I don’t know about you, but I believe I may have underestimated the personal goodwill that the Gator Bowl win has provided. The dark purple cloud has cleared and things just seem a tad bit better everyday in my purple color lens of the world. Bo Cisek, Northwestern football’s all-time fan favorite (if fan favorite had a metric for fewest on-field moments with lasting recognition) , recently blogged about the surreal nature of this phenomenon. Granted, unlike this blogger, he actually wore the uniform, and participated in punt formations where his unmistakable wide-bodied presence served as a one-man wall to protect punter Brandon Williams. He, of course, was also a co-conspirator for the Gatorade dump of Fitz, and of course somehow always finds himself etched in visual lore by wielding a Star Wars-esque light saber. Anyways, Cisek summed up what many of his teammates felt and he vividly described the raw emotions in the lockerroom and after the game that served as a literal cathartic relief for the program.
Three weeks after the Gator Bowl win isn’t nearly enough rear view mirror time to place this game in to its proper context. We’re still filled with myopic sentiments and yours truly still has the hyperbole bus going full speed. However, with Northwestern basketball’s record quickly slipping to that .500 Mendoza line, I figured a little injection of optimism might be the order of the day. Let’s try and place 1-1-13, the date of our 34-20 bowl losing streak-snapping victory over Mississippi State in to proper historical context, perspective be damned.
To me, there are really only a handful of dates that are in contention for the Northwestern master football timeline. We’ll play an easy game of “guess what this means?” and it is a heck of a lot easier to decipher than the Cubs infamous “EAMUS CATULI” and the cryptic numeration that hangs from a roofdeck across the street from right field. Here we go:
Even if you’re an LTP shortimer or an undergrad, you likely can fill in the blanks for the above associations, which are dates of events that I consider to be the headlines on the Northwestern football timeline. To take it a step further, let’s imagine that Northwestern football were to create an interactive football Hall of Champions in their soon-to-be-built Lakefront facility, aka Ryan Fieldhouse. Imagine you are walking down a hallway strewn with graphic images adorning the walls and every trophy we’ve ever earned, every All-American mention, and names and images from our history were to be integrated on said hallway. Now imagine there are only about 10 spots for specific dates, historic moments in time that will stand the test of time, to be brought to light. Which ones would you lobby for? For historical sense, let’s pretend we are in the modern era of college football, which we’ll define as the past 40+ years. This way we can agree on things like the date in 1961 which represents the last time we were ranked #1 or 1/1/49, the date of our lone Rose Bowl win, are in the historical annex. For those still guessing, let’s reveal the dates I propose that merit a slot on this Hall of Champions and also potentially rank them.
- 9-25-82 – It marks the date we beat Northern Illinois to end “the streak”, shorthand for the Division I NCAA record-setting losing streak, 34 straight games –which still stands as the record more than 30 years later. It’s a mark of infamy that has managed to still have a trail effect on the program despite a run of competitive play since 1995 that includes three B1G titles, eight bowl appearances, including an unprecedented school run of five straight bowl games.
- 12-17-91 – This is the date Gary Barnett was hired to replace Frances Peay. Barnett was the offensive coordinator of the 1990 national champion Colorado Buffaloes and his hire signaled a sign of hope in Evanston for the few diehard fans that still passionately cared (including yours truly) about the football program. Barnett of course would lead NU to one of the most storied seasons in the history of the sport just four seasons later, which began with…
- 9-2-95 – I often refer to this date as the Anno Domino or “AD” for our program. If you want to point to one date as the stamp of a turning point in NU football recent history, this is it. As you know, we upset preseason national title contender, Notre Dame, in South Bend, despite being 27-point underdogs. The 17-15 win would seem to be a flash in the pan fluke, just a week later when we lost to Miami (OH), ironically coached by overachiever Randy Walker. Aside from the 1996 Rose Bowl, this game to anyone over the age of 25 represents the most vivid “where were you when…” moment.
- 1-1-96 – Perhaps the most glorious loss in our football history, this date marked Gary Barnett’s fulfilled dream of taking the “Purple to Pasadena” and also provided the single most emotional sports moment in my life – walking through the tunnel at the Rose Bowl to see 60,000 purple-clad fans dominate the crowd and the noise in USC’s backyard.
