Win Win

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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.

It was a good day for omens

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Saturday morning, Evanston, Illinois

My daughters are both ice skaters, which makes practice ice a reality for me, several times a week. On Saturday morning, as the rest of the world is sleeping in, my older one gets to the rink at 5:30 AM. It seems like a cruel joke to play on the old man, but I go along with it by driving her to the rink.

I dropped her off this morning, and went to get some gas in the tank of my minivan. It’s not a terribly long way to South Bend, Indiana, but it’s better to gas up now before I head out later this morning.

As I’m filling up the tank, I noticed that the Starbucks in that neck of the woods wasn’t open yet. You know you’re early when Starbucks hasn’t yet come to life.

Since coffee needed to be procured, I considered my options. There was a Burger King I knew of a half-mile away, and while I’m not a fan of their coffee, it would be better than having a steaming cup of nada in my hand. So Burger King it was.

As I drove north toward the BK, something wonderful presented itself. A former KFC restaurant, which had been converted to a Starbucks, grabbed my attention instead. It was as if the mermaid or whatever it is on the Starbucks logo winked at me. It was a call that I couldn’t ignore.

I pulled into the parking lot, curious why this location was open as the other one remained closed. It was almost 6 AM by now, and my guess is the other one would be opening at that time, anyway. But fate had brought me to this location, instead.

I went inside and ordered my usual, a venti drip coffee. I’ve never gone for lattes or any of their pricier drinks; just plain old coffee works for me. The woman behind the counter was as friendly as could be, and she provided my morning cup of stimulation. Now it was time to add a splash of half-and-half and head back to the rink.

On the creamer station, I spied a single penny. I always make it a practice to pick up a penny and look at the year stamped on it. I’ve written about that penny, and the year associated with it, several times on this blog. And for every story I’ve told, there are several more that I haven’t had the time or the inclination to tell. But today’s was a story that had to be told.

The year stamped on the penny was 1995. I saw the date and blurted out “No fucking way!” without even thinking about it. The expletive had to be a part of what I said, too, because the irony was just too much to consider, especially so early in the morning.

1995 was the last time that Northwestern and Notre Dame have played each other in football. So much has changed in the 19 years since then: the internet, smartphones, social media, the cloud, so much of the things that we think have always been there but really have not. My two children were far off in the future back in 1995. I was still renting an apartment in those days. I weighed significantly less than I do today. And I never, ever said no to having a beer. In short, my life today in 2014 resembles 1995 in very few ways.

Northwestern won that football game back in 1995. For 19 years, I’ve been able to say that Northwestern had bragging rights when it came to Notre Dame. The Domers have the tradition and the aura about their program, but they haven’t had a chance to avenge their 17-15 loss to the school with perhaps the least college football tradition of all.

Notre Dame has a good football team this year, and Northwestern does not. The Fighting Irish lost by a wide margin in Arizona last week, and they may be wanting to take that frustration out on the Wildcats at home, in front of their fans. There’s still a matter of keeping themselves around for bowl consideration, after all.

There won’t be any bowl games for Northwestern this year. All that’s left to play for is pride, and that may not be enough to prevail. But the defensive captain of the 1995 team, Pat Fitzgerald, is the Wildcats’ head coach now, and will be for years–if not decades–to come. He understands what Notre Dame means, as an opponent. Nobody will be any better at getting his team ready for a game like this.

I believe in omens. Perhaps I’ve read too many books, and seen too many movies where a minor thing portends something more important down the line. That’s the essence of storytelling, after all. What seems unimportant at the time can turn out to be something greater. You never know in this world.

So if Northwestern can go into South Bend and pull off an upset–as they did back in 1995–a penny in a Starbucks won’t be the reason why. But it sure will be interesting if it turns out that way. I suppose we’ll find out in a few hours.

