When Notre Dame gets back to work next summer–seeking to quickly get to Manti Who?–they will be dogged by questions about Brian Kelly’s future. He’s already interviewed with an NFL team, after steadily rising through the coaching ranks in college. It’s naïve to think that he’ll be at Notre Dame long term. From watching how the annual Gary Barnett Soap Opera played out in the late 1990s, I can confidently say that one or two years of that will be more than enough for anyone in South Bend.

Bret Bielema, who seemed to be Wisconsin’s coach for the foreseeable future, has flown the coop in Madison for the greener pastures of the SEC. Urban Meyer, who will have National Championship pressures for however long he’ll be at Ohio State, is something of a coaching nomad, himself.

And then there’s Coach Fitz. You may recall how he first put Northwestern’s football program back on the map, as a player back in the 1990s. As an alumnus, and a tireless ambassador for the school and the program that he has built, he has the unwavering support of the University, the Athletic Department, and the student body. There’s no chance of him leaving anytime soon, and that stability means everything for teenagers who don’t want the rug pulled out from under them. That’s exactly what happens, whenever a head coach moves on to someplace else.

It’s taken several years, and many disappointments, but things are now falling into place very quickly for Northwestern football. With a bowl victory, a loaded team coming back in the Fall, a respected head coach, a new training facility on the drawing board, and an arrangement to play in Wrigley Field in the future, a golden age of Wildcat football seems to be just a few months away. It could even end up as a Purple reign.

’13 seems lucky so far


Northwestern won its first bowl game of my lifetime today, in a rather convincing fashion. They beat Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl (I’m not using the corporate sponsor’s name here) to get the new year off to a winning start. The monkey has been sent away, the streak has been broken, and any other appropriate metaphors are no longer relevant.

Those who think 13 is unlucky–and I have professed myself to be one of them, in a different context–should talk to Northwestern fans tonight, because thirteen’s just fine with us right now.

So now it’s onward to bigger and better things in the fall. Most of the main players are coming back next year, especially on offense, so why not think that the Big Ten championship and a BCS bowl berth are possible? At this moment, anything and everything seems reasonable to me.

Go Cats!