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.

The downward spiral continues

NCAA Football: Michigan at Northwestern

After still another painful defeat for Northwestern’s football team yeserday, I wrote something about it for FiveWideSports. I thought this was going to be a special year, but not in the way that it has been so far. I’m pretty sure nobody saw this one coming, actually. But there’s just two more games, and then the sporting off season can really begin in earnest. And I’m looking forward to that, in a very odd way.

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!

A harbinger of success


This morning, I pulled out my old Northwestern car flag and attached it to the window of my car for the drive into work. It’s New Year’s eve, and since NU has a game tomorrow morning against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, I wanted to display some Wildcat pride on the streets of Chicago.

I’ve had the flag for probably fifteen years, meaning that it’s been flown many times before. It’s known some good times over the years, but during bowl season there’s been only disappointment. Maybe that will change this year, I thought to myself as I drove toward the Kennedy Expressway and the suburban office where I work.

Traffic was light, as might be expected on New Year’s Eve day. As I pulled onto the highway, things were looking great. That is, until I heard the noise.

There was a loud slap against the roof of the car, followed by silence. The familiar ruffling sound of the flag as it hit the roof of my car was gone. I knew what the problem was but, since I was already on the highway, I couldn’t really do anything about it. And so I drove on, until I stopped at an oasis to check.

Just as I had suspected, the plastic rings that had attached the car flag to the pole were no match for wind that was created by driving onto the highway. The rings had snapped, and the flag went off to its resting place, somewhere near the on-ramp to the highway.

At first I was bummed out, and not because I had been driving with what resembled a Festivus pole on my car. No, I had had that flag for many, many years, and it was a link to days from the past that I’ll never see again.

But what were those days, exactly? Usually a good performance by the Wildcats during the regular season, punctuated by disappointment at the end of the season, either by losing a bowl game, or by not playing in one at all. Perhaps, rather than being a bad thing,  the loss of my flag is a sign of good things to come tomorrow morning. We’ll all find out soon enough.

UPDATE: The loss of the flag was indeed a good sign, as Northwestern beat Mississippi State 34-20, to capture its first bowl win in a very long time. Expectations for this team in the fall will be very high, indeed.

We’re Number One


As somebody who graduated from what felt like Football High, it was a dramatic change to attend Northwestern in the late 1980s. The football team was terrible, so much so that we would literally throw marshmallows at each other during home games, in order to distract ourselves from what was transpiring on the field. And lots of people would snicker when I told them where I went to school. Never mind that it was a top flight academic school, then and now. The football team sucked and, in some people’s minds, that was more important.

But who’s laughing now? Not only is the Northwestern football program among the top ones in the country on the field, but it’s ranked at the very top where it matters most: in the classroom. Colleges and universities are academic endeavors first, and sports programs second (at best). So to read that Northwestern bests all other schools in areas that matter like graduation rates, it’s enormously heartening.

The best thing about this news is that no other school was even close. I will repeat that: Northwestern came out on top, comfortably ahead of every other school ranked in the Top 25 in the polls.  So while the Wildcats won’t be playing in a BCS bowl game this year, they now have a recruiting chip that no other school can match, at least for the players and their families who give a fig about education. And that’s very gratifying for everyone affiliated with Northwestern.

Go Cats!

Sorry, Pappy!


As much as anything else, this post is written to get the above picture of Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald out onto the web. It was on the cover of a pocket schedule that I picked up at a game at Ryan Field earlier this season.

The purple and white shading is a cool effect, but the look on Coach’s face says it all. This guy is a football coach who is–and will continue to be–the face of the program. I’m looking forward to many years of success in the future.

Wherever the bowl game ends up being in a few weeks, a victory would be the 50th of his career. This would break a tie with Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf, who coached at NU back in the 1930s and 1940s before leaving for Cal. And the only college football coach who ever lost a bowl game to Northwestern is…..Pappy Waldorf, in the 1949 Rose Bowl. You can’t make this stuff up.

Just in case a desire to finally get the bowl game monkey off of their backs wasn’t enough, Wildcat players have the added incentive of helping to put their coach into the university’s record books before the season ends. Every bit of motivation helps.

