Balk: Football success energizes campus, brings national attention

Tim Balk, Assistant Opinion Editor

As I looked out Sunday onto Sherman Avenue from my perch on the stools of Starbucks, my personal house of worship, and watched students and Evanston residents stroll leisurely in the brisk October air, I noticed more purple sweatshirts and hats than I ever had before, Wildcat Welcome and game days notwithstanding. As I watched Solomon Vault and Austin Carr walk past Einstein Bros. across the street, I felt downright giddy.

Northwestern’s football team won Saturday, as it has each of the previous four weeks. Vault made a spectacular diving catch in the end zone, dubiously ruled an incompletion by the review booth, which left Ryan Field shaking with excitement and then, moments later, discontent. In the end, NU took down Minnesota 27-0: another victory for the Cats, who moved up to 13th in the nation in this week’s AP Poll.

With each successive victory, the excitement in Evanston has grown. NU is, after all, the misfit Big Ten school — the prestigious private university that happens to play sports against larger state schools with superior football programs.

The feeling around here is special partly because it’s unusual. Unusual, but not unprecedented.

NU has won before. In 1995, the Cats won the Big Ten and visited the Rose Bowl. In 2012, they reached 10 wins for the first time since ’95 and third time in program history (NU also went 10-1-3 in 1903), building momentum going into the 2013 season.

I visited NU during my senior year of high school, almost two years ago to the day, when NU was ranked 16th in the nation in football thanks to the strong 2012 performance and a 4-0 start to the 2013 season. The Cats were set for a Saturday night battle with No. 4 Ohio State, and the atmosphere on campus was special, buoyed by a visit from ESPN’s College GameDay in the morning and an influx of returning alums. The Cats lost that weekend, and then seven of their next eight games, but the memory of Welsh-Ryan Arena filled with delirious purple-clad students several hours before kickoff stuck in my head as I sent in my Early Decision application to NU.

Though it was fleeting, the excitement surrounding the football program that year had multiple effects. It inspired school spirit on campus. It also brought national attention to the school. It inspired not only me, but also many others to look at and apply to NU.

NU was the fifth most Googled college in America in 2013. Applications to the university increased 1.3 percent for the class entering the fall of 2014. (They dipped 4.7 percent for the current freshman class.) What’s more, the success of the current football squad has been attributed in part to the young talent on the squad, which some hypothesize is a byproduct of the GameDay visit.

Drawing a connection between these numbers and the football success is pure conjecture, but it is not without precedent. Commonly referred to as the “Flutie Effect,” the phenomenon of athletic success in revenue sports contributing to the soaring popularity of colleges is hardly a new idea. The phrase refers to Boston College, where the success of the school’s 1984 football team, led by Heisman winner Doug Flutie, helped facilitate a surge in applications and national notoriety. BC’s athletic success in basketball in the early 2000s also coincided with rising applications and many other schools have had their own “Flutie Effects” including George Mason University, Boise State University and Butler University.

NU football is riding high right now, with a huge battle at Michigan looming. It’s hard to say if the defensively potent Cats will improve the popularity of the school as a whole. But there’s reason to think it might. And it is hard to deny that the football team is boosting the sense of excitement and community as the new school year begins.

NU will never be Alabama or Georgia, where football is a religion unto itself. But, as I sipped my Pumpkin Spice Latte on Sunday, I was certain that the sizzling Cats are igniting the tinders of school spirit as we approach the frosty days of fall.

Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.