Purple Mafia Profile: Michael Wilbon

Tim Peterson is a 2007 WCAS graduate currently living in Fairfax Station, Virgina. He marched and played mellophone in NUMB for four years, spending two of those as the band’s apple-shredding, ladder top-dancing “Grinder”.

Michael Wilbon may not qualify as purple “mafia”, per se. The 1980 Medill graduate isn’t exactly reticent about his alma mater.

A full-size Northwestern helmet sits directly behind the 1980 Medill graduate — in full view of the camera, often topped with a crown — on the set of his famous ESPN talk show “Pardon the Interruption”. He’s addressed graduating seniors at Ryan Field as commencement speaker. He won’t let Magic Johnson live down the year Michigan State won the NCAA title… after losing to Northwestern (1978-79 season, 83-65).

And Wilbon has every right to be proud. Not only did he attend Northwestern during the “Dark Ages” — a span relatively short in the life of the university yet so inherent to the modern identity of NU and the football program, and any associated party — he chose that grim period to launch a career in sports journalism. And it worked out! That’s like deciding to become an Olympic swimmer, when you grew up in the desert. It just doesn’t bode well.

But boy, did he ever find the pool. The now widely respected sports reporter and columnist spent 30 years at The Washington Post and currently dedicates most of his time to ESPN as a writer and on-air personality covering the NBA and NFL. On camera and in print, he’s known for his passionate, direct communication of opinions. Debates with PTI co-host Tony Kornheiser are typically a little heated and largely entertaining — if you like consuming your sports talk just a few decibels shy of a paternity test results reveal on Jerry Springer. And we all do.

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael a few years ago, while I was working in the Men’s Shoes department at Nordstrom on Michigan Avenue. We couldn’t find the right pair for him, but the meeting was justification enough for me to pursue him for an interview, albeit years later. To all you shoe dogs out there toiling through your own retail Dark Ages: Don’t give up. You never know where it might lead. Perhaps to a candid Homecoming-focused Q&A with Michael Wilbon, like the one we have here:

TP: Mike, you had the, erm, experience of living through and covering NU sports during the Dark Ages. Few can make such a claim. At least publicly. What was it like? It would seem that kind of environment wouldn’t be too inspirational for an aspiring sports journalist…

MW: They were the only ages we knew at the time. I was looking up our record, I wanted to make sure I knew it. I’ve always walked around thinking we were 3-40-1. We were indeed 3-40-1. The 1 is a 0-0 tie, to start the 1978 season. Unbelievable. There was a motto that year, it was the theme: “Expect the unexpected”. True story. Then we tie in Champaign. We won three games in my four years. I never saw one of ‘em.

We won a game at home, against Illinois in 1977. It was on my birthday, my sophomore year. It was 7-0 Illinois. And it was so cold, my then girlfriend and I got up out of Dyche and drove to the South Side. No lie. We turned on the radio and listened as we scored 21 unanswered points. I never saw us win a game. Then, we beat Wyoming in 1979. So I guess I did see that. But by then, I mean Wyoming, seriously. I wrote about it as a stringer for The Washington Post.

The basketball team was actually better. I worked with Magic for a while: We beat Michigan State, who went on to win a championship. He credits that game with turning that season around for them. We had good players: Billy McKinney, who went on the the NBA and was the team’s leading scorer for 35 years; Rod Roberson — we had some players, people who mattered. Tex Winter, coach of the team my freshman year, who created greatest offensive system in the history of pro basketball: the triangle. Basketball wasn’t the Dark Ages. We weren’t great, but there were contributions by Northwestern teams that mattered.

And there were other things going on: Women’s basketball was pretty good. They would go on to be even better. I hate to say that — that mattered — because it sounds like I’m insulting the people who played the game. I don’t mean to. It wasn’t important to the university, the people on high. It was seen somehow as if you were good at athletics, you weren’t that great at academics.

