Four years ago, we came to a school without much of an athletic reputation. Sure, alumni and older students would tell us that Northwestern was actually in its athletic prime, and they were right. But at the time, there was very little to show for it. Compared to the state schools we turned down, a recent bowl loss just didn’t really inspire any great pride. Hell, even the Ivies that rejected us had NCAA Tournament bids.
Now, as we prepare to leave NU, the physical proof has come through. The Wildcats finally won a bowl game, ending a 64-year drought, and the men’s basketball team earned its first-ever bid to the … OK, maybe that milestone will have to wait for another graduating class.
The larger point is that, among the many things that have changed at NU over the past four years — Harris Hall, the never-ending renovation of Tech, the loss of our dear Keg — nothing may have changed more than Wildcat athletics. As impending alumni, we have even more to boast about than the women’s lacrosse dynasty and the highest Academic Progress Rate in the Football Bowl Subdivision — both of which remain intact — that greeted us in 2009. Sports fans are often mocked for referring to their favorite teams with “we,” implying that they are somehow a part of the squad. Never is the term “we” more appropriate, however, than as a college student. Although an individual may never throw a pass or knock down a jumper themselves, they are still a member of the institution whose name the players wear across their chests. They will have classes with those players, live in the same dorms, share dining hall meals together.
The connection that “we” implies does not have to end with graduation. Your hard-earned diploma forever links you to the athletes sporting purple and white. You were there for some of the most defining moments in NU’s athletic history, and, incredibly, that is not an exaggeration. The continuous flow of time demands that our relationship with NU athletics must change, but the extent to which it does is up to each of us.
If you look at any of the great college fanbases, what most glaringly separates them from NU is not student involvement. Yes, their student sections are larger, but they are also typically drawing from student bodies at least twice the size of NU’s. In terms of percentage of the student who attends games, NU is not incredibly far behind. What really differentiate the crowds that fill the Big House and the Horseshoe and Beaver Stadium from the 30,000 that scatter throughout Ryan Field are two other components: community involvement and alumni connection. Improvements to the former belong to the university with campaigns like “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Improvements to the latter lie, in part, with us.
We face an uphill battle. Compared to most other Big Ten schools, NU’s smaller alumni pool is more likely to be geographically dispersed. The university’s national and international academic reputation draws in students from across the country and the globe, and alumni often head far outside Chicago after graduation.
Yet progress can be made. If you’re staying in the Chicago area, the answer is simple.
If you’re not, channel your inevitable college nostalgia into recreating a campus gameday whenever NU comes to the New York area (which it will once Rutgers enters the Big Ten) or the Bay Area (like this football season’s opener on Aug. 31) or whenever life is taking you.
A degree may mark the end of college, but it doesn’t have to mark the end of college spirit.