Ryan: Tough to judge season’s success

Dan Ryan, Sports Editor

It’s funny how winning spoils fans.

Any year the New York Yankees don’t hoist a World Series trophy is a catastrophic failure in the eyes of the fan base. The same is true for the New England Patriots, just to a lesser degree. Before 2004, fans of the Boston Red Sox would’ve settled for second place in the AL East every once in a while, let alone a playoff berth. But then came the rings.

As I watched Northwestern flatten Illinois last weekend, I realized the same thing has happened to me and the Wildcats. If you had told me before this season the team would go 9-3 and have a chance at the Capital One Bowl, I would’ve died from a happiness-induced heart attack (note: my feelings toward our team are a bit extreme). That’s a banner year for a program with NU’s history of mediocrity (or worse, generally).

Then, this season happened.

At this point, I can’t help feeling more disappointment than elation. The Cats had about as good a shot to win the Big Ten this year as they’re ever going to get. Ohio State, easily the best team in the conference, was disqualified from the Big Ten Championship. Same goes for the arguably second-best team, Penn State. Winning the Legends Division meant facing the third-best team in the Leaders Division in the championship, and any NU fan has to like those odds.

It wasn’t to be, of course, leaving us to decide what our definition of success was this season. And I’m having a difficult time figuring out what mine is.

Every time I find myself feeling happy about our record and bowl projections, I have a vision of the fourth quarter collapse against Penn State. Or the two dropped interceptions against Nebraska. Or Michigan. The thought of what could have been has colored almost everything about this year.

But then I remember this is NU, a team I had pegged to finish 7-5 before the season got underway. This isn’t a program with a history of tremendous success such as the Yankees. Just because we didn’t get everything we wanted doesn’t mean the year was a disappointment.

It’s likely the fact that the team started 5-0, getting our hopes up and our sights on winning the division, combined with the manner in which NU lost those three games that leaves me wanting more. The path to the Rose Bowl was so clear, so doable. Hold onto Taylor Martinez’s errant throw, bat the ball away from Roy Roundtree, and NU is playing for a chance to go to Pasadena. Probably to get trounced by Stanford. Baby steps.

At the end of the day, we should be happy that 9-3 and a solid bowl opportunity feels like a failure. It means that the program is sustaining success, something our expectations have been revised to reflect. Would you rather be happy with 7-5 or upset with 9-3? The program is moving in the right direction, and maybe some day we’ll be sitting around complaining about not making the Big Ten Championship for the third consecutive season.

Regardless, it was a fun season, especially by NU standards, and I’m reasonably happy with 9-3.

I think.