Shipwreck: ‘Cats Play Takes Wind Out of Sails On Otherwise Near Perfect Day

NEW: Thanks to Adam Dew, we have an exclusive premiere of Sailgate 2011 video feature which will be on The Pat Fitzgerald Show this week on BTN.  Thanks to NUHighlights for setting it up on YouTube. The three interviewees are Darren Rovell, CNBC Sports Business Reporter, Christine Brennan, USA Today and yours truly, LTP. It is pretty insane:

A friend on the Ara boat said it best.  As we cruised back to Manhattan down the Hudson on a slightly chilly, but pleasant night he said “you know, with the sheer volume of variables of Sailgate – getting 600 people on board, multiple locations across campus, who would’ve thought the hiccup would’ve been the actual game?”.  The looks on the faces of the return boat passengers in the boarding area said it all. What the heck just happened? Did we really just lose that game at Army? I’d be lying if the disappointment didn’t show on my face.  We’ll have all week to break down what happened, and trust me, we will.  I can tell you though, above the consistent gripes of McCall’s ultra-conservative play-calling, the frustration at Fitz punting twice in Army territory against a time of possession monster and the just plain terrible rush defense, one nugget stood far above the others – “heart”.  The ‘Cats right now don’t have heart.  A third quarter gasket blow by Fitz after a series of questionable penalty call after penalty call and I knew we were done. Fitz looked like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers staging a “give me a tech” to try and create an event for the ‘Cats to find their emotional “on” switch. It never happened.  Army had more fire and it was visibly evident.  I can’t believe that I’m writing these words about a Fitz-coached team, but it was true and it cost us, dearly.

I simply can’t wait for the photos and stories to start flowing in from the big day. We have two weeks to break down what went wrong at Army and where we are as a program and we’ll need every day of that span to do so. But today, I want to focus on Sailgate. Scott Sloane and his family’s efforts were truly remarkable. I literally had more than one hundred people comment to me about how well organized the events were and how fun it was. Scott Smith was also a huge help and it was a team effort.

  Nearly 600 people loaded on four different boats from Chelsea Piers’ pier 59 in the course of 90 minutes. It was an incredible sight. Everyone was decked in purple wearing the Sailgate T-shirts and coolers and gear was in tow. I was on the  “Ara” boat and it was a picture perfect postcard day.  As we cruised up the Hudson, fans mingled and new friendships were created.  A business deal got done and I’m hoping that on at least one point a love match was made as I’m hoping for a wedding down the road as a result of Sailgate! I will tell you there were a few key highlights of the day for me, but I want to hear what yours were.

 Our boat was rocking.  The excitement for the game built with each passing mile and cocktail consumed. One of the main subject matters was the momentum around the program and the road attendance.  Sailgate accounted for 2% of the entire capacity crowd, but you could just feel the buzz and pride about Fitz and the program.  I can’t tell you how jacked up everyone was for a postgame celebration cruise and a 3-0 record and the potential of being ranked heading in to Illinois. 

Moment number one of the chills for me, possibly all day, was when we passed a fellow boat. To see the image of a packed purple boat with an “N” flag flying high just spontaneously caused our boat to erupt in to the fight song and we could hear the other boat making a ton of noise. At that moment I felt the “holy cow, look at what we’ve accomplished.”  I’m not sure if others felt it, but I was truly tingling with pride and praise for all that Scott Sloane had done. The boat ride was a little over 2.5 hours and then we saw what looked like an Italian city fortress arise in the distance to our left. People were in awe.  We pulled up to the dock and a slew of Army soldiers greeted us with a stern warning that we needed our photo IDs out. “Ara” was the first boat to land and you felt that we had stepped in to a surreal world.

There were some bumps in the day, no doubt. Some 30-40 buses awaited and our boat quickly

The Cadet March is a must see on an Army Gameday

boarded buses and it was clear our bus driver didn’t have a clue about how to get to the First Class Club or how to readthe event map we all had in our packet. We finally got close enough and I had him just stop to get us out and fans instantly split up to go see the Cadet March which was just incredibly patriotic. The tailgate scene looked like GI Joe had transformed a normal tailgate in to a mock war zone. Army trucks and webbed camouflauge material was draped over tailgate areas. Grey stone buildings engulfed the view and the hills on the campus were steep, stern and unforgiving. It was simply gorgeous.   Army fatigued soliders were everywhere, many draped with machine guns and every single one of them was courteous and helpful. I felt for the first time what it is like to be an Ohio State fan in Evanston on gameday as all you could see walking the streets was purple. 

