New AD: Win the right way

Matt Baker

Let’s face it: the Wildcats are lovable losers. Northwestern’s football team hasn’t won a bowl game since the Truman administration, its men’s basketball team has never been to the Big Dance and its only success stories are in non-revenue sports.

This reputation has lingered for years – long before Henry Bienen and Mark Murphy took over as president and athletic director. But now that Murphy is gone and Bienen is searching for a replacement, I have a humble request to the new AD:

Keep NU’s identity intact.

Just because I’m a fan of the Wildcats and the Indiana Pacers doesn’t mean I’m a sadist. I enjoy winning: two of the highlights of my life have been the football team’s epic upset over Ohio State in 2004 and the Indianapolis Colts’ Super Bowl title last year.

But I want NU to win the right way – with class, with dignity and with our high academic standards intact.

The athletic department’s two most obvious problems are in basketball: The men’s team is the worst in the Big Ten, and the women’s team has a shot at breaking last year’s conference record of dropping 18 straight games. Clearly the new AD should address these programs.

It’d be easy for him (or her) to ask Bienen to siphon off a little of NU’s $6.6 billion endowment or the $700 million NU made in the Lyrica sale and steal a big-name coach or two who would get the Cats to the NCAA Tournament or in another Rose Bowl.

But, depending on how the success comes, it could also be wrong.

If a new basketball coach accepts a cocky freshman who cares more about joining the NBA than his GPA (See: USC and O.J. Mayo), then there is a problem. If new coaches use shady tactics to steal others’ recruits or repeatedly shun NCAA rules by making too many phone calls (like Indiana’s Kelvin Sampson), then there is a problem. If they care more about winning than academics or integrity, then there is a problem.

Granted, between the basketball team’s point-shaving scandal in the ’90s and hazing violations with the women’s soccer team and mascots in 2005, NU’s athletic reputation isn’t perfect.

But the problems are few and far between, and the Cats are regarded as a great example of academic and athletic success – and that’s a reputation NU needs to continue.

Our new AD needs to recognize this identity and embrace the Cats’ success stories. The women’s lacrosse program is the best in the country. The softball team has been to two straight Women’s College World Series. The football team has been recognized nationally for its high graduation rates five times since 1998 – including three of the past four years.

And, woeful as they may be, NU’s basketball teams consistently graduate their players.

As a diehard hoops fan, I would love for NU’s teams to make a run to the NCAA Tournament, and I’m sure a trip to the Big Dance would have our largely apathetic student body dancing up and down Sheridan Road.

I do believe it’s possible to shake this losing mentality. NU was seen largely as a commuter school decades ago – a poor man’s University of Chicago – before making a name for itself in academics.

But if NU is going to overturn its tradition of losing, I want it done the right way – and that starts with the right person at the top. NU needs an AD who embraces our identity and is committed to building a classy program with athletes who actually, um, go to class.

If maintaining that reputation means more sub-.500 seasons, I’d rather root for a bunch of lovable losers who play by the rules than a winning team that doesn’t.

Deputy sports editor Matt Baker is a Medill senior. Reach him at [email protected]