Putterman: Parting thoughts on Northwestern sports

Alex Putterman, Web Editor

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After three and a half years writing about Northwestern sports, my time is just about up. The final whistle of the Wildcats’ bowl game will mark the end of my time covering an NU beat.

Here are six parting thoughts, positive and negative, on my experience with NU sports.

1. If athletes are jerks, they hide it well.

There’s a general perception of athletes as somewhere between aloof and abrasive. And maybe that’s true some places, but it has certainly not been my experience at NU. 

Even within the inherently awkward context of being interviewed, everyone from field hockey to football players have been smart, funny, engaging and, most importantly, nice. Of hundreds of interviews, I can count on half a hand the times an athlete was anything approaching impolite. 

As you cheer on Cats sports teams, it’s nice to know the athletes as people are worth rooting for. 

2. Tennis and baseball are fun, too.

One of the best sporting events I covered at NU was the 2014 women’s tennis Big Ten championship. That day, The Daily’s regular women’s tennis writer had a conflict, and I reluctantly agreed to fill in for him. I was rewarded with a miraculous comeback and a conference title for the Cats, the kind of match that reminds you sports are fun, whether or not the games are on TV.

I enjoyed my many afternoons at Rocky Miller Park during two seasons covering Cats baseball, not because the team was good (it generally wasn’t) but because I like baseball. Free time can be scarce, but maybe if you enjoy watching soccer, go to an NU soccer match. And if you’re into volleyball, stop by a Cats volleyball match.

I’m glad to have seen the end of Chelsea Armstrong’s remarkable field hockey career, Belinda Niu’s incredible grit in that women’s tennis final and Luke Farrell’s heroic nine innings at Wrigley Field.

3. Cliche or not, NU coaches care.

Last week, I interviewed John Buckley for a story on his son Stephen Buckley, an NU wide receiver. At the end of the interview, once my questions were answered, I asked John Buckley if he had anything he wanted to add. He quickly replied that he’d been so impressed, surprised even, at how Pat Fitzgerald and the Cats’ coaching staff had looked out for his son, even after a knee injury limited how much he could contribute on the field. 

That testimony reinforced what I’ve heard and observed over three and a half years: Across all sports, the athletic department values its players as people, not just athletes. Talk of how NU “does things the right way” often comes off as self-righteous, but I have no reason to think it isn’t true. 

4. That’s why NU’s response to the football-player union was disappointing.

I would not have expected Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips to outwardly support Kain Colter’s football-player union in the winter of 2014, given that it stood directly contrary to their own self-interest. But did the athletic department have to openly campaign against an organization intended to benefit its players? Did the saga have to end with Colter feeling alienated from the school he gave his heart and body for?

Fitzgerald and Phillips were placed in an awkward position — stuck in the middle of a fight targeted at the NCAA — but they did not handle it well. They spoke vaguely of supporting the players’ cause but never addressed specifics. They hardly communicated with Colter during the union process. They failed to condemn alleged threats made by alumni to current players about what would happen if they voted for the union.

NU’s athletic leaders had a chance to help along an important athletes’ rights movement and instead acted as cynical union-busters. It was a missed opportunity that reflected poorly on the men in charge.

5. Media access is trending in the wrong direction.

With athletes and teams now able to directly communicate with fans via social media, thus avoiding traditional middlemen, sports media everywhere is losing access, and NU is no exception. 

When I began covering Cats football in 2013, practices were open to the media, and Fitzgerald spoke extensively every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Now, practices are closed, and the coach is available in person only Mondays and for a few minutes on a Big Ten teleconference Tuesdays.

I like and respect Fitz and the NU communications staff, and I understand their motivations for slashing access (also worth noting we still have it better than many schools). But the trend remains frustrating. Fans are served by information, and that information is increasingly being withheld. 

6. NU sports (and NU media) are in good hands.

As a freshman in 2012-13, Alex Olah’s rebounding struggles seemed like they would prevent him from ever being a quality Big Ten center. But two seasons and a lot of hard work later, the NU big man enters 2015-16 as the Big Ten’s second-leading returning rebounder and one of the best in the conference at his position.

So it goes in college sports, where he who is an overmatched freshman one day is a fearsome senior the next, where the new guy often quickly makes you forget about the old one. This effect is especially strong at NU, where the athletic department seems to ride a perpetual upward trajectory.

Former baseball coach Paul Stevens is one of my favorite people I’ve met at NU, but when he retired last season, in stepped Spencer Allen, who is already bringing passion and energy to the Cats’ program. Venric Mark was one of the best running backs in NU history, but as soon as he left Evanston, Justin Jackson popped up in his place.

The same goes for the NU media world, where every year new freshmen writers come in knowing nothing (but thinking they know everything), then mature just in time for the old hats to pass the keyboard.

I’m departing NU soon, along with Olah, Dean Lowry, Maggie Lyon, Kaleigh Craig, Joey Calistri and numerous other athletes who came to Evanston at the same time as I did (and made a much bigger impact).

Cats fans will miss those seniors for sure, but before long someone else will step into their place and be just as good, maybe better. We’re leaving, but the future is bright without us.

Email: asputt@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AlexPutterman

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