Northwestern Haunts Michigan’s Greg Mattison

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is haunted at night by visions of purple. He surely loses some sleep at night trying to scheme a way to stop Dan Persa and his frightening efficiency or find a way to get past an experienced offensive line. But mostly, Mattison is likely dreading a return to the old Dyche Stadium and relive the nightmares that almost drove him out of coaching.

Mattison was Northwestern’s defensive line coach from 1978-80. Seeing as those years were before 1995 (or 17 B.G.B. — before Gary Barnett), it was not quite a good time to be coaching the Wildcats. In fact, Mattison recalls that his record was 1-31-1 during his three-year tenure assisting Rick Venturi. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages, as we have come to know them.

Obviously that much futility shook everyone’s confidence. Venturi went from Northwestern to the CFL and never returned to college football or received anything more than an interim head coaching job.

Mattison? He told the Michigan media that it nearly drove him out of coaching. The losses were so numerous that he left coaching and actually went to work in a sporting goods store. The losses were too many to remember while the win (singular) and tie stood out — the win was against Wyoming to open the 1978¬†1979 season and the tie was to Illinois in a 0-0 tie in 1979¬†1978.

It was not comfortable going on recruiting trips as he relates:

All I remember is going out recruiting and I would see a young man and he would say, ‘What’s your record?’ and I would always go, ‘Oh, 10 and 1,’ and they would go, ‘Good record!’


That is 0-10-1.


Northwestern was a great place, it really was. But it was a good place… except on Saturdays.


Things have certainly changed. Mattison got back to coaching a few years later and has held a coaching job somewhere ever since. He has been to Michigan, Notre Dame and even was defensive line coach for the Baltimore Ravens. He was a co-defensive coordinator when Florida won the national title in 2006.

Now he is back at Michigan and staring down a very different Northwestern team. A Northwestern team that he described as the biggest challenge that his defense will have seen thus far.

He compared Dan Persa’s playmaking ability and vision to Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, saying he can turn a passing play into a 15-yard run if the defense does not stay in its running lanes or rushes too far upfield. Unlike previous games against such vaunted foes as Eastern Michigan, San Diego State and Minnesota, Northwestern can put points up in a hurry. That is, at least, what the team showed in building a 28-10 lead at Illinois.

The defense has been the big question mark for the Wolverines all year. Michigan was torn up last year, giving up 393.3 yards per game and 27.5 points per game. This year, the Wolverines have fared much better with 316.2 yards allowed per game and, probably more importantly, 10.2 points allowed per game.

Again, the competition has not been so great quite yet. Notre Dame is the best team Michigan has played, and the Wolverines gave up 452 yards in the 35-31 win under the Big House’s freshly installed lights.

That is improvement, but ghosts of 2010’s past.

Mattison has been working hard to turn those numbers around and he and Michigan are using the Northwestern game to take some measure of where the defense is at.  Mattison is wroking on finding ways of making Dan Persa uncomfortable and getting pressure on him.

That is what Mattison is thinking about as he prepares his team. And maybe he is having some nightmare flashbacks to the Dark Ages too.

  • HoosierCat

    Actually, the scoreless tie was 1978 and the lone win in 1979 (Wyoming) which coincided with my first semester in law school, another Dark Ages nightmare! My take on the Dark Ages is that it took place one year before my arrival at NU when the University inexplicably hired John Pont in 1973. As a senior in high school with a family full of IU grads everyone was thrilled that Pont was leaving Indiana and we felt sorry for NU to get him. It was Pont along with NU President Bob Strotz (who wanted us to follow his alma mater the University of Chicago and leave the Big Ten) that were responsible for the debacle that became NU “football” as was played during my undergraduate years. Some of my closest friends were on the team and they professed great enmity toward Pont. I remember before the Ohio State game my senior year that Pont told the team, “Just don’t embarass me.” Quite a pregame pep talk. They played hard, but were poorly coached and clearly overmatched. Pont as AD then hired Venturi, the only man he could think of to do a worse job than himself and it showed. I don’t blame Mattison for quitting after his NU experience. And remember, the media and non-NU fams still associate those horrendous times with NU today which is why when we beat a ranked opponent it’s always a big upset. Until we win another Big Ten championship I fear the ghosts of the Dark Ages will continue to plague us.

  • Icehockeycat

    A bit off topic but I thought this was interesting:

    They list at 4. “Chicago+Evanston”. The cats are now helping the stature of the Chicago sports scene!?!

