On Jan. 1, 2013, Northwestern won its first bowl game in 64 years, ending the nation’s longest bowl-win drought. The Wildcats’ head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a college football Hall of Famer and member of the University’s 1996 Rose Bowl team, became the school’s winningest head coach with the Gator Bowl win.
But before tasting success, the football program, its fans and alumni traveled a long road filled with heartbreaking losses and off-field tragedies.
On June 29, 2006, then-head coach Randy Walker died of a heart attack at the age of 52. Walker compiled a 37-46 record at Northwestern, maintaining the respect brought to the program by Gary Barnett during the 1990s.
The Cats had just finished a 7-5 season that ended in a bowl loss. Looking to maintain its recently gained relevancy, the University turned the program over to Fitzgerald on July 7, 2006. At the time only the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator, 31-year-old Fitzgerald became the youngest Division I-A head football coach.
Before the Fitzgerald era started, even with the recent relative success of Barnett and Walker, the program still had to fight its less-than-stellar history.
The following is the story of the Pat Fitzgerald era, and how Northwestern overcame decades of futility and heartbreak to win a bowl game under its charismatic coach, told through the stories of players and alumni who saw it live.
Adam Rittenberg (Medill ’03), reporter, ESPN.com: Looking at the records and talking to the people who were there, the team before Coach Barnett was terrible. The program was overmatched, underfunded in every way. It didn’t look like it belonged in the Big Ten throughout the 1980s. The talent was not there, and the facilities were not there. They were not in a position to compete. They went through a couple coaches. Dennis Green had success in the NFL (but) he couldn’t get anything going at Northwestern. In some ways, Northwestern is still paying for those times where they were at the bottom of college football. Gary Barnett was extremely important. Given their history preceding him, they were, if not the worst program in the country, they were in the discussion. They needed that transformative figure, and that’s what Gary Barnett was. He got that team to play above its ability and get all the way to the Rose Bowl. That was the year where it changed for Northwestern. His tenure is a little bit overrated in the sense that he had two good years and not much else. But those two years got Northwestern out of the dark ages.
Teddy Greenstein (Medill ’94), reporter, Chicago Tribune: There’s this one season in the ’80s. In the media guide they used to have points for and points against. For points for it was like 82, and points against was 585. I think that was the low point. The average score was like 50-8. Gary Barnett’s impact was absolutely enormous. There are probably four generations of Northwestern football. The first one is winning the Rose Bowl. The second is Ara Parseghian and being the top-ranked team. The third is Gary Barnett. There was nothing good in between. And if it wasn’t for Gary Barnett, we wouldn’t have Pat Fitzgerald. He recruited him. Fitz was kind of reluctant to (attend NU). Finally Gary Barnett threatened him and said he was outside someone else’s house and asked Fitz if he wanted the scholarship or not, and Fitz finally said yes.
Stefan Demos, NU kicker, 2006-2010: I didn’t actually know who Northwestern was until my junior year of high school.
Brian Peters, NU safety, 2007-2011: I knew barely anything besides they were a good academic school. My original picture of them wasn’t too hot, but I knew they existed.
Dan Persa, NU quarterback, 2007-2011: I knew a little bit about Northwestern, being from Pennsylvania. Penn State would play them in the Big Ten. But I didn’t really know anything until I was recruited. I didn’t really know anything about the Gary Barnett era until I got there.
June 29, 2006: Walker passes away from a heart attack.
Darren Rovell (Communication ’00), reporter, ESPN: I remember it so clear. It was June 29, 2006, because that was my last day at ESPN for my first stint. I went to a party and the next day I heard he had died. It was obviously very shocking. He was just the nicest guy. I can’t tell you how many quotes he made up where I would say, “What?” — just things I’d never heard of being a kid from Long Island, (N.Y.). He was a great guy. When it came down to it, when they hired Fitz, I thought it was the right move immediately. He would have been a head coach anyway, and so you might as well get him started. As a fan, I was excited about it.