Stanford and Duke have made a mockery of that. It’s stupid now, to trot out there and suggest to somebody you can’t be good athletically and academically. It’s irresponsible. You can’t take that position anymore. That Duke is somehow flawed academically because they go to Final Four every year? It’s just dumb.

We have a president that doesn’t make that case. You can be good at both, you should be good at both.

TP: Your son “Lilbon” goes with you to games. As you bring him up to be a diehard Wildcat, how do you talk to him about them, the team’s history? Do you start with the Rose Bowl win? The losing streak?

MW: All he knows is every year of his life — he’s been going to football game for three years now — we expect to win. And to go to bowl games. And to watch bowl games on the holidays.

People who were at Northwestern in 1995, they don’t understand Dark Ages. You can read about it, but it’s not the same as living it. It’s not the same as looking at 12,000 people in Dyche Stadium. It’s not the same as living with the kids who were on those pitiful teams and trying to not talk about it when you saw them.

You have to be essentially late 40s, 50 years old, for it to resonate. I’m glad it doesn’t resonate anymore. I’m glad that Fitz looks at us like we’re nuts when we start to bring it up in conversation. He understands. He knows the men who played on some of those teams. If you’re almost 40, like Fitz, why do you keep talking about this?

TP: Aside from the obvious program milestones, what are some NU games that stand out to you, between then and now?

MW: There was an Ohio State game. I had a good friend who was a freshman, Dana Hemphill, who started at quarterback. It seems to me that I was walking into Dyche Stadium late. I think it was Homecoming (I hope it’s not an omen!), the game was on ABC. Dana was a freshman from the DC area. It was still a novel enough thing, in 1977, to have a black quarterback. I think we were leading the game 3-0, 6-0 or something. So I made a mad dash into the stadium. I can see the scoreboard. It was NU-something, Ohio State-nothing.

By the time I get into the stadium, the Buckeyes have scored two touchdowns. I wasn’t even in the stadium for the lead. This is what we went through. That was a game during the Dark Ages.

I don’t remember any other games. From the ‘80s, ‘90s — I remember ‘95. By that time, I had a satellite dish. I obsessed over them. You could get to watch all the games. ‘95 and ‘96, that’s when I started watching every single game and stressing over them. That’s when I started going crazy over them.

TP: We know you were at the Cal game going crazy. What was that like for you?

MW: It was nerve-wracking. We’ve gotten to this point now, where we want desperately to win. We want to win the games. Before, we wanted to be close, we wanted to be, something — I’m not sure what we wanted to be. We now have something at stake. And football success is financial success for a university.

You can’t really be taken seriously if you say, we’ll compete in math and science, English and journalism, care about all these discoveries and research. But we don’t want our sports teams to be worth a damn. That’s stupid. It’s just dumb.

We know that now. We’re not willing to be that stupid, thankfully, but when you try, and invest everything in it — emotionally, resources — then it actually hurts more to lose, the possibility of losing.

So when you’ve got a good team like we’ve got, and you’ve got a terrific coach, a terrific coach, who I live in fear of losing every week to some other school. When you get that, then you want to win these games. There’s disappointment in losing. Game Day wasn’t going to be on campus if we lost that game. It matters more, as it should.

It’s important. Jim Phillips refers to athletics as the front porch of the university. It’s more than that. It’s the whole freaking facade of your home. I know the lacrosse women. Don’t tell me they’re not students and athletes. Don’t tell me there’s some shame in winning seven championships. I would hit somebody with my fist.

I think those women showed us there is great honor and glory — and money — in winning. If you’re not winning, you oughta get out of the business of playing. Don’t tell me competition’s ok in one part of a university and not in another. An accomplishment is ok for some prize-winning professor in economics, but it’s not ok for the QB and WR to connect on passes on Saturday? It’s just dumb. I love that Morty and Jim get that.

TP: Let’s make like Fitz and “flush” the past, for now. What is your impression of the present, the 2013 squad we’ll see Saturday night?