UPDATE: The Wildcats did indeed pull off the upset, winning the game 43-40 in overtime. I hope to put the game into words soon, but for now I’ll say that it was a roller coaster ride from start to finish, and Northwestern somehow prevailed. Go Cats!

Football season ends today

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I haven’t cared about the NFL for a very long time, probably since Mike Ditka was coaching the Bears. So I take my football in smaller doses, usually at the college level. This year, it has also included my high school alma mater, for the first time since I graduated high school. Life can take some unexpected turns sometimes.

A few minutes from now, the Cyclones of Sacred Heart-Griffin High will play for the Illinois class 5A championship, and while that game is going on, the Northwestern Wildcats will play the University of Illinois for the title of best FBS school not named Northern Illinois. It’s a down year at the college level, that’s for sure.

By early this afternoon, football will join baseball as sports that are in their offseason to me. Basketball and hockey, by comparison, never make it to my radar screen to begin with. Sports as a whole won’t matter again until March at the earliest. But that will be just fine with me.

After the purple sunset

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October 5 seems like such a long time ago. On that date, I had high hopes for Northwestern’s football team, which was unbeaten and ranked in the national polls.

I had written an exuberant piece for Five Wide Sports a few days earlier, about how it wasn’t 1989 anymore for the two sports teams I truly care about. The Chicago Cubs were losing, but the Northwestern football team was winning. The latter helped to take my mind off of the former, and it was a tradeoff I was glad to make.

And then, just before Northwestern played Ohio State in a nationally-televised game in primetime, the skies opened up and it started to pour. I wasn’t tailgating at the time, but the thousands who were probably got soaked in the process.

I mention this because afternoon rain showers can lead to some interesting sunsets. I saw it when I was in Door County, Wisconsin last summer. An afternoon cloudburst led to a green and brown sunset that I hope I’ll never forget. And the rain before the football game on October 5 also led to a unique sunset. But this was a portentous Northwestern purple, or at least it seemed that way to me.

I was driving around in Evanston when I saw it, on my way to the game and trying to find a place to park. There was a buzz in the air, because the rains were gone and it was going to be time for football soon. There were lots of Ohio State fans dressed in scarlet red, but there was a lot of Northwestern purple on display, too. And nature had seemed to decide the matter in the Wildcats’ favor.

The picture above probably shouldn’t have been taken in the first place, as I was trying to drive in a crowded situation at the same time. And it doesn’t really doesn’t do the scene justice, either. You can see purple here if you want to see purple. But to me, the purple was impossible to miss.

After a parking snafu, I finally found a place to park the car, and my daughter and I went to the stadium to watch the game. Northwestern played Ohio State close right up to the end, and lost when they couldn’t flea-flicker their way to a miracle finish. Clearly, the purple sunset hadn’t meant what I thought it did.

Northwestern went into a tailspin after the Ohio State game, and they haven’t won a game since then. They have one get left, against Illinois on Saturday. I hope they win this game, at least, to avoid the indignity of a winless season in the Big Ten. It won’t be the first time that has happened, of course, but once upon a time such losing ways were expected. This year’s collapse was completely unforeseen.

The purple sunset turned out to have a far different meaning than I had imagined. And the postseason bowl scene won’t have Northwestern involved, for the first time in a while. I’ll miss that part of the holidays, for sure, but then again it’s only a football team.

There are more important things in the world, as this year’s tornadoes in central Illinois have made abundantly clear. There are more than false omens that can come from the skies. If disappointment with my alma mater’s football team is all I have to feel bad about, I’ve got a very good life, indeed.

You gotta have fun

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My writing output in this space has fallen off a bit lately. Some of that is because ideas are getting sent to other places, and some of it is that baseball seems to animate my writing somewhat.

I recently gave myself three months off from writing forThroughTheFenceBaseball, because I torture myself enough thinking about and writing about the Cubs when the baseball season is going on. But there’s no reason to keep doing that now that the season is officially over.