I. The Fitzgerald era begins
July 6, 2006: Fitzgerald, 31, is named head coach just over a week after Walker’s death. Fitzgerald had never been a coordinator on the college level. His lack of experience — as well as his underlying talent and charisma — was apparent to everyone during his first two seasons. (The NU athletic department declined an interview request with Fitzgerald)
Greenstein: He said he had no idea what he was doing. The guy had not even been a coordinator yet. He was a position coach. You don’t have to make a lot of decisions. Then all of a sudden everything falls on you. It’s tough for the coaching staff. You were working for these guys now all of a sudden they are working for you. At this point he’s lost his mentor. It was a brutal time. He’s only sleeping a couple hours, and his wife is pregnant. You could see why he was a total stress case the first year.
You could just look alone at how Fitz is with the media. When he came in, 2006-2007, during the Big Ten coaches conference call, I used to joke it was like pressing a play button. You could ask him, “Have you seen any good movies lately?” and he was a total robot. He didn’t have confidence in himself. Now, he’s funny and he’s not afraid to say whatever he wants. He can make fun of himself; he’s totally comfortable. That certainly wasn’t the case when he took over.
Rittenberg: I think Pat would admit that he wasn’t ready. The plan was for Randy Walker to serve out the rest of his contract extension, which I believe was through 2012 or somewhere around there. Pat was only supposed to be taking over around now. He was a position coach and recruiting coordinator; he had never been a defensive coordinator. He was very overwhelmed that first year. It was a whirlwind, you could tell. To his credit he was able to grow into the role. He was definitely not ready to be a head coach.
No one expects something like that to happen, where your boss passes away suddenly. Just getting everything together for that one season was difficult. It was going to be a rebuilding season anyway with some of the departures they had from the 2005 team. He didn’t have time to look at his staff and make changes that would benefit him. He made his first change after the 2007 season bringing in Mike Hankwitz. He wasn’t able to put his stamp on the staff for a while. Then game management, just everything. It’s hard to be put in that position in June just a couple months before you start the season.
Demos: Coach Walker offered me in person in his office after my second visit. He was really the main coach who I talked to and was recruited by. I had a good relationship with him. One night back in Arizona I got a phone call from one of my friends actually who said I just heard your coach passed away on ESPN. I almost didn’t believe it at first. I only had a relationship with him and coach (Mike) Dunbar (NU’s offensive coordinator from 2002-06), and coach Dunbar had already left. At that point, not only was it tragic because he was such a great person and a coach I wanted to play for, but he was the only person I knew at Northwestern.
At that point, I didn’t know what to do. Coach Fitzgerald, who was the recruiting coordinator at the time, was on the phone with me everyday after that. I didn’t know what I wanted to because I had committed to coach Walker and it was so far away from home. I talked to him for four days straight. When I went back for the funeral they announced Fitz was going to be the head coach so I decided to stay an extra day for the press conference. That was kind of the deciding factor.
But when he first took over, he didn’t know what to do. He had to handle being a coach for the first time but he also had to handle everyone else’s emotions. There were a couple classes that were just devastated because they had played for coach Walker. It was probably very overwhelming for him. He went from a position coach to a head coach. But he really made the team his own. By the time I left two years ago, the program was his. He’s really put his stamp on it using coach Walker’s influence. We really struggled my true freshman year. We went 4-8, we really struggled. But after that year he had a full offseason and really got into it. He lives Northwestern and it’s really awesome to see what he’s done.
Persa: It was a tough transition (after committing to play for coach Walker) but at the same time, Fitz was the recruiting coordinator so I knew him really well. The transition wasn’t bad because he kept the same staff. A lot of the stuff he does comes from coach Walk. It was tough at first, obviously you commit four or five years of your life to one person and now he’s not there anymore.
Peters: He definitely had the components but you don’t just jump into something and be great at it usually. In coaching I think you need to find your strengths and weaknesses and find your own style. Once Fitz worked into his rhythm and everything, look at him now. He’s definitely grown as a coach.
Persa: Coach always did a great job preparing. I don’t think he was in over his head, but you definitely get better with experience. Each year I was there he got better. I think that showed in game management, offseason decisions, being more motivating with the team, he got better. You learn from your successes and your failures. He changed a lot. Him being there and playing at Northwestern you have a lot of automatic respect.
Demetrius Fields, NU wide receiver, 2008-2012: I think that he was probably a little inexperienced. But I was a freshman, everything looked impressive to me. Over the years, Fitz has been good about communicating with players. I’m pretty sure that he’s adjusted a lot since the start. If he didn’t actually relate or anything, he did a good job of trying to. Just hearing about some of the other coaches around the country, Fitz is unique in that he’s actually a players’ coach.
