Sixty years for NU, and counting?

Chris Gentilviso

Strong football programs are defined by their commitment to achieving great expectations.

When it comes to the fourth quarter, Northwestern football prides itself on expecting to win. Finishes filled with theatrics, at times unthinkable, have sped up the heartbeats of Wildcats followers.

For a school that endured 23 straight losing seasons from 1972 to 1994, those theatrics have been a welcome change – a sign that the program has dedicated itself to winning.

But last season, one expectation remained unfulfilled: a trip to a bowl game.

Watching eight Big Ten rivals head to December and January hot spots, senior running back Tyrell Sutton and his teammates gained an incentive.

“There’s no reason for us to ever fall short of going to a bowl game, any season,” Sutton said. “We have the experience, and we have the playmakers. We just have to come out and focus.”


Only one team in school history has immortalized itself as the group that brought home a bowl trophy.

The term ‘Purple to Pasadena’ began in 1949. The Tournament of Roses parade and field looked the same. But Alaska and Hawaii were yet to be named states, and the U.S. had just dropped an atomic bomb on Japan.

Leave it to an unthinkable trick play late in the fourth quarter from the men in purple to shock the crowd.

Running back Ed Tunnicliff and the 1948 Cats set a model that has remained the centerpiece of the program’s successes. Trailing No. 4 California by one point late in the fourth quarter, Tunnicliff took a direct snap from center Alex Sarkisian and squeaked through the heart of the Golden Bears’ line for a game-winning touchdown and the 20-14 victory.

The goal for this team is to get to that point – a victory in a bowl game.

The spring season is the start of the fourth quarter for this roster – a group decked with seniors at key skill positions.

For motivation and guidance, they have a coach in Pat Fitzgerald who stands as arguably the most successful player in NU history. His 1996 Rose Bowl team is the glory of NU’s recent football past.

There were few things that Fitzgerald failed to do as a player in changing the expectations of Wildcats football. He became the only NU player in history to win back-to-back All-American honors, while adding a pair of Chuck Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski Awards to his mantle.

During his senior season, Fitzgerald had a second chance to lead the Cats to a bowl victory. But thanks to the SEC’s Golden Boy, Peyton Manning, the Tennessee Volunteers sent NU home with a 48-28 loss and a 1997 Citrus Bowl participant banner.


Nailbiters were at the center of last year’s six-win effort, with four of NU’s victories decided by seven points or less. They were also rampant in the team’s six defeats, with three blown leads in the fourth quarter.

The season bore notions of progress. But it also sparked claims of failed expectations.

“We know exactly why we stayed home last year,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not real hard. We have to figure out what we need to fix, and we’re working on that.”

There was a face in the center of that debate, a player who no longer has a chance to be a part of that process.

Never considered a household name, linebacker Adam Kadela blossomed into the team’s emotional leader as a senior. He produced workhorse performances on a weekly basis, culminating in 125 tackles, good for third in the Big Ten.

During last season’s darkest moments, Kadela had a simple answer.

“He would say just go out and play,” senior linebacker Malcolm Arrington said. “Play your hardest. There’s always one more play. Play like it’s your last.”


Approaching their final season with the Cats, Arrington and Sutton both said that statement now holds even greater weight.

With only a dozen regular-season games remaining in their careers, the 2008 seniors have reverted to a point when they were on the cusp of that highly-coveted late December win.

Strong visions remain of the Cats’ 2005 trip to El Paso, Texas. A 22-0 lead against UCLA in the Sun Bowl had NU thinking big.

The Bruins scored 36 unanswered points over the next two-plus quarters, holding a 36-31 lead with 2:29 remaining in the fourth.

A pair of onside kicks returned by UCLA’s Brandon Breazzell for touchdowns put the Cats’ dreams to rest. NU fell 50-38 in the highest- scoring game in Sun Bowl history, and has yet to reach a bowl game since.

As freshmen, these seniors realized that an appearance was different from a victory. But six months later, visions of December football were an afterthought.

Randy Walker’s tragic death thrust Fitzgerald to the head coaching ranks sooner than he ever could have anticipated.

Fitzgerald’s job was to run a football program. But his immediate responsibility was to nurture an emotional recovery.

When hired on July 12, 2006, he recalled Walker’s words to him regarding his eventual acquisition of the job on a spring recruiting trip.

“This is all going to be yours in 2012,” Walker told Fitzgerald. “You just have to let me come up from Naples with my ponytail and yell at you like I always do.”

For a program in need of an internal face committed to the values Walker instilled, Fitzgerald has been a success. But the process is far from over.

At the conclusion of Saturday’s spring practice, Fitzgerald defined the biggest difference in his coaching style entering his third season manning the sidelines for NU. It was related to his vocal chords.

“I’m not yelling as much,” he said. “It’s funny. Somebody said to me, ‘you’re learning on the job.’ I said, ‘Tell me somebody who isn’t learning on the job.'”


Like coaches, players learn on the job. But at the college level, that lasts for only so long.

Last season, Fitzgerald used the phrase “sand leaving the hourglass” to describe the late-season urgency in scrambling to make a bowl game. This spring, the attitude of his seniors has paralleled that saying.

Sutton’s words regarding Saturday’s practice may have been harsher than those of his coach. He called the Cats’ performance sloppy, and said there were several mistakes to be corrected before the spring game.

“We have to maintain,” Sutton said. “When we come out fast, we have to keep the pedal down. When we come out slow, we have to pick the intensity up and focus a lot more.”

There was only one impetus for Sutton to voice his discontent with a team scrimmage watched by a handful of fans. The desire to win is already here – in April.

Four months before the season opener against Syracuse, Fitzgerald had no problem with Sutton coming down hard on himself and his teammates.

“It says a lot about his maturity, his belief in the destination we’re all trying to achieve,” Fitzgerald said. “I like young men that are honest and realistic, and he is. He’s been through a lot of Big Ten battles, and he knows what it looks like.


When Fitzgerald chose NU as his destination for collegiate football in 1993, the destination of the football program was unknown.

Gary Barnett was in the midst of a 5-17 slide to start his Cats coaching career. Fitzgerald’s record in his first two seasons is 10-14.

It took Barnett four seasons pacing the Ryan Field sidelines to reach the prestige of a trip to Pasadena. Entering his third season, Fitzgerald’s mental adjustments continue to grow.

“If you stop learning, you’re dead,” Fitzgerald said. “I guess it’s year three. I’ve been a part of football since the second grade. The field’s the same. The ball’s the same.”

As Arrington steps into the same leadership position Fitzgerald held 11 years ago, his learning curve has been much higher. After two seaso
ns marred by injuries, the junior fulfilled a role that NU desperately searched to fill last season – a defender who can produce turnovers.

With only four starts to his credit, Arrington’s goals for his senior season are no less lofty than Fitzgerald’s were.

“This is our final time,” Arrington said. “This is our final go-around. We want to go out with something positive.”

For this team, the urgency has arrived. Finding that feeling may have been a difficult task in 1949 or 1993. But in 2008, bowl games are no longer a dream.

It all begins with the words of Fitzgerald – a four-year player who proved his worth on the field, and a third-year coach looking to prove his worth on the sidelines.

Even he can see great expectations beginning to bloom.

“It’s not your dad’s Northwestern, and that’s what’s most exciting to me,” Fitzgerald said.

When the ball drops on Times Square for New Year’s Eve 2009, it will be 60 years to the day that NU rose above the Pasadena naysayers.

Hopefully, you and your dad will have an NU bowl game to watch. [email protected]