I remember the moment so clearly. There was 1:20 to go in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl. We were on our third or so extra life at this point as Auburn’s Nick Fairley had the game over with an apparent sack, but decided to grab Mike Kafka’s facemask to give us another chance. We were down 35-27, needing a TD and a 2-point conversion to force overtime. Mike Kafka stepped up in the pocket and promptly threw a seed to a streaking Sidney Stewart for a TD. Within feet of Stewart’s head I could see a “fan” double-pumping his fists in absolute ecstasy (take a look at the highlights below and go to the 6:00 mark and you can see it firsthand). I hit “pause” on the TV. Is that..could it be…did I just see our president Morty Schapiro acting like I would? Sure enough after a few rewinds, I was convinced that was “our” man. For years it would become the knee-jerk image I would go to when I heard the name “Morty Schapiro”.�
Since that indellible moment, I’ve had the pleasure to see president Schapiro speak in person. I’ve seen him speak to large groups, intimate groups and last fall I had the chance to actually spend some time with him one on one. In nearly every instance, the phrase “Northwestern Athletics is the front porch to our university” have been woven in to the conversation. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m as big a fan of his as he could have and with good reason. As an alum who looks back at the Big Ten factor as a huge part of the collegiate experience (as a fan and not an athlete no less), Morty shares the same philosophy. He’s a diehard sports fan and loves the ‘Cats just like you and I do. However, he also maintains that perspective that it’s part of something much bigger.
In order to fully appreciate this seismic shift in philosophy at Northwestern you need to go back to 1991, my freshman year. I now understand that Northwestern was just starting to gain traction on building up an endowment as it was in pretty rough financial shape in the 1980s. President Arnie Weber had come in and rattled the Wildcat world by putting financial discipline and a strategic plan in place that was laser beam focused on financial stability and growth. However, athletics was perceived to be inversely proportional to the perception of Northwestern’s academic reputation. The consistent thinking among faculty and administrators seemed to me to be the worse we fared in revenue sports, the better it will underscore how serious NU is about academics. Many point to the infamous NCAA record football losing streak in the 1980s as the lowpoint for NU Athletics. Not me, I point to the fall of 1991 when we SOLD A HOME GAME to Ohio State for one million dollars. That’s right. We moved our home game to Cleveland’s municipal stadium to face Ohio State, yet wore home uniforms, used our PA announcer, brought the band and promptly got smoked. Can you imagine what it felt like to be a player and coach knowing you had that kind of “support” from the administration. Now, fast forward nearly 20 years back to New Year’s Day 2010.
I had missed attending the Outback Bowl after getting stuck in Detroit thanks to a massive snowstorm. The family and I rented a car one way to get home for New Year’s and I was stuck watching it on TV. I was just starting to learn the bonuses of texting at this point. As Northwestern converted the two point conversion and then recovered the onside fumble (and then we added a “wide right” to our sports history) my phone start blowing up. I judge the front porch factor to athletics by the volume of texts I get from my non inner circle of nutjob Wildcat fans. You know, the text from that childhood friend or business colleague you barely talk to. It’s unscientific for sure, but on this day I had some 40+ texts from such a wide array of people in my contacts that I realized, “wow, this game is huge”.
That game is still in the top five alltime greatest game categories for most NU fans and it was a loss. That’s how entertaining it was. The football impact it had was enormous as several recruits still talk about the fact it was the first time Northwestern caught their eye (and with Mike Kafka passing more than 70 times, how could you not be seduced as an offensive player?). However, I always take things to the next level and wonder what kind of impact that front porch had on admissions. I must admit I’m a bit of a nerd on this topic. OK, full disclosure, I did a senior thesis on “Athletic Success & Its Impact on Academic Reputation” as I tried to prove that having good revenue sports correlated to increased academic perception. I used Stanford and Duke as the comparables and if you remember in the early 1990s Duke was the “hot” school among its peers (Stanford, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Notre Dame etc..) and I always assumed it was because of Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner’s famous run in the early 90s. It makes a ton of common sense. Increased national exposure equates to more applications which leads to a larger pool which leads to lower percentage of acceptance which is a metric for ranking the “selective” level of an institution and plays in to the almighty US News & World Report rankings.
I succeeded but failed. I got an “A” on the paper, but I failed to be able to prove my theory. However, I have it saved for posterity sake as the closing argument was my “Hail Mary” and went something like this:
“Despite being able to prove that nationally-ranked football and basketball teams would increase the academic reputation of Northwestern, I genuinely believe that if Northwestern should have a one-time “event” like reaching the Rose Bowl, applications would skyrocket in large part due to the unprecedented national media exposure it would bring to the university. The monetary impact of such an event would be tough to calculate as the bump in applications would be a small component of the impact. Percentage of alumni giving would spike and the existing donors would likely increase their annual and one-time giving enabling the school to have resources that far exceed their plan.” The paper was turned in to my professor in June of 1995, just months before the above would come true.