Morton Schapiro, University president, 2009-present: I think with the tragic, untimely death of coach Walker, Fitz stepped in there and it was a chaotic situation. It’s hard to learn your job while you’re in it, with all the pressure and attention particularly if you’re doing Big Ten sports. But he’s done remarkably well.
II. The Alamo Bowl
Fitzgerald ended his first season as head coach with a 4-8 record. The team improved to 6-6 in his second season, but due to a Big Ten-record 10 bowl eligible teams, the Cats did not get selected for a bowl game.
Then, in 2008, the Wildcats broke through with a nine-win regular season, and started a streak of five straight seasons with a bowl appearance. But before the Cats could shake off their bowl victory drought, they suffered more losses, beginning with the 2008 Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29, 2008.
The Cats lost the game 30-23 against Missouri in overtime when a Hail Mary attempt on fourth-and-32 could not be completed.
Demos: I think at the time we were 9-3. We knew we deserved to be there. Missouri had a great team, they were favored, they had Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and a tight end (Chase Coffman, now with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons) who was really good. I don’t think we felt the pressure. We were happy to be there because we felt we got screwed the year before. But we definitely prepared to win and fully expected to win. Did the expectation change from my sophomore year? As we went on, we were crushed to lose the Alamo Bowl and the Outback Bowl. We were disappointed to be in the TicketCity Bowl. The expectation definitely changed as the years passed.
Fields: I don’t think it was a, “I’m just happy to be here” sense. We put in a lot of work. Just like this year, that team had a lot of strong senior leadership. Unfortunately we came up on the short end. I don’t think there was as much pressure, but there was a drive, a will to win.
Peters: I don’t even remember talking about a bowl drought. It wasn’t an emphasis like the monkey on the back last year. The schedule and everything was very similar to my senior year. But it was definitely a new experience. Not everybody had played in a bowl game yet. The attitude was very different from my senior year. We had a good group of guys. We went out there and executed but gave up a few good plays. They had Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and a really good tight end. He was jumping over people and (expletive). It was an OT game but we played hard.
Jeremy Ebert, NU wide receiver, 2008-2011: We had a great senior class and they wanted to win as bad as anyone. We went there and it wasn’t like we were just satisfied to be in a bowl game. We did our best to win and it went into overtime. We definitely prepared to win.
Rittenberg: The way they played in that game showed how motivated they were. They were the biggest underdog I believe in the bowl season that year against Missouri. Chase Daniel was a preseason Heisman candidate. (Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver) Jeremy Maclin was on that team. No one expected Northwestern to compete, even though they went 9-3. They really outplayed Missouri. They made some mistakes, namely a bad decision to punt late in the second half that cost them that game. They really outplayed Missouri and I think they were more than just happy to be there.
III. The Outback Bowl
After their feel-good season in 2008, the Cats finished the 2009 campaign 8-4, setting up a showdown with SEC foe Auburn University in the 2010 Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, 2010. Senior stars such as Mike Kafka, Corey Wootton, Sherrick McManis and Zeke Markshausen led NU back to the cusp of a bowl win.
The Outback Bowl remains one of the most infamous losses in program history. Kafka threw for 532 yards, 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. At the end of regulation, Demos attempted a game-winning kick, which he missed wide right, his third miss of the game. In overtime, Auburn took a 38-35 lead after the first series. Demos was injured on a roughing-the-kicker penalty during the Cats’ series, negating a missed 37-yard field goal. On NU’s next fourth down, instead of attempting the game-tying field goal with backup Steve Flaherty, the Cats attempted a fake field goal that fell short of the endzone. The play, known as ‘Heater,’ was a fake drawn up by the late Randy Walker. The resulting loss left Demos as a lightning rod of criticism for NU fans.
Colin Becht, former sports editor, The Daily Northwestern: In retrospect if (Heater) had worked you would have wrote a script about this. Two years after their coach dies they use his play to win their first bowl game in 60 years. If it had worked out it would have been crazy. At the time it was going on, it was crazy. From the press box you couldn’t see anything, who had the ball, if the fumble was intentional or not. But then it became pretty apparent it didn’t work out.
Demos pretty much shouldered all the blame for the loss. That’s pretty clear. Fans tossed out everything else that year and his season came down to missing the game-winner and the field goal in overtime. After the overtime miss people began to look at the game-winner more harshly than at first.