MW: It’s good team. Look, I get my impressions through NFL people that I talk to. I’ve talked to other players, former players. I’ve talked to Corey Wootton this year. I also talk to scouts. Last year I talked to two scouts who thought we were going to win 9-10 games. They were on the money, and they don’t have an agenda.

NFL scouts are looking at games for one reason: They’re trying to assess what kind of players you have on your team that they should be interested in. They don’t care. They’re like mercenaries. And they think we have pretty good team this year.

Here’s the most important thing: I had two different scouts tell me the junior class is more talented than the seniors, the sophomore class is more talented than the juniors, and the freshman more than the sophomores. That’s the recruiting upgrade. That’s what Fitz is doing.

Better players are saying, ‘I want to go to Northwestern.’

We have a talent base. Probably more talent than we’ve ever had — maybe not more than ‘95. But certainly more depth than we’ve had. We’ve got a reputation we can sell. A kid from California’s saying, ‘I could go there.’

And something else is happening. Because of Duke basketball, Stanford football, it’s ok to be smart and play sports. You can have smart kids and win. Don’t tell Andrew Luck you can’t. All these things work in our favor.

TP: Speaking of playing smart, we’ve speculated over NU intentionally keeping the Offense/Defense playbook mostly closed during non-conference play. Fitz & co. have been called out for the resulting the unimpressive or unconvincing wins over Western Michigan and Maine. Do you buy it?

MW: I think there’s some nerves. The players, they feel pressures. We feel them them as alums. They’re smart, they’re not oblivious to it. They ought to win games. That’s a big next step: To win when you’re taking someone by surprise, and then to win when you’re taken seriously by the opponents, by a conference. To win when your coaches expect to win. Fitz isn’t trying to be Miss Congeniality. He’s working to win. He expects to win.

Morty puts that out there. It’s an important transition to make. I hope we can make it.

I think if we can win one of these next two games — and the coaches would kill me for saying that, because they want to win both of them — but I’m saying, as an onlooker, as someone who covers sports for a living, if we could win one of these next two games, man, we’re making that transition.

You only want to be a Cinderella once. We’ve done that. Now you want to look at your peers in the face and smack somebody in the mouth.

TP: Forecasting my next question? Around ESPN, there’s a healthy purple representation, and some transparent alma mater rivalries. Especially this week, I’d imagine. How much do you really dish out with regards to NU around the office, and how much ribbing do you get?

MW: Not too much yet. It’s early in the week. There’s some. In my newsroom, we’re talking about sports 24 hours, every minute that we’re there. There’ll be more of it later in the week. In a way it’s too bad I won’t be there. I mean, I prefer to be in Evanston. There’ll be enough.

There’ll be enough hype. We’ve got both schools represented in the booth. We’ve got Game Day there, we’ve got Mike and Mike. It’s a lot of stuff. I’m thrilled, with this kind of attention. There are kids who will be watching who don’t know there was a Dark Ages, who will be influenced by this.

We’re involved in a big game.

This is nothing for Ohio State. This is what they do every week of their lives. There’s a kid out there watching, being recruited by 6, 8, 10, 15 schools. He may decide, ‘You know what, these guys are pretty good.’ Now they see Northwestern, in a big game, they’ve got players in the NFL, they saw Nick Roach play, Corey Wootton get a sack… It’s a different vibe around the program.

It’s amazing that that’s happening. All praise to Fitz; in order: Fitz, Jim Phillips and now Morty. Morty gets it. The university is totally behind it. And that was not the case before.

People like Pat Ryan have been throwing support behind it for decades. But he didn’t have support he should’ve had. It wasn’t something people cared about as deeply as I would like to see people care. There’s still not enough people caring. I don’t know how many people we’re going to have at Game Day.

We don’t want to be Florida State, Alabama, Texas, SC. I want us to be — I think you can compete in whatever culture you build to do that in. They should be uniquely different.

But we’re not going to have 15,000 kids out there. Most of our kids haven’t even heard of Game Day. They’ll be asleep. They might know this week that something’s going on. Maybe they’ll go out there, but they’re not going out with painted chests. It ain’t the same as purple on people’s chests at LSU. And that’s ok.