Until further notice, any Cubs-related thoughts will get put here or on FiveWideSports, which I started writing for to comment on Northwestern football. And that has turned unexpectedly painful too, over the past month or so. But I like the idea of sharing a thought with the wider world, and this site–like TTFB–lets me do that when an idea strikes me.

So the Cubs have a new manager named Rick Renteria. I’m not familiar with him, but don’t have any high expectations for him. So I wrote this piece and sent it to FiveWide. You might say I was on a roll when I did it.

We’ve known each other for so long….. (and yes, I did go there in the piece, as well).

Hoping for a rematch

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Having been at last night’s game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Ohio State Buckeyes, it was a great game but a difficult loss to swallow. And now I have to change my Rocky metaphors when thinking about the rest of Northwestern’s season.

I wrote something to the effect of Northwestern’s two-week period leading up to last night’s game as a training period comparable to Rocky Balboa getting ready to fight Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Rocky sawed logs and felled trees, and pulled the cart in the snow, and climbed to a mountaintop to show that he was finally ready to face Drago. It was Hollywood cheese, to be sure, but mighty good cheese, just the same.

But this time it’s more like the end of the first Rocky film. The two teams went toe-to-toe last night, and in the end the underdog barely lost. Apollo Creed’s declaration that “There ain’t gonna be no rematch!” seems fitting this morning, as Ohio State may not want to see Northwestern again on a football field this season.

Rocky II was all about setting up the inevitable rematch between Balboa and Creed. If Rocky had tanked at the box office, there never would have been a Rocky II. And without Rocky II, the rest of the series doesn’t get made, either. Which would have been a shame, in my view.

So the Wildcats, who are understandably stung by such a close loss, must fight their way through the rest of the Big Ten schedule this season. If they win the rest of their games–with the home game against Michigan seeming to be the biggest hurdle–they can earn a rematch against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. I think anyone who watched last night’s game would be happy with that outcome.

So no longer is Ohio State Ivan Drago, in my mind. Now they are Apollo Creed, and that’s fine with me. Rocky needed to have Apollo, and the death of Apollo in Rocky IV was a mortal blow to the entire Rocky franchise, in some ways.

So let’s get to the rematch, and then win it, to ensure the lasting success of what Pat Fitzgerald is building at Northwestern.

Quarterly report #8

Wrigley and Pearl Jam--Awesome!

It’s now been over two years since I’ve been writing this blog. It’s been a time capsule of my life, and the more I do it, the more comfortable it becomes. As I sometimes do in this space, now’s a time to look back, and try to see what lies ahead, too.

I passed 1,000 posts here back in July, which I didn’t think would happen at one point. I had visions of going off and trying to work on a book of some sort, and maybe that will in the cards one day, but writing little posts like these and putting them online has an immediacy that writing a book wouldn’t have. So I keep devoting time and energy to this, because it does scratch some sort of an itch for me.

But I’ve also had writings appear in other places as well. I started writing a column at ThroughTheFenceBaseball, and I am very proud of the work I’ve done there over the past two seasons. The off-season hibernation will start soon, but I think there’s still a little bit more to say while the playoffs are going on.

I also started writing for FiveWideSports over the past couple of weeks, and I’m happy with the first few pieces I’ve sent them. As the college football season rolls on, I’ll keep writing about my Northwestern Wildcats. It will be nice to talk about a winner for a change.

I also had a piece appear on ChicagoSideSports, and saw my visions of a losing season on both sides of Chicago realized, in a way that I didn’t see coming. A run at the old record of 191 losses for both teams in a season would have been interesting, but breaking the record with 195 combined losses was more than I ever thought would happen. It was brutal.

I also wrote about the Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field back in July, including my first-ever appearance in Zisk magazine, which I really like a lot. I’m glad that they agreed to run my report on the concert.

I wrote lots of other pieces here, and I’m happy that I can take a small moment, or a trip to the ballpark, and put a few words about them here. And I plan to continue this into the future, as well. It’s too much fun to consider giving this up.