Rittenberg: When you look back at how many plays there were in that game you can’t assign it to one person. As good as Mike Kafka was in setting all those records and so forth, he threw a 99-yard interception return as Northwestern was about to score early in the game. Kafka played a role in the loss. They were in position to win and Demos missed the kick and that will be looked at.
But there were other things they could have done. Defensively they didn’t play very well. Auburn was bailing them out with penalties. That wasn’t like the Alamo Bowl where they outplayed Missouri. If they won the Outback Bowl it would have been a steal.
Greenstein: Yeah I mean you never want to blame a kicker, especially one who had a good season. He struck that kick right. It wasn’t a choke, he kicked it right, and it just missed. Sure he deserves some of the blame but it isn’t just one person. Mike Kafka threw 5 interceptions. At one point Fitz joked he was playing for the other team. I’m sure Stef thinks about that kick a lot.
Peters: It doesn’t come down to one person. Did we have a chance to win with a field goal? Yes. But we gave up touchdowns. Kafka had 5 interceptions but was still (expletive) tearing it up. Across the board it was a crazy game. We thought we won once. They rushed the field once. We were playing ball and it was a lot of fun. When the kick didn’t go through, like any player you kind of just say a cuss word then you buckle up and get ready to do it again. That’s what the good ones do. Fans can take it how they want. It’s hard to say. You can say kickers’ jobs are to make kicks. But everyone’s got their own job and has to execute. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day it’s a team game. We had the opportunity to win but we didn’t win.
Fields: How the whole game went, how we battled back, how much dedication, how much desire that goes into it. There was so much disappointment. I don’t blame (Demos). You never can. Some games are just that close, but most games you can’t put it on one player. You can blame it on him, but at the same time Kafka threw X amount of picks. The defense gave up points early in the game. But you can’t do that. But extreme disappointment is what characterizes that game. Just like this year and years passed, we came out in the position that we weren’t supposed to be in this game, and to fail to be able to prove that was disappointing.
John Plasencia, Northwestern tight end 2009-2011 (Plasencia’s playing career ended after 2011 due to injury. He remained with the team in a player-coach role): It was really tough. That year we had a lot of really big seniors: Kafka, Wooton, Zeke. Those were the guys who really turned the program around, got us going in the right direction. They were there for the tragedy of Coach Walk dying. To see them get so close (to) winning a huge bowl game, my heart just went out to them. Those seniors worked so hard to continue the upward trend of Northwestern football. But the game proved we were a legitimate program, we could hang with anybody. It’s hard to blame Demos — he had a great season. There were a lot of other dudes who had an opportunity to make a play in the game.
Demos: Million-dollar question … yeah, I do think the fans were unfair. Definitely. It’s one of those things where it just comes with the territory.
What was most disappointing about the whole thing was, yeah, I missed a 44-yarder to win the game, but then all of a sudden everyone was like, “He sucks. He’s terrible.”
People forget I was second team all-conference that year. I hit my first 14 field goals. I had two blocks on my first 16 and I made the rest. I had two game-winners, two games with four field goals. I only actually missed in two games all year.
I expect to take some heat when you miss a game-winning field goal. But that game truly ruined my reputation as a good kicker. When you look back to that season, I contributed a ton. Kafka and I were both unanimous second team All-Big Ten. I was a Lou Groza semifinalist. Two bad games at the end of the year and I’m seen as terrible. People have terrible memories when there was a little good that went with it. So you take the good with the bad.
Rovell: I was there, I was there. There are many ‘nuts’ games in Northwestern history. I think in my time, that’s the most ‘nuts’ game. It was just a crazy game. I think we played really really well. That’s one of those games where you’re like, “Man, this is such a Northwestern way to lose.” That was a real crazy game. When you think that there were many cogs on (Auburn) that were part of a national championship, it was really crazy.
Schapiro: I remember when I talked to the team before the Outback Bowl. I just kind of looked around at these kids. I looked up and I saw Mike Kafka, Sherrick McManis, Corey Wooton. I’m looking at these guys and you look them up, some of them had no stars, some of them had one star or two stars (during recruiting). And you looked up all the Auburn kids, they were all four-star and five-star kids. And that year we were ranked 83rd in recruiting; they were ranked third. And I said, “It’s really funny, because I don’t think” — I look at Drake Dunsmore or Zeke — “I don’t know how you guys have no stars, because you’re so much better.” I look at Sherrick and say: “You’re going to play in the NFL for a long time.” Boy, was that right. We somehow find these kids and we really prepare them, not just for life but in some cases the NFL. And I’m thinking, “What happened to Auburn’s four- and five-stars that they were lucky in overtime to beat our one- and two-stars?”