Today though, something much larger than four straight bowl appearances, an uptick to an average basketball team and a brand ambassador of Pat Fitzgerald are at play. In case you missed the recent news, Northwestern just set a record for applications with 32,065 applications – nearly double the number received as recently as 2005 (16,228). Northwestern admitted 4,895 of said applicants which, in case you’re like me and math isn’t your strong suit, equals about 15% down from 18% just one year ago. That percentage number is extremely important as it is essentially the Mendoza line of getting to the highest level of selectivity in the verbiage used by college rankings. Obviously, with only 2,100 or so matriculating from the accepted, that percentage is another metric to assess how hot NU will be. The number of students denied is about equal to the same number of applications received just two years ago.The trend during Morty Schapiro’s tenure in application spike is pretty incredible. Consider the following application numbers which were recently released by NU admissions:
- Fall 2009: 25,369 applicants, 6,887 admits, 27.1 percent acceptance rate
- Fall 2010: 27,528 applicants, 6,367 admits, 23.1 percent acceptance rate
- Fall 2011: 30,926 applicants, 5,575 admits, 18.0 percent acceptance rate
- Fall 2012: 32,065 applicants, 4,895 admits, 15.0 percent acceptance rate
Now, like any leader or head coach or even QB, when something fails a disproportionate amount of blame goes to said leader and on the flipside when you see success like this it would be easy to simplify the platitudes to one man – Morty. However, as you can imagine when I asked him about the incredible achievement – a dip from 27% acceptance to 15% in four years (Morty became NU president in 2009) he was quick to deflect where the praise should go as he said “We really have our act together in shining a spotlight on a fabulous school. Our tour, information session, viewbook, and outreach to high school counselors and prospective students are about as good as it gets. What an admissions and financial aid team we have!”
Of course, I couldn’t stop there and wanted to dig in to his perception of what contribution Northwestern Athletics and/or the Big Ten Network had in being part of this application spike with a particular bent towards the revenue sports contribution. Morty responded :
We get extraordinary attention based on all of our 19 varsity teams, but of course football and men’s basketball lead the way in terms of media exposure. How many articles did the New York Times alone run about the possibility of our making the dance, or about beating Nebraska inLincoln? And how do you not want to attend a school that has Johnny Shurna and Danny Persa as students? Or Shannon Smith for those in the know.
The term brand ambassador gets tossed around quite a bit when it comes to Pat Fitzgerald, who, in many of our eyes is the most visible “face” to the school, at least on the “front porch”. President Schapiro, like any university president must be constantly fundraising and is always out connecting with alumni so I had to inquire about the perception of Fitz on his coast to coast meetings with alumni. I asked Morty directly how he would describe the perception of Fitz as it relates to NU’s brand. Not surprisingly he said “Fitz is a fabulous representative of NU. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
As much as fans are not content with the consistency of both football and basketball, president Schapiro is likewise not content with where we are. Considering the application spike and increased academic metrics are bigtime arrow up we’re set up pretty well if and when our revenue programs can take things to the next level. It’s a point that Morty is well aware of. “With an admit rate of 15%, we are already one of the most selective schools in the country. When we are top 25 in football and in March Madness in hoops, the attention we will get will help take us to still another level.” Note that he said “when”, not “if”, but he also added the following which illustrates in my opinion what differentiates NU from our competition:
The key of course is to make sure that our players and coaches reflect the best of NU’s values. As long as we remember that, athletic success will propel us to uncharted territory.
One of the reasons I continue to be chief cheerleader of the written word is that after you’ve had a chance to spend time with Morty, you realize this isn’t lip service. He genuinely believes that athletics – whether as an athlete or a member of the student body who is a fan – is a critical part of the overall undergraduate experience. Despite his office being in the funky bell tower building (I often wonder if he gets to turn the clock tower purple himself after a win), he’s knocked the “ivory” out of the stereotype of a university president. He signs his emails “president and professor” as he still teaches two undergraduate courses. Like Dr. Phillips, he constantly hosts students for dinner at his house and carries that small school Williams factor of wanting to know as many students names as possible as he walks across campus. It would be disingenous to his predecessor, president Henry Bienen, to place the embracing of athletics all on his shoulders. Bienen is a huge basketball fan and was very supportive of athletics as a president. However, Morty has taken it to the next level and its a recipe that we’re all hoping will payoff with dual Top 25 level programs in football and basketball. However, the double-edged sword is it will make it that much harder for our athletes to get accepted. God knows I wouldn’t be getting in these days.
I of course couldn’t contain myself from dipping more in to sports with Morty and I had to ask him which football win during his tenure gave him the most joy AND a moment that underscored what he felt it meant to be a football player at NU. By now, you wont’ be surprised by his answer when Morty said “Beating Nebraska inLincolnwas magical. But so was beating Iowa on the road during my first year. The pride on the faces of the players after those games said it all.”
As fans and specifically alums who have suffered through some challenging times, having a president like Morty Schapiro in place is something we can’t take for granted. It won’t last forever and with a limited window of another decade or so with him at the helm, now is the time for us to work together to make that move to the next level in main revenue athletics. And just in case you were “going there” as it relates to sending Morty a photo or screen grab of his TV moment with Sidney Stewart in the Outback Bowl, someone beat you to the punch. It’s proudly displayed (OK, proud is strong as he admits to getting caught up in the moment as a pure fan) in his office wall of fame.
So What Can You Do?
You know the answer. Get a pair of NEW season ticket holders to help us pack Ryan Field with mostly purple and 47,130 every Saturday. We’ve added three more to the big board thanks to “@Lunker35” who strong-armed a pair of non-NU guys on his softball team to see the light. Also, Jen L. stepped up to counter the guys getting their girlfriends tickets as she proudly boasted she got her boyfriend – a non-NU alum – to step up for a season ticket. Now THERE is a failproof strategy. There is a bad play off on “All The Single Ladies” going on in my head right now. Let’s get to 200! We’re one season ticket shy of getting to 10% of goal (20). Email me at LakeThePosts@gmail.com to share your story of how you got a new season ticket holder on board.