The next report will  be written during the bowl season, I hope. There will be lots of things to say between now and then, I’m sure.

A new outlet

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I’m happy that FiveWideSports will be carrying some of my thoughts and writings, beginning with this piece that appeared on their site today. I’m still writing for ThroughTheFenceBaseball, and I have a piece appearing there today, as well. The writing is all Cubs and baseball-related, and a week from now their season will be done. Thankfully.

FiveWide is going to give me a chance to write about Northwestern Football and other sports-related things that interest me. I went into a winter’s hibernation of sorts at TTFB last year, and this new site will give me a chance to wander off the baseball subject from time to time. I doubt I’ll ever stray too far from it, though.

And then, as always, there’s this blog. That’s going to remain as my go-to for anything else that pops into my head and inspires me to write a few words. After almost 1100 posts over the course of two years plus, I’m pretty sure that well will continue flowing into the foreseeable future.

Gonna wait now

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Northwestern now has two weeks to prepare for their game against Ohio State on October 5. While the Buckeyes have to deal with a should-be-undefeated Wisconsin team next weekend, Northwestern will have the week off to chop wood and climb mountaintops (metaphorically speaking). The planets are aligned for Northwestern on this one.

It looks to me that this is going to be the Big Ten’s game of the year. Has that ever been said of a game played in Evanston before? Not in my lifetime, at least.

And Northwestern has to win this game, if they want to take the next step forward in the world of college football. No moral victories, no coulda-woulda-shoulda, just putting more points on the board than the other team does. If that should happen, they’ll be no way of avoiding coach Fitzgerald and his team for the rest of this season, and for the forseeable future as well.

There’s no reason to think that this can’t happen. Yes, Ohio State put an unfathomable beatdown on an overmatched opponent today. But they can be beat, just like any other team can be. This is going to be Northwestern’s training montage over the next two weeks, a la Rocky Balboa in the Russian winter. If they can then hang with the Ivan Drago of the Big Ten, it will be a fascinating game to watch.

Go Cats!

The world has turned

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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!

The Cats and the Cubs

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I’ve been a Cubs fan since the mid 1970s, and graduated from Northwestern at the dawn of the 1990s. I  would go so far as to say that my interest in sports begins and ends with those two teams. So today’s announcement that Northwestern athletics will play some of their home games in football, baseball, lacrosse, and who knows what else in Wrigley Field during the coming few years is great news for me.

The Cubs and Northwestern are both breaking new ground here, with a partnership that hasn’t been tried by anyone else before. They’re each blazing a trail, and if it succeeds–make that when it succeeds–others will be looking to do the same thing. It’s an exciting time to have allegiances on both sides of this arrangement. May it lead to bigger and better things all the way around.

’13 seems lucky so far

Victory

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!

We’re halfway there

It’s halftime in the Gator Bowl, and Northwestern’s in the lead 13-10. A pick six in the first minute of the game got things going, and three interceptions on defense were a big help. An offensive touchdown would have been nice, but holding the Bulldogs to a field goal inside the red zone is the difference in the game right now. But they clearly have the momentum, so I am fairly concerned. And I’m not a fan of the cowbells, at all.

After the way NU gave away three games in the fourth quarter this year, the fun won’t start until the fourth quarter begins. Let’s hope that they learned something from those games, and they close it out this time.

In the meantime, I’ll just pretend that Bon Jovi was singing about the Wildcats. Go Cats!

What would I do without coffee?

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Not much to say here, just an observation as I enjoy the first of many, many cups I will have this year.

Looking forward to the Northwestern game, even if I don’t have the cable package to watch the game. I guess radio and Twitter will just have to do it for me, instead.

Happy 2013 to anyone who reads this.

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.

Big house, Big game

I’m not much of a football fan, but baseball has finished up its season, and I don’t care much for basketball, so it looks like football will have to do. And when I say “football” I really mean college football, because the NFL  isn’t too exciting for me, either.