IV. Persa goes down
The Cats faced more adversity during the 2010 season. Persa had the team rolling after a hot start. But on November 13, 2010, Northwestern’s fortunes changed.
After completing a game-winning touchdown pass to Fields to defeat the rival Iowa Hawkeyes, Persa ruptured his Achilles, ending his season. The injury left many to wonder how different the season could have been. Quarterbacks Evan Watkins and Kain Colter finished out the season.
Fields: I remember the huddle call. Formation was maybe open right or trey right. Play was Roll Right X-Dog, which is like a corner route. I remember getting press (coverage). I was in a funky mood, kind of mad because of how the game was going. I was like “Okay, it’s about to happen.” The corner was off of me and then (he) came up in press. And I was like, “Beat press and get open.” I did a little move, got inside of him, got up and got out because it was a corner route. I saw the ball and caught it. I remember the cornerback was on my back so I had to shake him off. I wasn’t sure if I was in or not. And then just the excitement of the game took it away. I was on the sidelines by the time I looked back out to see he was hurt.
Persa: Obviously time was winding down, so I wanted to get the snap off. They brought a blitz that we weren’t really used to seeing so I kind of just fade to my right and jump and throw it to D-Fields, who made a great catch. I came down and I was fine. I kind of jumped up to see if he caught it and I planted weird, nobody really touched me. I felt a big pop in my leg and I knew. I knew right there it was pretty bad. I’ve been hurt before, and I know what most injuries feel like. This was something different because I couldn’t feel my foot when it happened and I couldn’t move it. I was pretty nervous that it was going to be something bad. I didn’t get hit. I jumped up and planted weird and it just popped. It was a freak thing.
Plasencia: First everybody is going crazy because D-Fields makes that catch. We’re going berserk and we look back and see that Dan isn’t running down. And then we realized at that point, if Dan isn’t walking off the field it’s got to be pretty serious, because that’s the toughest dude I’ve ever been around. The day after was when everybody kind of found out. And we knew without him it certainly wouldn’t be that easy of a road.
Becht: That season basically ended when Persa went down. That was literally the last, with the exception of the Brian Peters pick-six at the start of the Wrigley (Field) game, that was the last positive thing to happen that season. Persa goes down, then they get dominated against Illinois and even more dominated against Wisconsin. They were a different team once Persa got hurt. The season pretty much ended with the Iowa game.
Fields: We were discouraged by, to put it bluntly, our chances without Persa.
Ebert: Dan was our leader. He was quarterback and captain. He was our vocal leader and commander on the field. When things were tough he was who we looked to to step up. When you lose someone like him you’re going to struggle. Kain and Evan stepped up and did what they could. But I think we struggled and it was evident. We still fought and we tried to compete.
Greenstein: Northwestern was not prepared for life without Dan Persa. Evan Watkins was the backup, and that was a disaster. Going into the game at Wrigley, the good news was they kind of prepared Kain. It’s strange how it works out, if Persa doesn’t get hurt, then Kain Colter redshirts and they have him for two more years. But then it’s going into Wrigley, against a rival in Illinois, Evan is totally unprepared to play.
Demos: The next two games, we really struggled at the quarterback position. No fault to Evan Watkins, but he was thrown in a tough spot going against Wisconsin and Illinois. The whole team knew we were in trouble. As much as we don’t want to have that happen, when you lose a player like Dan and you’re struggling on offense, the defense almost feels hopeless, like we aren’t going to score. That was the mentality. We kept it competitive in the bowl. Do I think we would have won with Dan? I don’t know. I’ve never even thought of it. Do I think we would have been a better team? Yes. I think we would have beaten Illinois and Wisconsin and gone to a better bowl. But life goes on, move on.
Peters: I don’t think we would have been in that bowl game. We would have beaten Illinois. Wisconsin, we don’t get absolutely demolished. It would have been a different season. Kain played his ass off. Again, it was a fun game. We didn’t play well on defense. Kain played out of his mind for a freshman and you see what he is now.
