Climbing the mountain, reaching the summit

Matt Forman

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The mark of a successful football program is changing.

With 34 bowl games played in late December and early January, 68 of the nation’s 119 FBS squads earn a postseason berth. No longer are the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl the be-all and end-all of the college football season.

Still, the complexion of the game has been altered. The expectations are higher. Programs are judged by their ability to reach the postseason consistently and win.

Last season, 23 seniors identified their season goal before making the trip to Camp Kenosha, printing it on a bulletin board in the team’s office: “Win a bowl game.”

When Northwestern lost in overtime to Missouri in late December, the 2008 Wildcats fell short of that goal. As the final pass attempt fell incomplete, the 2009 Cats were born.

“Every team starts over new, and the death of the 2008 team came simultaneously in the same locker room as the birth of the 2009 team,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We start over from square one. We go back to the ABCs.”

Following the Alamo Bowl loss, Fitzgerald answered questions from the national media, saying his program still had a long way to go.

It had to “get over the mountaintop.”

HISTORY NOT IN THE CATS’ CORNER

In the extended 132-year history of NU football, the Cats have managed to reach the postseason seven times. Six of those appearances have come in the last 15 years. The only bowl bid prior to 1996 came 60 years ago, when NU topped California in the 1949 Rose Bowl. That group was the only one to immortalize itself with a bowl victory.

NU has made back-to-back bowl appearances just once, with the 1996 Rose Bowl and 1997 Citrus Bowl, when Fitzgerald won All-American honors as the team’s starting middle linebacker.

For most of NU’s recent history, bowl berths have led to collapses in the ensuing season.

Before last season, NU had made bowl games in 2000 (Alamo Bowl), 2003 (Motor City Bowl) and 2005 (Sun Bowl). Its combined record in the seasons after each appearance: 14-21.

Those mid-90s teams did the unexpected. They went from Big Ten punching bag to Big Ten powerhouse, upending 23 consecutive losing seasons, using the mantra “Expect Victory.”

But in the midst of a 2-7 season in 1998, fifth-year senior wide receiver D’Wayne Bates, a key to the team’s offensive success just a year prior, told Sports Illustrated that “building a tradition is a slow process.”

More than 10 seasons later, Bates’ buddy Fitzgerald is trying to establish a new tradition, as the director of NU’s football family.

“This is how we’re building a program, not just one team,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to have a consistent winner over time, not just being like VH1 and a one-hit wonder.”

BUILDING A PROGRAM

It’s one thing to jump on a moving train. It’s another thing to jump in front of the train and turn it around.

That was the message coach Gary Barnett imparted to his team when he took over at NU in 1992. It was going to require a Herculean effort to reverse the fortunes, as the school had compiled 49 consecutive losing seasons.

Barnett was a master motivator, using metaphors to prove his points and rally his players. He told his team to have faith in each other by “belief without evidence.”

It worked. In Barnett’s first three seasons in Evanston, the Cats went a combined 8-24-1. They went 19-5 over the following two and earned the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 47 seasons.

Despite “riding a glass slipper” to Pasadena, NU fell 41-32 to USC after leading 32-31 early in the fourth quarter. They didn’t dance, and a bowl win remained elusive.

“Getting that bowl win is something that everyone brings up,” Barnett said. “It’s always there.”

THE DARK AGES

Following the successful 1996 season, NU officials remodeled the school’s football stadium by gutting the turf and lowering the grass playing surface five feet. In turn, the stadium was renamed Ryan Field after the chairman of the school’s board of trustees, Patrick J. Ryan.

In the process, officials arbitrarily dropped the name Dyche Stadium, which had been in place for 70 years.

That upset former NU sports information director George Beres, who served in that position from 1968-1973. Beres was not pleased with history being ignored. He said he thought it was a move away from the goal of intercollegiate athletics. As a result, he stood in the parking lot of Ryan Field and pulled petals off of a rose, putting a curse on NU’s football program.

The curse? The Cats will not win an outright Big Ten title until the Dyche Stadium name is reinstated.

Beres knows the dark ages of NU athletics, as he experienced the lowest of the lows. NU went 23-40 during his tenure as sports information director. Shortly after he left, from 1979-1982, the Cats endured a stretch of 34 consecutive losses.

While Beres respects Fitzgerald’s vision, he has a different take on the program’s revival.

“It looks like it won’t be a one-shot deal,” Beres said. “I would not be shocked if Pat Fitzgerald led Northwestern to a Big Ten title, despite my curse. But it would be an isolated thing, they could not be competitive for very long.

“I also would not be shocked to see Northwestern lose every game in a season. I would expect the days of 34 straight losses to return.”

Beres said he believes NU should leave the Big Ten and focus on academics, competing against schools with similar values. That, in his mind, would be the ultimate turnaround.

THE TRICKLE-DOWN EFFECT

According to Barnett, every football program takes the identity of its coach and follows its leader.

When Fitzgerald takes his position on the field during NU’s practices, it’s almost as if he’s wearing a tie-dye t-shirt among black and white jerseys. He stands out. He commands attention. Everyone knows where he is.

Fitzgerald is constantly on the prowl – one minute he’s in the play. The next he’s behind the play critiquing it. The next he’s giving individual technique advice.

It’s safe to say his intensity and his colors wear onto his players.

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” sophomore cornerback Jordan Mabin said. “His intensity shows to the other coaches so they get intense, and that comes down to us and gets us pumped up. It makes for one intense group.”

The passion leads to increased expectations of never being satisfied. Nothing is good enough.

“We took a nice step last year, but it’s a never-ending process,” linebackers coach Randy Bates said.

Spring football marks the beginning of the end of the final season for NU’s seniors. Their goals are going to be similar to those of last year’s group.

“There’s no excuse (to not get to a bowl game),” senior cornerback Sherrick McManis said. “We know where we have to go. We know what we have to do to get there.”

Still, the team refuses to look at the big picture. It has bought into the one play, one series, one game mentality to consistently prepare itself for victory.

“What the program did last year and where we’re going – we’re taking it over the mountaintop,” senior safety Brendan Smith said.

STEP BY STEP

If NU wants to get over the mountaintop, its 2009 goal should be clear: get to back-to-back bowl games for the second time in school history.

“It’s absolutely necessary, because doing that validates your program and creates credibility,” Barnett said. “You’re not a flash in the pan. Anybody can do it once, but doing it year after year after year is what creates legacies and traditions and dynasties. That’s where they need to go.”

In the final chapter of Barnett’s book, titled “High Hopes: Taking the Purple to Pasadena,” he puts a close on the 1995 season. In that account, Barnett says: “We went into 1995 without any evidence that we could reach the Rose Bowl. Now we have evidence. That hill’s been covered. We’ve reached the summit. But when you get to the top of one hill, what you discover is that it’s not j
ust one peak then a valley. It’s a mountain range, and there are just more peaks out there – all higher than the one you just climbed.”

And that’s how you build a program – consistently taking the next step, climbing the mountain range. It’s what strong college football teams do.

“At Northwestern, we’ve battled to the top of the mountain, but we haven’t been king of the mountain,” Barnett said. “We haven’t pushed somebody off the mountain.”

That’s what the 2009 team has to do.

m-forman@u.northwestern.edu

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