I’ve never been to a game in Michigan Stadium, which is known far and wide as “the Big House.” I have walked around it, once at night when I found myself in Ann Arbor on business a few years back. Seeing the Big House just seemed like the thing to do at the time. And it certainly does seem big from the outside. It would have to be, if 100,000 people and more can all squeeze their way in to watch a game.

Northwestern is going to the big House tomorrow, hoping to chart a course for a 10-win season. 10 wins in the same season would be amazing, but it only happens with a win tomorrow. With an extra week to prepare for Michigan, I’m hoping that the Wildcats will have some new tricks up their sleeve when the game kicks of at 11 AM tomorrow. It should be a fun one to watch.

Go Cats!

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.

The year that the world changed

There have been a couple of times where I have found a penny on the sidewalk, picked it up, and used the date on that penny as a jumping off point for a post in this space. And so it was today, as I was visiting Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. I hadn’t been there in many years, since the group of high schoolers that I taught throughout their four years graduated in that facility back in 2000. It was a turning point in their lives, and in mine as well, since I had decided to leave teaching and go try something else. So it was a graduation ceremony for me, as well.

Back in 2000, my older daughter was still a baby, and my younger daughter hadn’t yet been born. So going back to the DuSable Museum today with my wife and two daughters–none of whom had been there before–was a special experience for me. And as I was leaving, I saw a penny on the sidewalk. I picked it up, looked at the date, and saw a year that seems like another world ago.

It’s probably fair to say that every year brings some change in a person’s life. I’m not sure which year I learned how to read (probably 1973 or so), but my world was never again the same after that. So to single out any year as a pivotal moment, above any other year before or after it, isn’t the best way to use this space. But, having said all of this, I feel like something did change back in 1995, the year that was stamped on the penny I found on the sidewalk.

In that year, my long-suffering alma mater, Northwestern University, shocked the sporting world by going on a Rose Bowl run that’s still being talked about. The team started out the year by beating Notre Dame, and since the two schools haven’t played since, I still get to claim bragging rights on that front. But they lost the second game of the season, to Miami of Ohio, in stunning fashion, and it wasn’t until they beat Michigan in the “Big House” that the season really took flight. And I remember that game, and that weekend, well.

A friend of mine and my wife’s from college was living in Atlanta at the time, and over the Columbus Day weekend, we flew down there to visit him. We watched the Michigan-Northwestern game on ESPN, and after the game was over we went to a Braves’ playoff game at the old Fulton County Stadium. I could look up the Braves’ opponent that night if it mattered, but just going to a baseball game in October was a new experience for me.

I wore my Northwestern hat to the game that night, and heard some complimentary things from people who had watched the game that afternoon. Michigan was the team that everybody not affiliated with the school loved to hate, and apparently that feeling extended to Atlanta, too. But a football game in the afternoon, and a playoff baseball game at night, made it a special sports day for me.

But what happened after the game was even more lasting. Our Atlanta friend took us to his office, where he showed us this new thing called America Online. I hadn’t seen it before, but it was fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that my wife and I signed up for it shortly afterward. We had dial-up at the time (who didn’t back in 1995?), but being able to get on the computer and interact with others was a revolutionary thing back then. The cheesy AOL ad above was really what it was like for me, and probably for millions of others, as well.

Almost seventeen years have gone by since then, and today I can’t remember how long it’s been since I had AOL. But it was my gateway into the online world, and for that reason I’ll always remember that trip to Atlanta back in 1995.

The magic numbers are 63 and 19

Last summer, my daughters were in a summer camp where they put on a musical performance at the end. My younger daughter sang “3 is a magic number” from the Schoolhouse Rock videos. She was amazing, of course, and I’m thinking about her and that song as I’m typing out this post. The magic numbers that I have in mind are a bit more than three, though.