V. The lost season
The 2010 season ended with a loss in the 2011 TicketCity Bowl to Texas Tech. Then, before the 2011 season even started, Northwestern and Persa suffered another setback.
During the offseason, Persa reinjured his Achilles, forcing him to miss the first four games of his senior season. Persa told The Daily in the summer of 2012 that he partially re-tore his Achilles before the 2011 season and didn’t know about it, playing the whole season with the injury.
The injury robbed Persa of his mobility, and again left a sense of emptiness for the star quarterback’s senior season. Persa found out about the injury from NFL doctors after the team’s loss against Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas and needed another surgery to fully recover.
Persa: It’s frustrating. The more you dwell on it and the more you think about it, you’re wasting your time. It was tough. I reinjured it in the summer before my senior season. When it happened in the summer I knew I wasn’t going to be the same. I had to adapt to the situation and change as a player. I knew I couldn’t run as much so I learned to stay in the pocket and play from the pocket. I definitely would have played a lot better. It’s tough when you’re used to making plays with your feet and then it’s basically like you’re playing with one leg. With my experience I think I would have been better, but it’s impossible to predict.
Peters: I’ve definitely thought of this before. Oh gosh, the kid played six Big Ten games his first year and was consensus All-Big Ten? That says it all. I still think he’s the best quarterback I’ve played against. He’s the most efficient, the best at going through reads. He was maybe 70 percent my senior year. The sky would have been the limit. The games we lost, if Dan was playing at the caliber he was capable of, it would have taken the pressure off the defense. It’s hard to think about. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the kid. He’s such a competitor. I don’t think anyone works harder than him. He holds people accountable. He’s got such a heartbeat on the team … I don’t know. It was tough.
Rovell: As a fan you didn’t really know how bad it was. But it was so bad that it really affected his entire career. His senior year I’m hearing all these stories in the offseason that he’s not ready. Meanwhile, I’m getting my Persastrong weights in the mail. I can’t believe that something where you’re not even touched you can hurt yourself that badly. He never really recovered. You knew that he didn’t have the speed. You knew that he couldn’t plant the same way.
Greenstein: That injury had such an effect on Northwestern football for a season and a half. The next season Danny had been such a great scrambler, but he was a step slower. Over the summer he had a setback because he pushed too hard. They had the whole Persastrong thing, which I’m sure was uncomfortable because he knew he wasn’t going to play. He had a pretty good year but that year was only memorable for the win in Lincoln against Nebraska. That was their only good win.
Ebert: It is what it is. You can’t really change anything. We wish Dan was a 100 percent but he wasn’t. But we still played well enough to make it to another bowl game. I felt terrible for him, struggling to get his stride back. I think he overcame it and played as well as he could play in his situation. It was unfortunate for our team, but we stuck it out pretty well.
Plasencia: It was very frustrating. Dan’s a pretty good friend of mine. I knew he’d been working for this his entire life. He was the hardest worker I’ve ever been around. It was tough first knowing his senior year wouldn’t be what he wanted. Kain came in did a really good job. First and foremost, I just felt really bad for Dan as my buddy, and then you start thinking about what he could have been.
VI. Missed opportunities
After their fourth straight bowl loss, the Cats entered the 2012 season with a young roster and tempered expectations. Gone were stalwarts like Persa, Ebert and Peters. But the team started hot, winning five straight games before dropping a contest at Penn State. NU finished the regular season 9-3.
The three losses all came after a squandered lead in the fourth quarter. The losses — in two of which the Cats lost double-digit leads — brought to attention the program’s penchant for losing excruciatingly close games.
In the most memorable of the losses, NU lost to Michigan after the Wolverines came back with less than 30 seconds left. Michigan kicked the tying field goal after a circus catch by Roy Roundtree on a Hail Mary. The Wolverines won in overtime.
Rittenberg: It’s like a Northwestern occurrence. What other team would that happen to? It just seems like something that would happen to Northwestern.
Rovell: I mean, Nebraska, I saw the writing on the wall; Michigan, I didn’t. Michigan was just, whatever can go wrong, it goes wrong. That was really a shame. I actually was at Michigan that Friday giving a talk. I had to get home for my anniversary. My wife let me watch the game. I was on the floor for 10 minutes after, I couldn’t get up. I was so beaten down after playing a perfect game for 59 minutes and 30 seconds.
