Trahan: Chicago’s Big Ten tragedy

Kevin Trahan

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I’ve never been a fan of Northwestern’s marketing slogan: “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”

It seemed like a gimmick, one that any respectable Big Ten program shouldn’t need to fill seats. Evanston is not Chicago, and Chicago cares about NU the same way New York cares about Rutgers.

The Wildcats have the second smallest alumni base in Chicago of any Big Ten school, and with professional teams in every major sport, the metropolitan sports market is already too saturated for NU to have a presence.

Simply put, NU will never be Chicago’s Big Ten team by the numbers, but recently it has provided its fans with the same feeling that fans of Chicago’s professional teams have on an annual basis: frustration.

Chicago’s teams are known for their struggles – not just their losing, but how they lose.

The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 despite having one of the highest payrolls in baseball. The Bulls haven’t won much of anything since the Jordan days. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, but barely made the playoffs in 2011 and collapsed one win short of a monumental upset of the Canucks in the first round. The Bears are rarely great. And the White Sox are, simply put, No. 2 on Chicago’s baseball spectrum.

Frustration, frustration, frustration.

And NU is beginning to follow suit.

The Cats dropped to 2-4 after a loss to Iowa last weekend, and by now it’s safe to say that this is the most disappointing season in recent memory, not so much because of the losses – NU fans are used to that – but because this team had so much potential.

This was supposed to be the best team of the Pat Fitzgerald era, with an All-Big Ten quarterback, an All-Big Ten wide receiver, an All-Big Ten superback, an experienced offensive line and an experienced secondary.

But after a promising 2-0 start, the Cats have dropped their last four games in true Chicago fashion, inexplicably losing to Army, blowing leads to Illinois and Michigan and falling short of a comeback against Iowa.

“This season has been a journey,” quarterback Kain Colter said following the Iowa loss. “Right now we’re facing a storm. This is the point where we need to make a choice if we want to be great or win some games here and there.”

Like their team, NU fans will need to weather the storm for the rest of the season, wondering if their team can ever be great, given its failures with so much talent.

But Chicago fans are used to weathering the storm – some of them for 103 years – and NU fans have struggled through

long streaks of losing seasons right along with them.

The football team hasn’t won a bowl game since 1949, and the men’s basketball team is the only major-conference school to never make the NCAA Tournament.

That’s the epitome of Chicago sports.

The Cats still have the opportunity to salvage their season – the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is still on the table – but they have already fallen short of their high preseason expectations, and 2011 has ultimately been a disappointment.

But despite the disappointment, at least NU can take solace in the fact that it can finally identify as Chicago’s Big Ten team, if only in spirit.

Sports writer Kevin Trahan covers the Wildcats for He can be reached at