When Dan Persa takes the field in Houston for the Meineke Car Care bowl of Texas in a couple of days, he’ll have at least two things to think about. The first is winning the game, obviously, which would be Northwester’s first bowl victory in 63 years. That by itself would be huge, but there’s also something else to consider.

Persa also needs to throw 19 passes in the game to become the all-time college football leader in completion percentage. He doesn’t even need to complete a single one of these passes to set the record, either. Just putting the ball in the air enough times will get this done. And every completion would just add to his new record.

Football’s a team sport, so I would think the victory is the priority over the individual record. Getting both the record and the victory would be nice, too, so I’ll be watching with the hopes of seeing history made, one way and/or another.

Go Cats!

Ending two bad streaks

I just returned from a one-day trip into the heart of Michigan country, Ann Arbor. I wore, as I often do, a purple Northwestern hat, but not with the intention of making any point about my school. It’s just a hat that I’ve been wearing for many years–decades, even–and am comfortable with. But I was representing the Wildcats, all the same.

The Big Ten played its first football championship game tonight, and now it’s on to the bowl season. Michigan will be back in one, after an unusual hiatus for them and their fans, but Northwestern’s status is unclear at this time. They won six games, which makes them “bowl eligible” but doesn’t assure them anything. Northwestern is going to have to appeal to some bowl game that wants to sell tickets, rather than put a good game on the field. All of these games are about money more than they are about competition.

Northwestern is a small, private school, and that means fewer students and alumni are available to buy tickets and travel to the game. A school like Michigan has a large student and alumni base, and so bowl games will fall all over themselves to bring Michigan to their party. Not so with Northwestern.

But on the other hand, Northwestern does have a pretty good record with selling their bowl allotment in years past. There are plenty of alums–myself included–who remember when we had to throw marshmallows at each other during the home games to keep our attention away from how awful the team on the field was. So playing in a bowl game is–and always will be–a validation of how much progress has been made since then.

There’s a problem,  though. NU (and it’s not NW, because Northwestern is all one word, and University is another word) has been to many bowl games (eight, to be exact) and lost them all. Their outgoing seniors have been to three bowl games, and haven’t won yet. They all want one more game, and if they get it, they sure won’t want to lose it. If they go, we’ll know where it is soon enough.

But there’s another Northwestern streak that’s coming into view again. The basketball team–which was just as dreadful as the football team was when I went there–has gotten better in recent years, but they haven’t yet received an invitation to the NCAA tournament. This is the de facto dividing line between the teams that had a successful season, and the teams who didn’t. And Northwestern has never been to the NCAA tournament before. Talk about a streak.

When it comes time to hand out the tournament bids in March, it’s all about “quality wins.” Who have you beat? When have you proven yourself to be one of the best teams in the country? Playing in the Big Ten, there’s rarely a shortage of quality opponents to point to on the schedule. Beating Wisconsin, or beating Michigan State, or beating Illinois (my favorite type of victories) usually helps to build a tournament portfolio, as it should.

But today’s game against Baylor is different. Baylor is unbeaten and ranked in the top ten of the weekly polls, but Northwestern hasn’t played them before. Beating a top ten opponent would be big all by itself. But doing it in December, before conference play even begins, would be even better.

This is a game that wouldn’t have been played ten years ago, when Northwestern played a soft non-conference schedule to take the sting out of the walloping they routinely got in conference play. But as a result of their successes over the past few years, they play with some bigger teams now. And beating those bigger teams–as Northwestern can do later on today–is the way to get the quality wins that will bring this NCAA-less streak to an end.

Go ‘Cats!

The best game I ever saw

I’ll never forget the first time I became aware of Northwestern’s football team. It was in the fall of 1982, so I would have been a freshman in high school. The announcers during one of the game breaks said “They’re going crazy up in Evanston, because Northwestern’s got the lead late in the game.” It seemed odd that winning a game was a news story, but I didn’t know that they hadn’t yet won a game in the 1980s. That knowledge wouldn’t come until later.