Ebert: I don’t know. We just put ourselves in those situations. Our games always seem to come down to the end. My dad has a few more gray hairs on his head because of it. But I couldn’t tell you why it happens. It’s frustrating watching as a fan and you have no control of the outcome.
Peters: I don’t know. I wouldn’t say we’re jinxed. It’s all about the ability to maintain and execute. It’s hard to instill the mindset to keep your foot on the throat when you’re ahead. We’ve always been so used to the underdog role. It’s something that we’re learning how to do now. It’s not a game of luck: it’s execution.
Persa: I don’t know what happens but hopefully this year turns it the other way. We lost a lot of close games but the games we won were pretty damn close too. I think we actually win most of our close games.
Fields: I don’t have an answer for you. I wish I did but I don’t. Most of the games, there was a feeling like, here we go again. A lot of them were the last two years. To put it bluntly, we didn’t have enough confidence. I have had that idea, that mind state, “It is happening again,” only because we didn’t have that confidence.
Plasencia: Well first, it really sucks. There have been a lot of opportunities we’ve had to win big games but we’ve come up a bit short. In the heat of the moment you’re not really thinking about it. With us, you never really know. As far as why that is, why us, I wish I knew. I’m sure Fitz wishes he knew. But there’s nothing in the offseason I’m thinking we could do differently. But I really wish I knew.
Greenstein: I think people just need to look at it and say they still win way more close games than they lose. Fitz still has a good record in close games. Northwestern doesn’t beat teams 37-3. They aren’t Alabama. I just don’t think it’s an accurate representation. Fitz has done very well in games decided by 7 points or less; you can’t just look at the losses.
Rittenberg: I’ve looked at this for a number of years, it does happen elsewhere, which is important to remember. When you’re a team that can’t step on the field and be 14 points better than your opponent, you’re going to play a lot of close games. Northwestern is not going to enter every game and be able to beat everyone by 21 points. They do play in a lot of close games. And they have a pretty good record in close games.
But there does seem to be a bit of an issue playing with a lead. Great programs know how to play with the lead and finish their opponent. Northwestern might be getting to that point now, but it certainly was an issue this season. They don’t seem that comfortable with the lead. They seem more comfortable in a tight game or even a little bit behind, needing to respond. It’s hard to take that mindset when you’re up 10 or 14 points to keep that pedal down. It’s a challenge for Fitz and his staff to create that killer instinct. Resiliency was a great hallmark of theirs for a decade. They never give up in games. But the next step is when you do get a lead, to maintain it and have that killer instinct to put a team down.
VII. Monkey off the back
But the Cats put all concerns of wasted opportunities to rest on Jan. 1, 2013. Facing SEC opponent Mississippi State, Northwestern rode an opportunistic defense and efficient offense to its first bowl victory in 64 years. After the game, players, coaches and fans erupted in celebration, erasing the memories of close losses, bowl failures and the losing culture before Gary Barnett.
Rittenberg: I thought it was a game where the matchup favored Northwestern in many ways. I really liked the energy level they came out with. They really controlled the game in the first quarter. In the end they really finished off Mississippi State. I was happy for coach Fitz and the players because I know how hard they’ve worked to get over that hump. I think people look at the records and see that Northwestern isn’t a pushover, but it’s hard to legitimize your program without a bowl win for what it does in the offseason with recruiting and buzz. You’re definitely happy for a guy like coach Fitz who was able to achieve that goal.
Greenstein: It pleased me as an alum and more so as a beat writer. We’re so sick of talking and writing about the bowl streak. It becomes such a boring topic. As an alum, there’s no doubt, Northwestern sports hasn’t given its alums a ton of great moments. It was great. It was nice to see.
Becht: It’s definitely a huge win. It’s not a question: It’s a milestone win with as long as the drought was. It’s the last straw for putting Northwestern’s ignominious history behind it, putting behind the record-long losing streak, putting behind the 9 straight bowl losses. Once you get that bowl win, then the rest of it really just becomes a part of history rather than lingering into the present.
Rovell: It was almost surreal. It didn’t seem real. I felt as if I didn’t enjoy as much because of the monkey on our back. It was more of a sigh of relief than a round of applause. But you could really see it in the players how much this meant. And this was important for the program. Just to not be associated with that sentence of not having won a bowl game in 63 years. That’s the last negative about the program.