Mrs. LTP Realized Quickly This Was Not Your Average Tailgate Scene

I instantly head over to the “Firsties” Club as the locals called it for our tailgate to set up camp.  It was not easy to find, even with a map as things were unmarked and the buildings were encased in military fortress walls. I got tothe Firsties Club and I had the second moment of chills. Our venue was downright out of this world. Imagine a big bar and restaurant with University Hall-like exterior but surrounded by a 10-foot stone wall with cannons and iron cast gates all around it. I was nervous as heck no one would find it as my wife kept texting me that she was lost. Fans helped out and served as guides to other fans to help find it. By 1:30 pm we had music going, a bags game set up (brought on our boat by a guy who looked like he could’ve played LB for us – his contraption was incredible and large) and the space between the fortress wall and the inside bar served as the lively hub of activity, or so I thought. There were white tents set up here and the younger crew of fans quickly turned it in to lively homes of various drinking games. The buzz of the crowd could be heard. Presto! Within 30 minutes we had 500 people rocking a tailgate and by now everyone was just in a “this is awesome!” kind of mood. I went inside at one point after doing door duty and stopped in my tracks. It was packed, yet easy for folks to get access to the open bar, plenty of food and Iowa was down 17 in the 4th on the screens. We introduced and thanked Scott Sloane for his work and finally, we were able to relax a little. Shuttles started taking fans in droves to the game at 2pm, but no one really had much of an interest in leaving. This surrounding, this moment, was one where we looked around and said “THIS” is a real program. 

First Class Club Interior at the very END of the tailgate

An Army graduate came to the door and tried to enter our party. I politely asked him for his ticket and he was in disbelief that the Firsties Club had been rented out to an NU party. He was pissed. “Do you realize that this place is THE place for Army alums to come to and congregate on gameday? he asked.  I politely thanked him for everything he did for our country and I invited him to join us. He walked away. The ego-building line of the day was from my good friend Rob, who was at the NAA Tailgate, where 150 of our group were slated to enjoy the pregame activities. He informed me that several of the NU VIPs were talking about Sailgate and a few mentioned they tried to get tickets but it was soldout. They were talking about the scene of our party and how fun it looked.  I was finally having a blast catching up with a bunch of old fraternity brothers, new friends I had met and completely pleasant surprises of people I hadn’t seen in a decade.

We all mostly agreed to walk the 3/4 mile to the stadium to check out the sights of campus. It was an uphill walk the entire way.  I didn’t see anything but streams of purple the entire way.  Michie Stadium emerged in to view right on the side of the hill and banking a lake. The lines were ridiculously long as you can imagine what security is like at Army.  There are snipers sitting on their version of the Randy Walker Terrace, to give you a hint. Much like Ryan Field, Michie is not really equipped to handle a full house. By the time we got to our seats, we’d missed NU’s first drive.  The entire end zone was purple. Our Sailgate section turned the corner from the endzone and eventually flanked the Army season ticket holders. Diagonally across from us was what looked like the entire 4440 student population decked in their spiffy home white uniforms. Water and trees were off in the distance.  It felt like a bowl game. Our section was rocking as it had the feel of an adult student section – the first to stand, the loudest on 3rd down and ready to party on what surely would be a lot of offense.

Personally, I missed the final drive of the first half as I had to get to the WGN Radio booth to do a halftime interview about Sailgate. It took forever. Michie has one elevator. They lock it down several minutes before half. In a scene out of a This Is Sportscenter commerical, the elevator opened and both coaching staffs sprinted out of the elevator to run to the lockerroom. I seriously thought about joining them to give them my unsolicited advice, which I knew represented the 10,000 fans in attendance (two different Army offiicials told me, when I went to get my credential, they had estimated the NU crowd to be between 9,000-10,000 and thought it was somewhere around 9,700). 