We don’t need to be LSU. Again, Stanford and Duke. But we can do this and be proud of it, and compete, be a factor. And not be ashamed of it.

TP: Switching gears a little: Chicago sports are your bread and butter — amidst the pro spectrum, has Northwestern fully achieved its status of “Chicago’s B1G team”? Do they fit in with the sports landscape as they should? As they could?

MW: This is a pro sports town. Big cities are pro sports towns. And that’s what makes this GameDay unique. Usually GameDay is coming from cities with a population of 50,000. It’s not the case here. We’re from Chicago, that makes it a bigger deal for ESPN.

There’s space, the Big Ten is big enough — it’s not the MAC. It’s a big enough place where people can follow. Notre Dame is always going to be, probably, the first team around here. Even though South Bend is 91 miles from the house I grew up in…

But I like the marketing of “Chicago’s Big Ten Team”. It’s a smart way to do it. You say: Ok, when you’re not obsessed with the Bears and Bulls and Blackhawks and God knows the two worst baseball teams in history, make some time for that.

On this Saturday night, what’s going on? The Cubs and Sox aren’t playing, that’s for damn sure. Derrick Rose is playing, but it’s the preseason. The Bears don’t play until the next day. There’s room in there. It’s a nice hook: Look at us, let us matter to you. If you give them a good product, like we’re giving them now, you make a compelling case they should pay attention, and they might.

TP: Brass tacks. Let’s get your prediction for Saturday.

MW: I have no idea. I know this: Ohio State is a monster. Braxton Miller is a monster. Carlos Hyde is a monster. These are great football players who will be playing on Sunday. These are professional football players. They have a great coach, this is a great team. The only way we’re going to beat them, to me, is if we make them turn it over, four or five times.

We have to play a perfect game, and get Ohio State to do less than that.

For the people who say, ‘Why are we playing Ohio State at Homecoming?’ My answer is “shut up”. We want to give ourselves the best chance to beat Ohio State while we have a good team. We have a good team.

I’m expecting — I hear it’s 60,000. Let’s hope it’s 40,000-20,000. But it’s probably going to be 35-25. Ohio State is going to bring a huge amount of support in here, regardless of pricing.

Let’s think enough of our program to give this team the best chance it can have. Our best opportunity is when you’ve got ‘em at home — make it Homecoming. I don’t want to play Purdue at Homecoming. Make it a big deal. Get your ass to the game.

All you little freakish nerds, get out of the library. Get to the game. I can say that because I was one of them. Be aware of something at the university, that’s going to be revenue, raise the profile of the place. All of which in turn, helps all the agendas the school has. Academic or athletic.

I’m too fired up about it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. A score? God, that’s so counter-productive. I want us to win the game. I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re a better team than Ohio State.

If you’re going to ask me who can beat Alabama, I’ll give you two teams: Oregon… maybe… I’ll give you three teams: Oregon or Stanford — I think Stanford has a better shot — and Ohio State. Those are the teams I think could possibly beat Alabama.

If we win the game, and I believe we can win the game, I think we have to force turnovers. It’s gonna be 42-40. It has to be that kind of game. I don’t see us stopping Ohio State, but I don’t see them stopping us either.

It’ll be crazy for me to come up with the score. I can’t put any distance between myself and the game. I’m too emotionally overwrought.

TP: Well, you’ve got a few days to mellow and find your happy place in Chicago before kickoff. Thank you so much for your time, Mike. “Mafia” or not, you’re representing the purple like no one else can. Let’s take that next step. Go ‘Cats!

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  • Wildcattack!

    What a personality! This guy should consider a career in sports journalism. I bet he’d be good on TV.

  • WildCatAuD

    “You only want to be a Cinderella once. We’ve done that. Now you want to look at your peers in the face and smack somebody in the mouth.”
    That gives me a WilbonER!!!