I did get a chance to be with Fitz for a little bit along with a whole bunch of other people. And the relief, the joy, just to see him so ecstatic about getting that win, was awesome. There were players from the Rose Bowl, players from the ‘95 and ‘96 seasons in the room. It just meant so much. This was more than just sports and fun. This was real camaraderie and human emotion. And it was great to be able to witness that.
Schapiro: It was great to be on the field at the end. I don’t play any role, but just personally, it was really fun to be down there. We really had fun after. Our team hotel was the Hyatt Regency, and they had a little sports bar there, and we had reserved half of it. I just sat down the whole day watching the Rose Bowl and other things. People are coming and going, and I’m not a big drinker. I think I had one victory beer that took me five hours to drink, but it was so much fun sitting there. My wife was there. My three kids were there. Jim Phillips was there with his five kids. It was just so much fun, it was great. I don’t think it has any institutional importance to have me there, but personally, I’ll tell you, it was very cool.
Demos: I didn’t miss a game this year. I watched every game. The Gator Bowl I was watching on my couch. I was at my house decked out in full Northwestern gear, and it was exciting. I celebrated like I was still part of the team. After the game I texted Kafka, Wootton, all those guys that I played with. It was a testament to what we laid as a foundation. In no way am I taking credit for their bowl win, but we changed the culture in my time there. We went from 4-8 to expecting 8, 9 wins at least. And to see them finally win, I was so happy for the program, Fitz and the players. It was a huge moment for all of us. I was very happy for the guys, and I hope it springboards them into the next year.
Peters: I was pumped. I was watching with Persa and a couple other guys. Fitz’ speech after the game was awesome. The coaches have been busting their asses and taking so much criticism over the offseason but they did it. I’m pumped for all the guys. Nwabuisi, Tyler Scott, Q Williams and Ibraheim Campbell. Those guys played out of their minds. We definitely had the sense that we helped build the program up. But that’s just me being selfish. But it’s cool to see people can’t say anything about the 64-year drought. It’s fun to see your school where you worked your ass off have the respect that it does now.
Persa: I was nervous the whole game. But it was awesome seeing Coach Fitz and the guys celebrating after the game. Coach Fitz’ speech on the podium after the game, it was just raw emotion. It was really cool to watch. I was really happy for him.
Ebert: I watched it here in Foxborough with my girlfriend Erin (Fitzgerald, a senior on NU’s lacrosse team). We were in the basement just going nuts. I texted Coach Springer and Coach Fitz right after the game. We were ecstatic and going nuts. It was awesome, getting that first bowl win since 1949 — hopefully they keep going from here.
Fields: First of all, we didn’t make it to the locker room for I don’t know how long. We were on the field celebrating, taking pictures, soaking it all in. I remember before talking to my roommate Cam Dickerson about getting my hat, getting my shirt and putting it on over my shoulder pads, all the things people do when they win bowl games. It was the exclamation point to the season. It was just our time to step up; it was like a bubble burst.
It was crazy in the locker room. It was funny about the monkey. Last year we walked around with the monkey. This year Fitz came in and gave a speech, and he said in something-something many or so hours, I want nothing but the face of this monkey on my seat. He pulled the monkey out and threw it, and everybody just pulled it and started ripping it. It was real exciting. We had the team songs and fight songs. It was electric. To not go back feeling disappointed was great.
Plasencia: It was really awesome. Although I didn’t play this last year, to be in the senior class and contribute even just a little bit, it was special for me. For me, it was really about the seniors. These guys were there for all the games, the Alamo Bowl through now.
After Senior Day, when we whooped up on Illinois, Coach Fitz told the seniors to stay out there. He had us stand in a circle, all the seniors, with the Land of Lincoln Trophy in the middle. He said, ‘I want you guys to remember this. Take 30 seconds, stand here and take this in. Because this is going to be one of the best days of your life. I want you to look up at the scoreboard, look at these guys who’ve been here with you for four or five years and take it all in. And then I want to be on the field and whatever bowl game we’re at in a month, and we’re going to do the same thing after we win it.’ So then after the bowl game he basically does the same thing. ‘All the seniors get in a circle.’ And you could see everybody starting to realize that this is it, we finally did it, and that was the best feeling I’ve had.