Dave Eanet and I had a few minutes to chat before we went on the air. He’s one of us and a diehard fan and we both knew that the feeling was there. The feeling that the team lacked the drive and spirit, a rather tentative approach, and we both sensed major danger.  I did the interview which was short but sweet and made my way back to the seats. The big buzz was Persa watch. We all could feel the need for a jolt to the offense and we saw Siemian and Watkins warming up. Some fans started chanting “Danny Persa” and the thought was we had all day to throw against the undermanned D-line of Army and Persa’s mere appearance in the game would electrify the crowd and settle the clearly tentative team. Obviously, it never happened. When Venric Mark KORs become your primary confidence factor in scoring you knew we were in trouble. The crowd went ballsitic along with Fitz and we were loud. The booing on the personal foul call was LOUD and the Army fans started getting feisty.  The problem was it was clear the emotion of Fitz was isolated and other than Brian Peters on the sideline, who circled an offensive huddle screaming encouragement to fire them up, the obvious listlessness of the team contrasted to Army’s letting it loose, fired up, full of heart approach showed us that we were heading in to potetnial “L” category. However, when Trevor Siemian came in and the flip of the switch to instant offense cccurred, you couldn’t contain us. Ebert’s TD catch as he juked defenders sent the south end zone and beyond in to a mosh pit. The very same strangers from Chelsea Piers were now in full hugs and embraces as we were out of control loud. The Cardiac ‘Cats will pull it out. We’re getting outcoached, outhearted, our special teams sans Mark are fizzling, but the program has turned to the point where we find ways to overcome adversity and win. Or so we thought. When we didn’t, I probably along with Scott Sloane were the most hurt of the entire crowd. The prospect of cruising home after a loss was just not in the gameplan.  I was in shock.

We filed out of the stadium, but stopped. NU was running over behind Army and the Cadets sang the alma mater as NU watched in shock, but respectfully. We as a fan base stopped and wished we knew the words. It’s impossible to root AGAINST Army. They represent a lot about NU that we love – underdogs, tough, clean program, but obviously they have a whole other level of reasons to support, this is just a game for them where the real world looms the second the final whistle blows. At this moment I felt our kids are almost spoiled and may not truly appreciate what they have at NU with their scholarship.  It was a weird feeling. Perhaps this is what it is like to be another Big Ten team losing at Ryan Field and walking out – it’s hard not to appreciate.

The purple armada of fans walked the 3/4 of a mile downhill back to the dock. I can tell you what a realtime focus group sounds like. Unified questioning of poor play-calling, questioning of heart as a team and fans ranking the loss among a sea of Miami (OH), Duke and UNHs.  The pain was palatable. This one hurt. The realization that we are indeed not really close to being THERE as a program that we thought we were with this year’s senior leadership was too painful for most. Speculation about the Big Ten season began and our season expectations got a major rattling.

Fans were beyond patient as our boats got bumped by the glitzy Zephyr yacht that was President Schapiro’s VIP trip back to Manhattan. Fans, exhausted, at their 250 boxed dinners and groans about time of launch became apparent. The Fitzgerald was the first boat to load and the fans were beyond quick boarding.  My boat, the Ara, was the final boat.  Scott Sloane, Scott Smith and I took a picture. The three of us had never actually met before that day. Just a couple of random fans who I felt at that moment showed the power of community and trust and what this readership and friends are capable of doing.  It was one of the most bittersweet moments as a fan and blogger I’ve had. The boat ride back seemed quicker. It was a beautiful and cool night, but the ride was pretty darn spectacular.  It might have been the largest unified Northwestern bitch session in history as everyone had an opinion on what went wrong and the questions about our in-game management. The unified sense was that Fitz is an incredible brand ambassador and does wonders with our guys, but we as a program are in a state of purgatory to get to that next level.

The 2.5 hour cruise back was therapeutic for me and enabled me to put in to perspective the day, Army as an entity and the loss. Perhaps it will be the Miami (OH) jolt we needed. Or, perhaps it is simply one loss that we always seem to counter with a win we shouldn’t get later in the year. I’ve picked Nebraska as that game, please. Hey, perhaps we should plan a road trip.