When it came time to choose a college, the importance of a school’s football program  didn’t matter at all to me. I had already graduated from what seemed like Football high school, and that was enough. So many other things were more important. It’s a good thing I felt that way, too, because the Northwestern football team won exactly eight games in the four years I was there.

During my final year on campus–1989–the team went 0-11, and routinely heard laughter from the opposing teams’ fans. It was sad in every sense of the word. So sad that we amused ourselves during games by throwing marshmallows at each other, to take our minds off the carnage on the field.  Those days are happily a thing of the past.

The 1995 Rose Bowl season was the year that Gary Barnett broke through all of the losing ways, and for the following year, all of the important players were returning. It seemed like another good season lay ahead, so my wife and I purchased season tickets for the home football games. It was, and still remains, the only time I’ve ever had season tickets for anything. But for a college football team that’s only six games, which won’t break anyone’s budget. And it would allow us to buy bowl tickets too, so why not?

The game that loomed largest on the schedule that year was Michigan. Michigan was the team that everyone measured themselves against back then. And Northwestern had beat them in the “Big House” the previous year, so there was some doubt that beating them twice in a row was possible.

Through the first half, and into the third quarter, the game was very boring. Michigan had a 16-0 lead, and was driving for what looked to be another touchdown. The Michigan fans, who were decked out in their maize and blue gear, as always, began to chant “Go! Blue!” It didn’t look good for the Wildcats at all.

And then the momentum swung in the blink of an eye. A Michigan receiver named Tai Streets, who was all-everything in high school and went on to an NFL career after college, had caught a pass, but coughed up the ball and Northwestern recovered. It felt like someone had lit a match among the Northwestern fans. From that moment, it felt like every play that Northwestern needed, they got. Third conversions, fourth down conversions, muffed punts by the other team, it was all going the Wildcats’ way.

Pat Fitzgerald, the defensive player of the year in college football and now the head coach of the football program, was going out of his mind, getting the entire team fired up. The fans were on their feet the whole time, too, with the feeling that the game could not possibly be lost.

The game came down, late in the fourth quarter, to a field goal to win the game. The Northwestern kicker made it, and pandemonium erupted in the stands. I had heard that term before, but it was the first time I had ever experienced it. If you’ve ever felt it before, you know what an indescribable rush it is. And if you haven’t felt it before, I hope you get the chance to feel it one day. It’s pretty special.

But there was a problem. The ball had been snapped too early, and so the kick didn’t count. When the explanation for what happened came, and it became clear that another kick would be needed, the fans immediately went back on their feet. The past disappointments of years gone by didn’t matter. Michigan’s standing as the bully who routinely ate everyone else’s lunch in the Big Ten didn’t matter, either. The team had come just about all the way back, and it wasn’t going to come up short this time.

When the kick went up again, and was good again, the ensuing second wave of pandemonium was even more intense than the first. We stormed onto the field, relishing both the sunshine and the glow of an improbable, yet somehow inevitable, victory. Coach Barnett had told Northwestern fans to “Expect victory” that season, and that’s exactly what we got. I’m sure that it will never get any better than that, and if it does, I probably won’t be there to see it.

There was another epic game in Evanston between Northwestern and Michigan some years later, with Northwestern winning the game, 54-51. Although the players and coaches from these games have all moved on, there’s some hope that this weekend’s matchup in Evanston will be exciting, too.

Michigan has returned to national prominence after the end of the Rich Rod era, but they haven’t yet played a game away from the Big House, until this Saturday comes around. Northwestern has lost two straight games, and doesn’t want another loss to go 0-2 in the Big Ten, right out of the gate. And Coach Fitzgerald can probably fire up his players as well as ever. So I’m hoping for a great game, even if I’ll be watching it from the comfort of my living room. Go Cats!