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!

Go Cats!

As a Northwestern alum, sports are not always a happy topic of conversation. Yes, the football team is a long way from the days of marshmallow fights in the stands. That, and tailgating, used to be the only thing to look forward to on a Saturday afternoon when I went to school there. But they can’t quite get over the hump when it comes to winning a bowl game. It’s great to play in bowl games in the first place, but the annual losing of a game to start the new year off is tiresome.

And the basketball team, well, let’s say if you can’t get to the NCAA tournament after having two very good four-year starters (Michael “Juice” Thompson and John Shurna), it’s not looking good for the near future. Every year they win a game against a ranked opponent, and get the conversation going about whether this will finally be THE YEAR, and every year there’s a flameout in the Big Ten tournament, followed by an NIT berth, and sometimes not even that. That, too, is getting to be very old now.

But what’s not old is the success of the women’s lacrosse team. They’ve won six national championships in the last seven years, and are going for their seventh title in eight years tonight. (UPDATE: They won. It’s now seven titles in eight years). If winning is important, I suggest this is a better place to focus attention than football or basketball.

To be better than every other team in college athletics, in any sport, is a tremendous feat. There are many more schools playing the games than there are championships to be had. So why does Kentucky and their One-year-and-then-off-to-the-NBA basketball team deserve so much attention? Or the Whichever-school-from-the-SEC-wins-this-year football champions mean more than all the others? Colleges weren’t meant to be a developmental league for the NFL, the NBA, or any other sport. So why have they become that, over the years? It’s only because we have allowed it to be such.

I’m not a lacrosse fan, in the least. But I’m happy that, whenever someone wants to hold out athletic success as a gauge of a college’s worth, that I can point to a program that hasn’t just won over the past few years, but has dominated their sport to a degree that few others have ever done before.

So I wish the best to the Wildcats’ lacrosse team as they take on Syracuse for the national title this evening. Win or lose, they’ve already represented my alma mater quite well to the sporting world, or at least the part that cares to look in that direction.