  • Michigan guy

    I was at that Illinois game (78 grad), and remember an effort to bring down the goal posts that probably failed due to excessive drinking, which was par for Wildcat games during that period. Also remember the lead (Bill Jauss in the Trib?) of the 0-0 Illinois tie…”If tieing is like kissing your sister, tieing Northwestern is like kissing your ugly sister.” I think I attended every home game those four years, sad as they were, went over to see a merciless 69-0 beatdown in Ann Arbor, fed the team at Elder Hall one summer when I stayed on campus…but my favorite football memory is seeing the Dean brothers (QB and DB) sitting in the front row of my COBOL programming course leading the discussions and showing what “scholar-athlete” really meant. Heading over for OSU, and hope Homecoming brings the great crowd and good luck Mike Wilbon calls for. GO CATS! Great interview.

    • NUMBalumDave

      The DEAN bros! Weren’t they on the Olympic handball team? (WERE they the Olympic handball team?)

      Reminds me of Honors Philosophy Seminar, which you had to take to achieve Honors (cum laude) in Philosophy. I took it, and so did Sam Poulos, the punter, along with another football player. They were quiet, but they came and participated, and I believe they both achieved Honors. In Philosophy. (Another Olympic connection: Sam’s sister is Leah Poulos-Mueller, the Olympic speed skater.)

  • Catatonic Joe

    Kirk Herbstreit tweeted a photo of Ryan Field where he was going to visit the football offices and I noticed that Ryan Field walls look freshly painted and very clean. Somebody was thinking ahead over the summer! That’s the kind of diligent, long-view preparation NU brings to bear. We’ll see more on Saturday.

    • Mark Wheaton

      They spent 2 months yellow-washing the outside of Dyche/Ryan. It looks good now. The stadium is as fresh as it possible can be, and will be a great venue Saturday night!!

  • Icehockeycat

    Fire up the Herb Brooks scene from Miracle (HTML edited…):

    Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you
    have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One
    game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this
    game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate run with them. Tonight, we stay with
    them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest
    hockey football team in the world. You were born to be hockey football players. Every one
    of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their
    time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a
    great hockey team the Soviets (keep that – OSU – Soviets same..)have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go
    out there and take it

  • NUMBalumDave

    I love the way MW can’t remember a football win from OUR era, ’cause we are fellow alums. I remember each one of them, but then, the band HAD to be there.

    Outside of football, my fave win of that era was beating Michigan at basketball, when they were ranked like 1 or 2. I think the score was 99-81. I know we scored 99, because I was dying for the century mark. Next fave was the night Magic Johnson was stone cold and couldn’t buy a basket for love or money.

    You can’t imagine how sweet the wins are these days unless you were there in the Dark Ages, just as a man from the desert loves the sweet taste of water so much more.

  • WildcatUSMC

    Great interview. Wilbon hits home a great point that NU just didn’t get in the Dark Ages: Good athletics and good academics are not mutually exclusive. Suggesting otherwise is dumb.

    I want to highlight another dumb attitude that NU took during those same years: The treatment of Naval ROTC on campus. During the same timeframe, ROTC was completely unwelcome. And that was DUMB too. Someone once tried to put a bomb in the ROTC building back in the 70’s. The unit had to move its headquarters off campus. ROTC students weren’t allowed to wear their uniforms, and were spat upon if they did! I understand that this was the post-Vietnam era, and people were rightfully upset about our involvement. But this attitude persisted EVEN after Vietnam was long over. To take that out on kids who simply want to study at NU, then join the Navy is just stupid. An the prevailing attitude of the time encouraged it. Somehow you couldn’t be an open minded institution if you welcomed the military on campus. That’s just dumb. I say this as an NU grad who did ROTC at NU, then graduated and served in the Marine Corps. The institution should be proud of its military veterans. Military service does not make you a fascist.

    Thankfully our perception of the military has changed greatly. I think as a society, we realize we got it wrong with our treatment of vets after Vietnam. Navy ROTC has its building there on Haven Street where it should be!