Nadkarni: With great power comes great expectations


Rohan Nadkarni, Sports Editor

A funny little story.

Remember that bold proclamation LeBron James made during his welcome party with the Heat? “Not one, not two,” etc. etc.?

I was there. And I was going nuts. I fully expected the Heat to win 75 games that season, rotating starting point guards they found from the crowd at every home game.

But, as we know, Miami crumbled under the pressure of extreme expectations, stumbling out of the gate before ultimately losing in the 2011 Finals that never happened.

It’s this night that sticks in my mind as the Northwestern football program runs through spring practice a solid 6 months before the start of college football season. The Wildcats, like the Heat in 2010, have not been shy about their goals.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald handed out “5:03” shirts to his team for this month’s practices — noting that the team was five minutes and three seconds from an undefeated season in 2012. In Fitzgerald’s mind, his team was more than capable of finishing 13-0.

Fitzgerald is hardly bashful. He told me in February of last year that he’s building a championship program and that he doesn’t need any negative people surrounding his team.

This year, at the school’s Gator Bowl celebration, Fitzgerald more than hinted at the Cats’ ultimate goal, indicating that he aims to play twice in California this season: once in the season opener, then once again to end the season at the Rose Bowl.

The University backs Fitzgerald in these expectations.

When some of The Daily’s editors met with University President Morton Schapiro in February, Schapiro and I chatted before our interview about football. He told me to remember the date of the Big Ten Championship game, or, as he put it, NU’s rematch with Ohio State — with a trip to Pasadena on the line.

This swagger is more than refreshing; it’s necessary. The Cats play in the Big Ten, and they believe in comparing themselves to big dogs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Instead of hiding behind its small enrollment or decades of losing, NU chooses to let the rest of the conference know it will not be satisfied until it is the Big Ten’s undisputed champion.

But this upcoming season will be unlike any other in the program’s history.

The Gator Bowl win brought joy, relief and closure. It also brought expectations.

The Cats are no longer the cute underdog story of the conference. They will enter the 2013 season ranked, and they should be a popular bet to win a wide open Legends division. NU will not sneak up on any opponent after validating its program with a bowl win.

But how will the Cats deal with expectations? There’s more pressure, more scrutiny.

Remember how the team bounced back from losses last season? That’s a little easier when you don’t have national attention and a rabid fan base hungry for more.

So far, the Cats have welcomed all and any attention, but will Fitzgerald — who has called out local media more than once for negativity — still welcome the attention during the season’s first serious bump in the road?

In 2012, after NU squandered three fourth quarter leads, we learned how it dealt with adversity.

In 2013, we will learn how the Cats deal with success. And at the end of the season, we’ll know more than ever before.