  • Bucko

    @HoosierCat –

    You have 2 things absolutely correct. Law school was also another Dark Ages nightmare but at least it only lasted 3 years.

    Secondly, the hiring of John Pont was the onset of an Ice Age for our football program. Unfortunately, he won a Big 10 title at Indiana. I believe that their QB was Harry Gonzo. They won about half of their games that year in the final 2 minutes of games. In the post game interviews, Gonzo would always be quoted as saying that at the end of the games he ignored the plays that Pont and his assistants sent in and called his own plays. Some coach!

    Then Strotz made Pont the AD and he was able to virtually destroy the entire athletic department.

    I bought my 1st season tickets in 1974. My seats were in the upper deck down near the north tower and all of the seat between there and the 50 yard line were filled. Each year my friends and I marked the box on our ticket renewal forms. By 1977 I was at the 40 yard line and north of the 30 was completely empty. It was so bad that we could carry any food and beverage we wanted into the games and no one said a word because they were so happy that someone was attending the games.

    Robert Strotz and John Pont sacked Nu as the Huns had sacked Rome. Just enough of us were left who could still scrawl “Adamle” into the Dyche seats (They were wooden with splinters the size of 10 penny nails) that the glory years of 1970-71 were not forgotten until the Renaissance of the mid-1990’s. May their names forever leave a bad taste in my mouth but never be forgotten lest NU turn away from its enlightened state.

    • HoosierCat

      You’re right “Ice Age” is more descriptive of the era as John Pont rarely moved. I remember learning as a junior that he refused to recruit out of a five state area because he wanted to be home every night. With regard to IU’s 1967 Rose Bowl run, I remember it fondly as everyone in my family (until me) went to Indiana. What no one evidently at NU knew, but everyone in the Hoosier did, is that Pont developed a bad reputation with black players. It stemmed from an incident during the 1968 season (they were highly ranked and undefeated) when the nation’s leading kickoff returner, Larry Highball, asked Pont if he and several other black players could skip practice to attend some student demonstration. Pont demurred and many players quit the team. By my senior year (1977-78), black players were a rarity on the roster. I always admired former AD Doug Single for hiring Dennis Green a guy who in some ways saved the program, but rarely gets much credit. While we won’t hear “Kick Northwestern out of the Big Ten” as we did during the Dark Ages, until we consistently compete for championships in football fans and the media will not take us seriously.

  • Draz

    HoosierCat; Bucko, et al: Having played for NU in the dark age years 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980, and haven been on the field for all three of the ‘non-losses’ during those four years (1977 – beat IL to end season, 1978 – opened season to a 0-0 tie at IL, 1979 – beat Wyoming – (after which started the Streak, game was early but not the opener) and 1980 – winless, I can say that the source of all the problems was the simple fact that Strotz and NU didn’t care (and thus $ starved) NU sports, . Many people don’t know that Rick Venturi and Fitz had similar circumstances (played for NU, head coach for NU, was youngest head coach when he was hired). But the reason he was hired was simple – Strotz and his ilk were CHEAP and Rick was young and hungry. Greg Mattison was/is a really good guy – and his NU players loved him. To tied this all in a ribbon (connecting him to NU cheapness , Greg (as a coach!) had to supplement his meagre Strotz-inspired salary by working alongside some players in the summer as a MOVER – moving furniture. You wonder why he’s haunted? Now, to make the point that there was talent (players and coaches), that era also spawned Chris Hinton, Rob Taylor (NFL OT for Bucs for long time), Mike Kerrigan (CFL great) and John Kidd (NFL great punter for a long, long time). Besides Mattison’s coaching success, check out Mike Westoff of NY JETS – just You Tube that name, Rick Venturi actually parlayed a career in the NFL, Billy Rees (yes – father of ND QB Tommy Rees – coach and long-time NFL scout). Were those ages dark – yes, but keep in perspective all the above.

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      Wow, amazing perspective. Thanks to contributing. To a lot of people who did not live through Dark Ages (i.e. me) and just hear stories about it from long-time NU fans, scanning the media guide and reading LTP share his thoughts, it is really good to hear stories like this. Really makes me appreciate how much better a student experience it was to have an administration that cared about athletics and having student athletes represent Northwestern. It may not be the most important thing the university can spend its money on, but when done right it can be an investment well worth it. Thanks again for sharing!

    • Icehockeycat

      A tisker, a Tasker, a touchdown!

