Pope: Consistent success has redefined Northwestern sports

Ben Pope, Reporter

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In a column published on Jan. 12, Garrett Jochnau argued that, despite the Wildcats’ reputation as “perennial losers,” students should appreciate the charm and personality of Northwestern’s teams.

It is true that NU has been remarkably unsuccessful throughout much of its athletic history. And it is true that, even in the present day, the Cats cannot remotely compare to the likes of Alabama football or Duke basketball.

But beneath the program’s frustrating relapses into mediocrity lies the often overlooked yet statistically undeniable truth that NU athletics have, on the whole, never been as good as they are right now.

The men’s basketball program is at the pinnacle of its existence. In 15 of the last 16 seasons, the team has won at least 11 games — a feat they had accomplished just five times in the previous 31 seasons. That half-century-long rise most recently culminated in the first 20-win regular season in school’s history last year, and this winter’s incarnation stands a good chance to break that mark, if not qualify for its first-ever NCAA tournament.

Football is enjoying its most sustained prosperity ever. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has guided the team to a 50 wins over the last seven years — more wins than the program earned in the entire 23-year span of 1972 to 1994. The Cats have also tallied two bowl wins and two 10-win seasons since 2012, feats they had previously managed only once and twice, respectively.

Women’s basketball (15-4, 4-2) has also emerged from a decade of ineptitude. Coach Joe McKeown has won more games than he’s lost with the Cats, which is a lot more than his predecessors could say: June Olkowski went 31-108 from 1999 to 2004, then Beth Combs went 24-95 from 2004 to 2008.

Even less-popular NU sports are enjoying national success. The women’s lacrosse program is just barely removed from its dynasty of seven national championships in eight years. Coach Arvid Swan’s tennis team went 25-6 last season, the best record in program history. Women’s golf placed ninth in the NCAA Tournament last spring, and the fencing team finished its last season ranked No. 7 in the country.

This comprehensive and unprecedented winning atmosphere has vastly increased interest in NU sports — football attendance, for example, has risen by over 10,000 per game since 2009 — and enticed donors to fund expensive projects like the Martin Stadium renovation, planned Welsh-Ryan Arena renovation and the football practice facility currently under construction.

So go ahead, appreciate NU sports’ down-to-earth likeability and what it gives to student-athletes. But, in the meantime, appreciate the wins and losses, too. Because the first column is, year after year, getting just a bit longer.

Ben Pope is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at benjaminpope2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.