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 wasn’t even close

Yesterday was a big day for college football. Nebraska came to Evanston to play my Northwestern Wildcats, and the game was televised on ABC. None of that would have been possible in the days when I was at Northwestern, but so much has changed since then (take the internet, for starters) and those changes are all for the better.

I gave some thought to watching the game on ABC yesterday afternoon. In fact, I would have planned on it except for one thing: my younger daughter’s play started at 3 PM. She’s put a lot of work into it, and the story itself is very amusing. All of the kids in the show are very talented, too, so it’s a good experience for her to be a part of it.

There are only six performances of the show, and then it will be gone forever. The football game, on the other hand, will be archived, written about, and endlessly available online for whenever I want to watch it. So as interesting as the football game might have been, I made the right choice by going to see the play instead. And my little one lit up the stage, just as she always does.

I got to listen to the end of the game on the radio, and watch the game-deciding field goal on TV from the comfort of my living room. My team lost by the closest of margins (one lousy, stinking point!), but the decision–whether to watch the game or go see the play–was nowhere near that close.

A year that stood out

On my way home from work today, I filled up the tank of my Prius at a gas station out in the suburbs. The Prius is one way to cope with the gas prices, since a fill-up runs about $25 at the most. With the minivan, it’s usually a lot more than that. A bigger tank is the culprit there. But saving an extra 10 cents a gallon by filling up in the suburbs, as opposed to doing it the city, is a smaller way to cope with high gas prices. Buying gas in Chicago is an extravagance that I usually avoid at all costs (no pun intended).

The gas station was empty when I pulled in, and there were 10 pumps available to meet my petroleum needs. I chose one of the pumps in the middle (number 6, I think it was), put the car in park, and stepped outside to get it over with. Laying on the ground was a penny, and I picked it up and looked at the date. 1995 was the date on the coin, and even though I’ve written about that year before, another memory came back to me and I wanted to get it out into this space. That way, I can comfort myself with knowing that I shared a story with whatever part of the internet might care to hear it.

In 1995, Northwestern’s football team suddenly became competitive. The 1970s and 1980s were not kind on the football field, and the winless season that coincided with my last year on campus was undoubtedly a low point. But the 1995 season started with a win over Notre Dame, followed by an inexplicable choke against Miami of Ohio which could have–and would have, in any previous year–set the death spiral in motion. But 1995 was different.

Gary Barnett’s team came back and won every game they played that year. They won all of their Big Ten games, and, as was the tradition in those days, they advanced to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Ah, the good old days before the BCS came along and mucked everything up.

When the Rose Bowl came around, Northwestern stood at 10-1 and was #3 in the national rankings. They were ahead in the fourth quarter of that game, too, and I had visions, if not of a national championship, then at least of a #2 finish in the polls. But it was not to be, since USC beat the Wildcats and they fell back in the final polls as a result. What a ride it was, though.

The leader of that team, Pat Fitzgerald, missed playing the Rose Bowl because he broke his leg in an earlier game. But he’s now the head coach of the football team at his alma mater and mine. I’ve often wondered if he’s thought about replicating that season as a coach. I suppose it would only be a surprise if he hadn’t thought about it.

The football team stands at 5-1 for the 2012 season, with some big games coming up in the weeks ahead. Hopefully they’ll finish well, and maybe even win a bowl game because the 1995 team, as good as it was, started a rather long bowl losing streak. Going to a bowl game doesn’t get old, but losing in the bowl game is getting a bit tiring.

Everything started to change in college football seventeen years ago, and the memory of that year still brings a smile to my face. May it be replaced by an even bigger smile in the years to come.

A long way from marshmallow fights

In just a few hours, the Big Ten football season will begin. As a Northwestern alum, football hasn’t always been something I looked forward to. In fact, the team in 2012 already has as many wins (four) as they did in my last three years there combined.

If there’s anything more painful in sports than watching your school go 0-11 for a season, as they did when I was a senior in 1989, I haven’t experienced it yet. No, wait, I’m a Cubs fan. Yes, I have experienced something more painful.

So the football team’s success is something I won’t ever take for granted. I also like their chances to do some damage in the Big Ten this year. Playing eight games over the next two months will tell the tale of where they stand, and then maybe they can win a bowl game, too. That’s the final frontier, as far as football is concerned

I always hear Pat Fitzgerald say this, so I might as well say it too,