    • Draz – Thank you for the perspective. I was the NUMB Spirit Leader my Senior year – during the Dark Ages. I felt bad for the football team (especially since Pont/Venturi did not seem to care to fight to get/do what the team needed to win). But I cheered the team nonetheless. As you noted, there was some NFL-caliber talent and many good athletes. And as an athlete myself (Fencing), I understand the “starved for resources” references. Best Wishes.

      Go Cats!

  • Bucko

    Draz- You are absolutely right. We did have some super players. None of my comments were directed at any of our players. You all played your tails off.

    In my rant on Strotz I neglected to mention his total fincial neglect of the athletic department. He wore his ivory tower blinders and did not see the advantage of a solid sports program at NU. After the Rose Bowl season, donations to all areas of the university jumped significantly. Obviously, the investment in our student athletes paid dividends. That is something that Strotz could not, or simply would not, understand. Thank heaven that the board of trustees finally realized that they had the power to turn things around and give the athletic department the financial backing that had been lacking.

    I watched you, your teammates and all the other players during those years week after week and I hold you in the same regard as any of the players before or after you. Go Cats!!

    • Draz:

      I was a NU student athlete(baseball) from 78 to 82 and curious as to why you chose to play at NU? Pont was the stuck in cement as the landscape of college sports was changing particularly football. I recently had a meeting with a former NU tightend who reminded how incredibly bad the facilities were at NU in your and my day which made recruiting ever so more difficult,
      Shaprio likes football and likes to win. I suspect the dollars moving twoard the athletic department in general and football in particular will continue to increase. With the rumor of new facilites on east campus, I see continued improvement of the football program.
      We all need to becareful for what we wish for here. Yes, I want a winnign football program but at what cost? Pont was a menace to winning and out of place for the era, but he also personified some excellent values like education was more important to NU than winning the Big Ten title. Current, success provides proof positive that the concepts are not mutually exclusive but the line is a thin one.
      Hail to Purple, hail to White, hail to thee NU!! Beat Michigan.

      • Philip Rossman-Reich

        That is definitely a very good point, Frank. I think one of the things a lot of the readers on this site appreciate is that we run a relatively clean program. We have a high standard for our athletic teams both on and off the field. And it is important that we keep that.

        There is likely going to be a time when winning and standards are going to come to a head — some would argue it happened after the Army and Illinois losses — there is a balance that has to be struck for sure. And as we can see from NU’s history and the history of a bunch of other schools, it can be very difficult.

      • Draz

        Good question Frank. I chose NU for probably the same reasons others on athletic scholarship did, and those which Fitz stresses to recruits. For me, very simply the value of the athletic scholarship relative to any other schools was simply exponentially more valuable. Additionally, Big Ten playing experience. Third, being from Chicagoland, close to home. Finally, The subsequent career opportunities. It might seem counterintuitive (why choose a loser – at the time), but for the recruit who is looking beyond the almost microscopic chances of playing in the NFL, those reasons are ‘smart money’.

  • Wlidcatfan

    I missed the game against Wyoming when I moved into my dorm freshman year, 1979. I never missed another game which included the entire losing streak. We would cheer “Rosebowl, Rosebowl,” every time we managed a first down. We also chanted “That’s alright, that’s OK, you’re going to work for us someday”, and “Our SAT’s are higher.” The tailgates were amazing back then. Yes, we loss every game until my senior year, but it was still fun. I remember the cheerleaders going to downtown Chicago passing out buttons that said Stop State at 28 but unfortunately we didn’t. My senior year was the best though! We put an end to the record when we beat Northern Illinois. Then came the Minnesota victory to stop our Big 10 losing streak! My friends and I were leaving the stadium at half time like we usually did. But then we heard everyone say we’re winning so we turned back and went into the stadium to see the victory. That night was the Pumpkin Prom (campus wide Halloween party.) I remember people dressing up as the scoreboard (31 – 21) and people who were the goal posts. We had torn them down and thrown them into Lake Michigan each time we won. (My brother who was a student at NU also said he yelled at people to get out of the way when they were thrown over the top of Dyche Stadium.) Finally, that year we beat Michigan State at Michigan State stopping another record of I think 5 straight years of away game losses and of course they promptly fired their coach.
    The best part of that year was the basketball team! I was at the game where we beat Notre Dame on St. Patrick’s Day in the NIT. (The Notre Dame person sitting in front of me gave me her stick-on cloverleaf which I still have to this day.) Due to the renovation of McGaw (goodbye dirt floor) we played in DePaul’s campus arena that year and I think we won every home game. (By the way, if the NCAA tournament had 64 teams playing in it in 1982-83 I think NU would have been there.)
    So yes it was a tough four years but we still managed to have fun.

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