Walfish: Gator Bowl a win for Northwestern, generations of alumni


Meghan White/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter hugs Northwestern President Morton Schapiro after the Wildcats’ win over Mississippi State at the Gator Bowl on Tuesday.

Josh Walfish, Reporter

As the final seconds ticked down in the 2013 Gator Bowl, University President Morton Schapiro and Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips went along the sidelines of EverBank Field and started hugging the numerous alumni around them. And when coach Pat Fitzgerald ran onto the field to shake Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen’s hand at the end of the game, the pure joy on the two administrators’ faces said it all.

Just a day earlier, the two stood together on the Jacksonville Landing telling a crowd of Wildcats supporters about the $55 million fundraising effort toward new on-campus athletic facilities. The excitement about using athletics as a point of pride for the school was palpable. Schapiro spoke at length about never wanting to settle for anything, including athletic success, and about always yearning to do better.

Earlier on Monday, coach Pat Fitzgerald and his three senior captains were asked about their legacies and how it would be influenced by ending the streak of bowl-game losses. All four spoke about the burning desire to eliminate the last remaining negative surrounding the football program. They spoke about not wanting to be the losers of the past, about wanting to start a new chapter.

“It’s just the beginning for this program and what there is to come,” senior offensive guard Brian Mulroe said Monday. “Next year and the years to come will also be very exciting for the Wildcats.”

The scene on the field after the win proved just how much it meant for NU as an athletic program and as a university. The thousands of purple-clad supporters remained in their seats, soaking in the moment, as fans in maroon slowly filed out of the stadium. After a quick postgame prayer, the team sprinted out, emerging from the locker room as if the game had just begun. They ran to the northeast corner of the field and sang the fight song with the fans. Fitzgerald looked as if he could break into tears at any point. Phillips hugged every reporter there, both current students and alumni, with a big smile on his face.

In the middle of all the havoc, Phillips told The Daily exactly what the win meant in the bigger context.

“It’s amazing what 105 guys can do for an entire university,” Phillips said, “not just for a football team or an athletic department, but a university. There isn’t a Northwestern alum anywhere in this world that isn’t exceptionally proud of those guys.”

Those who once kept their alma mater quiet now wore their purple pride across their chests. Prominent sports journalists like ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and Michael Wilbon dedicated time on their television and radio shows to talk about their Wildcat pride. Tweets poured in from NU alumni all over the country expressing their unbridled joy about the drought-ending win.

However, no set of alumni was happier than the football players who played for the Cats in the past 64 years. Fitzgerald dedicated the triumph to the former players who allowed NU to get to that point. Former Cats kicker Sam Valenzisi interviewed Fitzgerald after the game for WGN Radio and ended by thanking the coach for bringing home a victory for the team. The two ex-teammates embraced and Fitzgerald trotted off to accept the bowl championship trophy.

A day later, the team arrived back at Ryan Field. Fitzgerald spoke with local television crews from inside the John C. Nicolet Football Center. An eager reporter asked him about whether the win made up for what he did not accomplish while wearing the purple and white as a linebacker for the Cats.

His response beautifully summarized what the win means for the NU community.

“I was with two of my teammates last night for way too long,” Fitzgerald said. “We were talking about (whether the win replaced a win as a player). (That opportunity is) something we can never have back, but at the end of the day we felt like we won. Both of those guys felt like they won yesterday … Emotionally, there’s no question I think anyone who’s ever put on the purple and white felt like they won the game yesterday.”