PLEASE send me photos, stories and other accounts of the day. I will turn the Sailgate page in to a memorial of the incredible event. Thank you all for the kind words, support and gratitude towards Scott Sloane.  I think I may have secured an East Lot parking pass out of the day. More importantly, I made a host of new friends and met a ton of you. It’s a day I will never, ever forget.

  • PittsburghWildcat

    All of you who organized the Sailgate should be very proud of yourselves. It sounds like a great time was had by everyone. I don’t want to take away from that by any means, because I truly know, appreciate and respect how much time, energy and $$ went into that organization. I do, however, want to point out another 9,000+ Wildcat fans not on Sailgate (disclaimer: I was not on the Sailgate) also made their way to West Point on Saturday.

    No matter how you got to Michie Stadium, it was great to see that amount of purple in the stands and I hope we all embrace that fact.

    That’s both road nonconference games this year, by the way, where the Wildcat fan base has been more than noticeable in the stands.

  • Lake The Posts

    @Pittsburgh Wildcat – Indeed. There are a ton of fans to be commended. The buzz of the Sailgate certainly helped a few hundred more find out about/get inspired to go, but the bigger picture to your point is that ALL fans are starting to step up more. Not trying to take credit for the 9,000+ – just that everyone out there has the ability to make a difference.

  • Go Cats

    I just want to thank you guys for putting this Sailgate together. I had a wonderful time, as did my guest. I know that in 10, 20, 50 years from now, I’ll still remember the boat ride, catching up with an old college friend, drinking beers on the Hudson. I won’t remember the score of the game, or probably, even who won. But that boat ride, tailgate, and entire experience, I’ll always remember.

    Thanks again. What a great day.

  • Zanycat

    Thanks again to LTP and Scott. My spouse and I had a great time and are spending Sunday recovering from the double hangover of the loss and way too much beer. Neither take away from the great weekend and experience that was Sailgate. I have some videos from the Walker cruising under the bridges on the Hudson and some game photos that I’ll try and share. Out of all the bad losses I’ve seen the ‘Cats take since ’95, this one’s the most palatable because Army is first class, but we gotta flush it and get ready for our in state rivals. Go ‘Cats!

    P.S. Thanks to the 3 2nd year cadets from India Company for walking us and a bunch of ‘Cat fans down to the dock after the game. Kinda weird being called “sir”, but talking with them on the walk about their experience and commitment to this country was a huge highlight and I hope others got to experience the how great these cadets are. It really brings it into focus that they’re all just kids and football is just a game when there are so many other important things in life to consider…

  • AfftonCat

    Thanks for the nice description – wish I hadn’t had a conflict and had been able to make it up there. Go ‘Cats

  • Wildcats99

    The game was obviously a huge disappointment, but I can’t thank LTP & Scott enough for organizing this. It was a chance for all of us to feel like we were right back in school! The boat ride over and the tailgate were just an unblievable amount of fun.

    Not to burden you guys with more work, but NU is on a lake. Should we consider a “Sailgate II” from downtown Chicago to Evanston?

    Not sure exactly where to dock, but I think it would be an aweome event.

  • Lake The Posts

    @Wildcats 99 -my wife had the same question. I’ll give you the same answer. Let’s decompress for awhile before we plan the next event! Would be interesting to see what kind of response that would get.

    IF the ‘Cats can rebound and Persa does what we know he can do, we’ll be hopefully doing a follow-up act for a bowl party. Unless it’s in Detroit.

  • PairofCats88

    LTP and Scott, and all the other folks helping out,
    FANTASTIC! Thanks so much for organizing just an awesome event. Even the kids (Class of 2019 and Class of 2024, maybe) had a great time. We will all remember this for a long time.

  • Reader

    LTP and Scotts – you guys did a fantastic job with this event. We weren’t on the sail but attended the LTP tailgate and had a great time. We aren’t NU alums – we are NU parents, and we’re so happy for our kid that he attends such an incredible school with so many devoted alums. You are wonderful representatives of Northwestern.

  • Wildcat86

    Vick is hurt and Kafka is playing at Atlanta….

