Guest Column: Wounded Purple Pride

Ted Kunkel

Let me begin by saying unequivocally that I am a fiercely proud Northwestern Wildcats fan and Northwestern alumnus – a NU Marching Band alum even. I have no particular attachment to any professional sports teams – “my team” is NU. I’m tremendously proud of my association with NU and will bleed purple ‘til I die. I have the utmost respect for Northwestern’s staff, students, and student-athletes. More specifically, I love Coach Fitzgerald and I support him and the job he is doing of coaching our football ‘Cats 100 percent.

But right now, I’m disgusted. I’m disgusted because I’ve seen our Wildcats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on three different occasions this season, and I am utterly exhausted by patronizing game summaries reading something like, “Wildcats lose a tough one,” or “Wildcats come up short,” with a clear subtext of “(but what did you expect?)” How do you win 29 minutes of a game then lose the remaining 31, giving up 35 points in the process? How do you win three quarters of a game then lose the fourth, including getting duped on a fake punt? How do you give up a game to a team with an utterly injury-decimated offense led by a rookie quarterback? I’m sure we’re making in-game adjustments – aren’t we? The 2010 ‘Cats should be 9-0 today. Instead, they stand at 6-3, 2-3 in the Big Ten, just barely bowl eligible and facing a gauntlet of three tough, tough games remaining. Frankly, that’s not good enough. I blame it on Coach Gary Barnett and the Wildcats I cheered for as a student, and for the success our ‘Cats have enjoyed since then. Let’s face it, since the the Barnett-led renaissance of the mid-1990’s, expectations have been raised for our NU Wildcats football team. Mediocrity will no longer do when excellence is achievable.

It’s not just this season. Our Wildcats have established a pattern of inconsistency and playing to the level of our competition, which means playing “just well enough” to win the games we should (see any of our wins this season) but then finding ways to lose the the rest (see this season’s losses, the 2009 losses to Syracuse and Minnesota, the 2008 Alamo Bowl). Is there any wonder why we haven’t won a bowl game? And our “impressive record” in close games – might that be as much an indication of the fact that we can’t put teams away? In other words, sure we have a good record in close games, but I strongly suspect that those games shouldn’t have been close!

In this year’s losses, and I would argue a good number of those in previous seasons, it’s not like the ‘Cats are simply getting beat – to me, getting beat means that you faced a team with superior athletes and/or game plan and though you fought, scratched, and clawed to your utmost, you still came up short at the end. I have no problem with getting beat. NU is not getting beat – we are losing. Note that getting beat is not about you or your team – losing, however, is. Losing means that you and your team fail to even do the things that lead to winning. It means that at some point, you give up on the idea of winning – you stop believing you can win so you stop trying. To win, every coach and player must believe he can and will beat his opponent on every play, every down, every quarter, until time expires. Dan Persa cannot play 21 other positions.

Watch last year’s Outback Bowl – that was a team that finally believed it could line up with anyone, play, and win. Kafka and Markshausen didn’t perspire, they oozed confidence! Coach Walker’s 2003-2005 teams were buying in to that idea. Coach Barnett’s ‘96 and ‘96 teams did, as Coach Fitz knows well. Players on those teams had a swagger.

So what gives?! What is it in our Wildcats’ collective team psyche that says, “When things go bad, just knuckle under and give up. It’s just a sign that you can’t really compete at this level.” Do (some of/many of) our players really believe that? Do our coaches? It’s like a persistent inferiority complex, and I don’t buy it. The Wildcat fans I know don’t believe in it. If it were simply a matter of a talent gap and the ‘Cats were getting beat consistently (vs. losing), if we were just facing better athletes, we would have two options to address the situation:

1. Do a better job of recruiting more talented athletes (potentially changing admission standards).

2. Leave the Big Ten for a smaller conference with less talented athletes. Seriously. If it’s sheer athleticism holding us back, it’s unfair to our student-athletes and fans to pretend we can be competitive, and it’s not going to get any easier. And honestly, going FCS might be a good move – at least they have a sensible post-season.

Again, I don’t believe our problem results from a lack of athletic talent, so the above “solutions” are moot as far as I am concerned. But if you’re going to seriously attempt to excuse NU’s gridiron failures with some sort of a talent gap, there’s the path toward improvement.

That leaves me with the belief that something must change in the attitude of our entire football program: from coaches to trainers to starters to practice squad players. Does it even need to involve AD Jim Phillips? Maybe. After all, I don’t think our performance this season is really living up to his (brilliant but long overdue) campaign to dub our Wildcats “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” As I stated previously, I love Coach Fitzgerald and believe he’s the right guy for this job – I am by no means calling for any sort of change in staff just yet. However, some sort of attitude adjustment is clearly needed. Maybe a change in personnel is warranted, I don’t know. All I know is that our ‘Cats will never get over the hump of losing games until this attitude is corrected.

Finally, as those who know me would attest, I am a very patient person. I also measure my words carefully. So please understand I don’t post this casually. This isn’t simply the rant of an upset fan. I understand that coaching and playing Big Ten football is far more difficult and involved than I can ever know, and readily acknowledge the fact that my thoughts are those of an amateur outsider. All that said, know that this is meant to edify and build up and certainly not to cut down, so I trust Fitz and company take it that way.

Ted Kunkel is a 1998 Weinberg alumnus. He can be reached at [email protected]