- 11-4-00 – If you’re looking for the most impactful game in Northwestern history on a college football level, the 54-51 unforgettable win over Michigan. Well remembered as the A-Train fumble/Damien Anderson goes wild, yet drops a sure TD game, this game really was the single most impactful game on proliferating the concept of the spread offense. Many of my more esteemed blogger colleagues have waxed poetic about this game and how the nature of the game and its prominence on ABC Sports (Brent Musburger and Gary Danielson called the game) inspired college and high school coaches across America to say “hey, we can use that offense to neutralize superior teams”. It still is the single most entertaining game I’ve ever seen at Ryan Field as the offensive fireworks never stopped all game long.
- 6-29-06 – Perhaps the most heart-wrenching day in NU football history as it is the date Randy Walker passed away of a heart attack at the young age of 50. The tragic events set off a domino of consequences including the most notable and legacy inducing decision – then AD Mark Murphy promoting a 31-year-old Pat Fitzgerald to become head football coach for the ‘Cats.
- 1-1-13 – Then there is the Gator Bowl win. For the first time in many of our lifetimes, NU exited a bowl game as victors and erased one of the very few negative stigmas and/or stats from our history. This one may not stand the test of time, and hopefully it doesn’t. By this I mean if we are to win several in a row, throw in a BCS win, a Rose Bowl win and the like, this one would fall off the timeline, conceivably. For now, however, it might very well contend for one of the top slots as it serves as a mental boost and program turning point as we continue our most consistent time period in our football history. The anguish, mental blocks and conspiracy theories are gone.
I’d love to get your take on where to rank the milestone dates I’ve proposed. Before you do, there are a laundry list of dates that didn’t make the cut that deserve mention. You can take the Penn State, Michigan and even the Iowa or Purdue games in 1995 and make a case for them. However, especially in light of the JoePa tarnished legacy, I believe 9-2-95 trumps them all. Penn State would be the one I’d give in on in a debate because of so many different things it represented, including Keith Jackson calling a game at Dyche Stadium and the subsequent win resulting in our second Sports Illustrated cover in program history. Then there are simply awesome games like Wisconsin ’00, Michigan State ’01, Michigan ’96, the Dayne fumble game in ’96 and how could we forget Victory Right by Zak in ’00 at Minnesota? These are amazing games with unforgettable stories and images, yet, while you could say any one of those was equally key to winning the B1G in ’96 and ’00, they simply don’t have the program trajectory implications that the dates I mentioned have.
More recently you might want to add our night win over Ohio State in 2004, which marked the first time we’d beaten the Buckeyes since 1971 (a 14-10 win over #16 OSU at the ‘Shoe). However, Ohio State turned out to be just OK that year, and we didn’t even make a bowl game. It was a phenomenal upset win and a night to remember, but the context of both team’s respective seasons don’t merit Hall of Champions timeline status.Coincidentally, now that we’ve won a bowl game, a road win at Ohio State stands as the next ignominious streak that still exists – we still haven’t won a game at Ohio State since 1971.
For this same reason I left out the incredible ’11 win at Nebraska. Our first B1G against the Huskers in the awe-inspiring venue that is Memorial Stadium and an iconic brand that we took down with an epic 7-minute drive, without passing the ball. The Huskers were a top ten team and winning on the road against a top ten Nebraska team definitely served notice on a national level. However, we were sub-.500 at the time and needed to claw like hell to get bowl eligible and ultimately had one of two losing seasons in the Fitz era (6-7). You could argue that win spurred the turnaround which was the 2012 season, and when you start counting from the Indiana win the week before that we’ve put together a helluva Wildcataganda stat, which is Northwestern has won 14 of its last 19 games, a stat that should we hold serve in non-conference will put us among the nation’s elite during that timespan.
Love it or hate it, I’m sticking to my guns on the above, but I invite you to weigh in with dates and support that should be on the milestone board. Rank them if you wish as well, as this is the type of dialogue that keeps us relevant in the long off-season.