In the beginning, there was a few boring hours in central New Jersey. My introduction to the turbulent, cruel and occasionally uplifting world of Northwestern sports fandom came on my iPhone screen. I was at a Korean-American church get-together in central New Jersey (it’s a thing, just go with it) and I was bored. I saw that Northwestern was playing Stanford in the first week of the college football season so I turned on the game.
In the beginning, I had just started to get accustomed to the fact that I was actually going to Northwestern University and that it played in the Big Ten. I have to be honest, prior to the Northwestern/Stanford game, I’d watched about 20 minutes of Northwestern sports in my life. Growing up in Warwick, New York, the foci of my sports attention were the NFL, the New York Mets, the Knicks, Formula 1 racing and whatever soccer games I could record on my DVR. College football really wasn’t that important.
To put this in perspective, I had never watched the BCS National Championship Game before I got to Northwestern. I followed college football through the main page of the ESPN website and Holly Anderson’s excellent college football columns on Grantland. Considering Northwestern hadn’t been very good in the previous two seasons, I had no exposure to what was going on with the team. College basketball was more relevant to me, but with Northwestern not being a college basketball powerhouse, I really had no idea what I was getting into.
And then the Northwestern/Stanford game happened. I didn’t know much about college football, but I knew Stanford was pretty good. And here was Northwestern, the school I was about to attend, leading with less than a minute in the fourth quarter. I had watched most of the second half and watched as Christian McCaffrey (who I had no idea existed before this day) get repeatedly stuffed by Northwestern’s defense. It seemed like these Northwestern guys were good, even if the stadium didn’t look like any college football stadium I’d seen before.
Then Kyle Quiero picked off Kevin Hogan in the red zone, and the game ended. Suddenly, Northwestern had upset a Top 25 team. I was excited. I hadn’t acquired a new sports team to root for in years. The last team I adopted had been the early 2010s Knicks teams that peaked with Linsanity. But, seemingly out of nowhere, a new sports “franchise” had been gifted to me. And I accepted it. After all, they just beat Stanford, what could go wrong?
I was blissfully unaware of the pain and joy that many Northwestern fans have felt over the past few decades. I had no conception of the loss to Ohio State, the Hail Mary against Nebraska, Jared Sullinger, Bill Carmody, the ’95 Rose Bowl team, the bowl game drought, the NCAA Tournament drought, or anything whatsoever. I was going in blind. And besides, I had rooted for plenty of sports teams before. How could rooting for a college team for the first time be any different?
But now I’ve “grown-up” in my Northwestern fandom and put away my childish thoughts. I’ve witnessed the full range of emotions from these teams and this fanbase, from pure joy to agonizing defeat. I joined an online publication that wrote about these teams nearly every day. I’ve basically lived and breathed Northwestern sports for a good six months now. Throughout all of this, I think I’ve somehow kept my perspective as a true fan of the team. I still fist pump when things go well. I still watch intently. But I can say that rooting for a college sports team is completely different from rooting for a professional team.
When I use the “royal we” with a sports team, it always comes with a grain of salt. I’m not an actual member of the New York Mets organization, I just use “we” because it is convenient. But with Northwestern, I feel like I can justifiably use the word “we”. These athletes are representing my school. When they’re on television, it’s not complete strangers that are playing. I have never spoken to Terry Collins. I have talked to Chris Collins. Rooting for Northwestern has been very different from all of the other fan experiences that I’ve had in my life.
Here is my review of the experience thus far.
Part 1: College Football Means Nothing; A Fistful of Dollars
During Wildcat Welcome, the tour guides took us to a Northwestern football game on the second day. The team was playing Eastern Illinois, an FCS school, and Northwestern won 41-0. I left in the third quarter. The game felt fairly meaningless.
In hindsight, the game was not meaningless at all. I never really understood why college football teams scheduled FCS minnows to destroy at home, but now I get it. Those games mean a lot to the FCS universities and help to spread the wealth among the nation’s athletic programs. And for the players, those games offer a rare chance to play on a big stage. It’s actually kinda cool. Anyway, the Big Ten is ending the practice of scheduling FCS schools to accommodate a ninth conference game.
This was one of the last times an FCS school will get to play against a Big Ten opponent. The Big Ten is mandating that the Big Ten only schedule Power 5 schools in non-conference play and will institute a ninth conference game effective in 2016. None of the other power conferences have banned scheduling FCS schools. While it will help the Big Ten’s bowl resume and revenue streams, it is a bit sad that FCS schools will no longer get the opportunity to play against Big Ten programs. Perhaps the football will be more interesting, but the commercialization of the Big Ten rolls on like Cory Acker tearing through Eastern Illinois’ defensive line. Yes, Cory Acker! That game was fun, in hindsight.
But at the time, it was completely forgettable. I had been quickly rushed through the field as a bunch of people started cheering for the Class of 2019. My father bought a Northwestern hat and wore it proudly as I departed from the stadium and said goodbye to my family that night. At that moment, my biggest concern was that the Mets were about to clinch a playoff spot.
The Duke game was the next week. I sat on the lawn and watched Solomon Vault return a kick to the house. Someone I knew in high school was on the Duke team and made a few tackles. That guy had won us three league/state division titles through his shot put and discus prowess. I proudly had that trophy stashes in a basket underneath my bed. I was the only one who clapped for a Duke tackle. I had to, out of respect.
At this point, the harsh divisions that separate college teams from each other had not set into my brain. I was supposed to hate Duke football for some reason. Yik Yak was filled with “Fuck Dook” posts and anti-Duke jokes. But why Duke football? Duke basketball I understand, but Duke football has been worse than Northwestern for decades. They’ve gotten semi-good in the past 5 years or so. If I recall quickly, they played in the ACC Championship Game and lost to Jameis Winston. That was their best season in recent memory. But I guess I hated Duke now.