  • tonyv

    Does anyone know neil hayes of the sun times? If you do let him know he forgot to include NU as part of the Big Ten. I am reading his story Notre Dame to the Big Ten is becoming more of a reality and he says this:

    “Imagine a Big Ten “Western” division that includes Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and an “Eastern” sub-conference featuring Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Indiana. Such a scenario would maintain many of the Big Ten’s geographical rivalries as well as allowing Notre Dame to continue to play traditional foes such as USC and/or Navy.”

    Wheres NU? I am so pissed right now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • tonyv

    I just sent neil and email pointing out his error. I suggest we all send him email’s to show our displeasure at his removal of NU from the Big Ten.

    His address is nhayes@suntimes.com

  • tonyv

    I just received an email from neil and his said he would fix the error. I just no need to jam his email….

  • Scott

    Doesn’t remove the sting of yesterday, but Kafka played like a champ in Atlanta tonight. Hit Maclin right in the mitts on 4th and 4 with less than 2 minutes left. Dropped. Lots of love from Chris Collinsworth.

  • kafkas the man

    Kafka was the MVP of this one, wow how did maclin end up f***ing us over once again

  • AdamDew

    My only Sailgate regret was that I didn’t pace my battery usage for my camera. I ran out of juice right after we got to West Point, which is why I ended the feature for the Fitz Show with us getting off the boat.

    There are a few other clips (including a couple of shots from the tailgate and a few of the cadet parade) in this clip. Some bonus footage from Sailgate:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vny_Fv76bbw

  • Reader

    “Mike Kafka” trending on twitter!

  • NUCat91

    Thanks to Jay, the Scotts and all the other Cat fans who were at Sailgate. My highlights:

    1) The amazing scenery (once we passed the city limits) on the boat ride up the Hudson;
    2) The cadet march was really interesting and inspiring; and finally
    3) Playing 6 hours of cards with old fraternity brothers like nothing had changed in 20 years!

    Go Cats!

  • James

    Despite the incredibly disappointing result, I’m so sad I missed out on the Sailgate experience. My parents made it up to West Point through more standard means (car) and had a great time at the NU tailgate (and my mom attempted to fill my shoes during the game and motivate the NU crowd to make some noise…a thankless job). They heard buzz about sailgate all day though, so I can’t say enough about how proud I am of you guys for organizing this event. Hopefully, as LTP has stated, this will serve as a springboard for strong future road game showings.
    As far as the game went, I think that especially considering the now unimpressive nature of our first two games, the lack of true player leadership was VERY evident in this one. Looking at the post-Persa injury games last year and these first three games, it’s clear that he is THE leader of this team. Without him, no one seems to play up to their abilities as no one has stepped up to fill his shoes as the leader. This Illinois game just increased significantly in terms of importance. If Danny can come back and lead the troops to victory, I think we’ll easily be able to shrug off this Army game and garner a decent bowl invite (and hopefully VICTORY). If he struggles a bit (and our rush de doesn’t step up big time)….I think we’re in for a long season.
    This will surely annoy you all, but the one silver lining to this wknd for me was ND’s convincing victory. I stayed silent in the days leading up to the game for fear of both being mocked and jinxing them after that crushing collapse against Mich, but I was truly confident about this MSU game. Like I’ve said before, this team is very talented. I can see them putting together a decent streak of wins after this showing. OK that’s all I’ll say about “TTSFB” for a while. Commence mockery.

  • Wildcat99

    ESPN has a poll up on whether the Eagles are a playoff team with Kafka starting for an extended period! Hell Yeah!!! Go cats!!!

  • Jimgocats93

    Finally back to a computer – the break was nice.

    It also gave me time to cool off. Great day for NU in bowl travel rep. The West Point experience was wonderful in every way but the crowd control, traffic, and the outcome of the game.
    Thoughts:
    1)Forcing only 1 turnover is a major problem

    2)Deciding to try to beat Army in a possession game might have been a mistake (maybe not – the coaches are the experts -not me) I would have liked an air attack (like NIU) to try and score early to minimized their plan – 20 – 30 seconds between every snap – what?! 75% of their possessions were spent on one knee looking at signs and posters on the sideline

    3)Officials truly killed a major momentum swing – Fitz was clear about how he felt the officials performed

    4)Army provided a true home field advantage for the Black Knights: Cannon fire, Mr. Referee move those chains, big screen that bordered on illegal – not to mention a loud timely crowd juiced by paratroopers

    We could learn a lot about creating an atmosphere that is a home field advantage – they proved it can be done in a small venue.

