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!

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

Trust

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 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.

Sorry, Pappy!

Fitz

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.

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,

GO CATS!

Doing it the right way

September brings the return of football season. Baseball had the sporting world to itself in July and August (with the exception of the Olympics and a few sports that not too many people care about), but those days are gone now.

Yesterday was September 1, and football season began with college games. The NFL, which I stopped caring about in the late 1980s, starts play next weekend. But for now, there’s football in the air, for the first time since the end of the Super Bowl many months ago.

The only college team I can get worked up over is my alma mater, the Northwestern Wildcats. When I was at school there in the late 1980s, they were as terrible as a football team could be. The marshmallow fights that raged in the student section during the games were more interesting than anything on the field. Jangling your keys during a kickoff (and there were many of them during a typical game) was a chance to participate in the action in some small way. And I can’t remember which team’s fans started laughing at our team’s ineptitude after running a long touchdown play, but it really doesn’t matter which one it was. Hearing their laughter in the first place was bad enough.

In the four years that I was an undergraduate, the football team won eight games. Eight wins is a disappointing year for some football teams, but that’s all I got to see in four years. Two of those wins came against Illinois, so it’s not all bad, I suppose.

Things have improved dramatically since then, starting in 1995. Pat Fitzgerald will be around as the coach for many years to come, and he’ll keep the football program moving in a direction that’s both competitive on the field and successful in the classroom. He’ll make sure that the “student” part of student-athlete comes first, as it should be.

So playing, and winning, a road game against Syracuse yesterday was the best start to a season that can be anticipated. It was apparently an exciting, even thrilling, game to watch, but I was out with my family and have to learn about it through second-hand accounts in the news. Win or lose, I’m proud to be affiliated with a school that does it the right way in college football. Now bring on Vanderbilt!

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!