Northwestern won the game, and I gradually became convinced that college football had no meaning whatsoever. The only thing that mattered was the money. Both schools, Northwestern and Duke, seemed to revel in the idea of money. People made fun of Duke for being a school for rich, white people. Obviously, any Northwestern student saying this is partly a blatant hypocrite. Superiority was measured in terms of success, intelligence, and consequently future earning power. The U.S. News and World Report College Rankings got cited multiple times. This entire argument was a bit ridiculous, even by college football standards. Northwestern and Duke hadn’t even played that often before. Why was this even necessary?
Northwestern doesn’t have any “real” rivalry games. Sure Tim Beckman can pretend that Illinois and Northwestern are blood enemies, but HAT Week will never reach the levels of Ohio State/Michigan. The lack of a true rival makes the fan experience rather bizarre. Northwestern’s elite football experience is really only 21 years old and there has not been enough time or sustained success to build a true rivalry with any of the Big Ten teams.
Rivals are arguably more important in football than in any other sport. With so few games, the pressure and intensity of rivalry games are arguably the most vital parts of the season. As a diehard Giants fan, beating the Eagles and the Cowboys is paramount to my experience as a fan. In basketball, rivalry games during the regular season mean very little. In baseball, there are 17 games between rivals during the regular season. From my time at Northwestern, there is certainly a level of resentment amongst the fanbase for teams like Michigan and Ohio State, but there is no one who would ever call that a “rivalry”.
And of course, from another 1,000 feet up, the entirety of college sports as a whole is a Ponzi scheme that relies on unpaid college students to generate massive revenue. Actually, one of the only reasons I’d heard of Northwestern sports was the whole unionization push that occurred a few years ago. For a non-college fan, college football seemed utterly meaningless, an antiquated and unfair system that seemed to please a small cadre of mostly male sports fans. I enjoyed the game. I enjoyed rooting for Northwestern. But none of it really made any sense to me.
Part 2: “I’ve been starting over for a long time.” – a lyric from “Weight” by Mikal Cronin and a description of Northwestern’s offense
After wins over Ball State and Minnesota, I started to get more excited about this college football phenomenon. As I adjusted to Northwestern more, my appreciation college football grew. Now I still think college football is a pyramid scheme, but it’s probably one of the most entertaining pyramid schemes in America.
College football is so damn fun. Some of the shit that happens in college football is just unbelievable. Take the Northwestern/Penn State game, in which Northwestern’s backup quarterback led Northwestern’s abysmal offense 50 yards down the field to kick a game winning field goal. Or the Northwestern/Wisconsin game, in which Northwestern lost the game 3 times in the final minute before somehow winning. Or that absurd Michigan/Michigan State game. Or the Florida State kick-six against Georgia Tech.
But as the season continued, I started to realize a trend at Northwestern. The students just weren’t as pumped as I was. The football team was a weekly soap opera. In fact, the entire college football season was, as usual, just a dramatic and brilliant mess. But I was enjoying it all alone. It was hard to get people to show up, to care, to watch this rollercoaster of emotions. One of the reasons I ended up joining Inside NU, was to have some other sports fans to interact with.
Northwestern’s sports culture is quite similar to small, private New York high schools, except the team itself out-kicks its coverage, so to speak. At those schools, going to watch your schoolmates in live sporting events is secondary to almost everything. Students will care a little bit more when the team is good, but the general atmosphere is along the lines of “oh yeah, how are they doing?” Football isn’t, and may never be, a dominant part of the general Northwestern discourse. The parties and the tailgates are one thing, but the football itself often fades into the background. There will always be a cadre of diehard fans that make up the Inside NU readership, the front rows of the student section, etc.
And so Northwestern really has been starting over for a long time. The team’s success from 1995-2000 should have ignited a college football culture, but it feels like it has been slow to develop. The football team has the potential and the ability to seize hold of the school and the town’s general imagination, but that long-term foundation of watching Northwestern sports just hasn’t been there. That’s how you get a minuscule amount of people watching a two-loss Northwestern team play Purdue at home.
Maybe it’s a problem of the culture in general. Televisions are nicer, the weather is cold, and some people just want to stay home. But in many ways, I feel like Northwestern football is a wasted resource. Does Northwestern football need to win the Big Ten in order to gain an established fanbase? Do they need to win the National Championship? If being pretty good isn’t good enough, it seems that something drastic has to happen before the “Northwestern brand” becomes a reality.
Sometimes that is a good thing. For example, I do think Northwestern football players and athletes in general are significantly more humble than the power conference average. That part of the “Wildcat Way” is not an understatement. But much of that humility comes from being relatively little known around the school itself. For as much as the student-athletes give to the school (and the Big Ten bigwigs, of course), it’s not as much recognition as you’d expect. I actually found it interesting that some of the members of the football team were in favor of a Northwestern student government candidate who promised to give more power and representation to athletes on campus. That suggests there might actually be a sense of marginalization.
From a personal standpoint, it got less fun to root for the football team as the year went on. My family back in New York watched more Northwestern football than the kids on my floor. When we made the Outback Bowl, there was widespread happiness on campus, but some of it just felt like people were latching on at the end. The end result of the bowl game and the incredibly boring style of play didn’t help much either.
But nevertheless, football was really the high point of the Northwestern sports season for me. Because for basketball season, all of the oddities and cracks of the Northwestern fan experience got turned up to eleven.