Warren’s World: Northwestern athletics’ new decade resolutions

Peter Warren, Sports Columnist

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New Year’s resolutions tend to be boring, unfulfilled cliches that people forget by the time the calendar flips to February. But the start of a new decade allows for different goals that — for the most part — won’t fall into old tropes and cliches: new decade resolutions.

The 2010s was a great decade for Northwestern athletics, both on and off the field, and the 2020s has the potential to be the same. The next 10 years are shaping up to be a fascinating time for collegiate sports, with the name, image and likeness law leading the way as the storyline to follow on a national level. But for the Wildcats’ athletic department, these are six resolutions that should be readily on their minds.

Continuing to invest in the Wildcats

The biggest sports accomplishment of the past decade has been upgrading NU’s facilities into some of the best in the country. The question for this decade is what’s next on the investment front. Maybe it’s one large project — like upgrading Ryan Field in time for its 100th anniversary in 2026 —or maybe it’s a plethora of smaller-scale ventures. Most likely, it’s a mix of both. In December, the athletic department announced a new program called Champions for Wildcat Women, which will further advance women’s athletics in Evanston. This program will be an emphasis for years to come, but I doubt it’s the only innovative campaign the athletic department pursues.

Raising the Northwestern brand

NU athletics is as national of a brand as it has ever been, and continuing to build that exposure over the coming years is as crucial as ever. Some of it — playing football games on network television instead of BTN, for example — is out of the school’s hands, but there are still plenty of ways to raise recognition. Being innovative on online platforms, especially Twitter and Instagram, will be key to expanding the country’s awareness and respect for the Cats. And while these initiatives will help raise NU’s profile, there’s only one foolproof way to increase recognition: winning. That leads into the next two resolutions.

Win at least two national championships

There are plenty of teams who could lift a national championship trophy this decade. The lacrosse team tops the list — it would be shocking if they don’t win at least one national championship in the next 10 years — but they shouldn’t be the only ones. A great athletic department takes pride in being more than a one-sport school, and nothing proves that fact more than winning multiple national championships.

Make the Rose Bowl

The reason d’etre of the football program. There have been 106 Rose Bowls, and the Cats have only been in two — and they haven’t won since 1949. It’s the most famous bowl game in history, and in a world where many bowls have lost luster, the Granddaddy of Them All is still as glamorous as a Jay Gatsby house party. Pat Fitzgerald has accomplished a lot during his tenure at NU: sustained national relevance, won not just one but multiple bowl games, won the division. Making a Rose Bowl is the one big thing that has escaped him so far.

Improve student attendance at games

Student attendance at college sporting events is a problem at schools all across the county, and NU has been no exception. When fans show up at Ryan Field, Welsh-Ryan Arena and the other facilities, the energy can be electric. But when they don’t, the atmosphere is as unexciting as it gets in the Big Ten. Winning games helps a lot, but it’s not a be-all, end-all for this issue. It’s about cultivating a gameday environment that is fun and makes fans want to come back. The athletic department is taking some of the right steps, but there’s still more they can do — like selling alcohol at games — to rise attendance to a consistently great level.

Nail the replacement for Jim Phillips

You can make a really strong argument that Phillips is the best athletic director in Northwestern’s history. He’s one of the best ADs in the country right now, and the school would love to keep him around for as long as possible. There’s a scenario where he stays in Evanston until then, continuing to revolutionize the industry while leading the Wildcats.

But the odds he still has an office in the Walter Athletic Center by the end of the decade — when Phillips would be in his 22nd year on the job — are very small. If he leaves, NU needs to make sure his replacement has the potential to be just as good. That’s a tall task, but long-term achievement is built upon sustained success. And hiring someone who can build upon the infrastructure and culture Phillips shaped would make sure that happens.

Peter Warren is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at peterwarren2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to sports@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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