    Totally depressing. But I am hoping for a rebound like 2008 when we turned it around big time.
    Persa or no Persa…….

    gocatsgo!

  • Dozer

    Regardless of the score, I’m incredibly jealous of everyone who was on the Sailgate, and in awe of LTP and the Scotts for putting this together. As much as the loss hurts, it’s this sort of thing more than the W-L record that will make NU a “big time” program. Every team gets hit by the embarrassing loss or the one dreadful day, but we’ll know that the program has arrived when we’ve got a fanbase that continues to grow, cheer the team on, and build a great home and away atmosphere anyway. The wins will follow.

    And if you’re thinking about future Sailgate-like events… the ‘Cats play at Cal in 2013. Perhaps a (somewhat longer) Sailgate departing from LA, up the west coast, under the Golden Gate, and across the bay to Berkeley? A lot of alumni in southern California…

  • NUmanager

    As I watched Morty Schapiro board the Zephyr on Saturday night with all the big$$ donors… I wondered if the biggest loser of the day might have been the facilities upgrade. He looked as down as anyone on the dock.

  • @ Dozer

    That would be a long trip, though I’ve already started to think about whether I should fly to LA, see friends, and then take the long drive up the Pacific Coast Highway for the sightseeing. It’s considerably longer than the interstate, but seems worth it.

    Maybe a bus caravan up the PCH? Depending on the kickoff time, of course. Either way, doing so would require an overnight stay in the area. It is Labor Day weekend, though.

  • JerseyCat

    I had a great time, even though I felt like ‘Blue’ from Old School in the Fitz boat. A few beers got me back in the early post-college mindframe and the rest of the ride and tailgate just went by way too quickly. The Firstie Club was such a great time I was actually bummed to leave and made it into Michie just before kickoff. I wish I had caught the Cadet March as it was on my to-do list. Oh well. Major kudos to all the organizers. Next year at Happy Valley would be a great encore–at least for a kick-ass tailgate.

  • Dozer

    @Northwestern Highlights, I’m imagining something along the lines of a purple cruise ship, with amenities to satisfy NU fans for four or five days. Totally unnecessary, but fun to imagine. Don’t know if Scott Sloane wants to plan all that though…

    Another option for you to consider for LA to Berkeley might be Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route (http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer/AM_Route_C/1241245648567/1237405732511). It’d be an 11-hour trip, but it’s supposed to be a very pretty route.

  • Katy Schlesinger

    LTP, Scott, etc. MANY THANKS!! Sailgate was fantastic and so well-organized! Great seeing old friends and making a few new ones. I will never forget this incredible day!

  • NUdone88

    Brilliant except for the outcome. As I watch on TV (and Gary Thorne kept calling us “Northwest” not Northwestern), I marveled at the after game song/tradition. Some other emailer said it, how can you EVER root against Army, Navy or the AirForce – especially when they play ND.

  • wildcat2001

    Sailgate was a success (the game not so much). Thanks to LTP and the Scotts for all of the work it took to make Sailgate run as smoothly as it did. The ride up, in particular, was spectacular — what a sight to have the West Point fortress suddenly appear! While waiting to get into the stadium, we chatted with a NU commit and his family, and they had heard about Sailgate, too. As for the game, NU almost never sees the wishbone, and it showed. I really question the play calling on our final drive.

  • ‘Catatonic Tim

    My seats were around the southwest corner so I had a great view of the purple panorama which was the south end zone. Truly an awesome sight and I loved the fact that it really rattled some of the Army fans in the section. One of them told me that he had never seen such a large and vocal section of visiting fans. Of course the outcome of the game was a bummer but let’s maintain that momentum!

  • Paul K

    Here are some pictures from Sailgate and pre-game. Hope to have game images uploaded soon.
    http://bit.ly/oCyDfP