It happened. It actually happened.
You always wonder what “THE MOMENT” would look like. What it would feel like. Heck, what it would taste like.
Greg Gumbel called Northwestern – our Northwestern – as CBS revealed the actual name of our school on a NCAA bracket slot.
It took what seemed like an eternity, but when it finally did happen…well? I actually never heard the name called live. I was at Welsh-Ryan Arena with about 2,500 “friends” and the place erupted in to a dance party.
Spine tingle city, baby.
I also learned this March Madness thing is pretty exhausting. After watching the ‘Cats roll Rutgers and then beat Maryland in a road game in the B1G Tournament, we saw our team get steamrolled by a Wisconsin Badger team clicking on all cylinders. Bracketologists spiked their page views from Northwestern fans alone at a furious pace as we wondered “where the heck are we going?”
Concurrently with the ‘Cats punching their first ever trip to the 20-year-old B1G Tournament semi-finals, I was furiously trying to punch my travel plans for one of eight potential first round destinations. By all accounts, the 8 or 9 seed seemed to be a fait accompli, unless somehow the ‘Cats were to beat Wisconsin for a second time this season.
Throughout the weekend I was furiously communicating with fellow ‘Cats, including a few of the prominent media variety, as we fumbled through our rookie season of March Madness travel logistics with all the grace of a visiting fan trying to get concessions at Welsh-Ryan.
Note to Northwestern students in The Garage (NU’s entrepreneurship program), there is a business to be had on opening weekend travel packages.
By Saturday night I had hotels (all with cancellation policies) booked in Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Greenville and Buffalo. With two (of three) daughters anxiously wanting to attend, we made a deal – we’ll drive to three of the four, but Salt Lake was too expensive for plane travel.
But, what if we’re a 10-seed? Or…?
That was pretty much the thought bubble of everybody in Welsh-Ryan for the watch party after Wisconsin was revealed as an 8-seed. “Huh? They just thumped us by 30 points and were projected as a 5 or 6 seed. What the hell does that make us?” the thought bubble lingered – like a lead weight.
Instantly I questioned whether I should be here or back at the mini-mission control I had set up in my home in Lake Bluff. It was only an hour before the start of the selection show that Nora, Janel and I had decided to abandon the weekend travel booking center and make a run for Welsh-Ryan. After last week’s Purdue game and subsequent love letter, I felt I had had my final piece with the place.
The image of seeing this team with this coach and the curiosity of how many fans wanted to be there for the moment…well, it was too strong of a pull. Like the Cheers theme beckons, sometimes you want to go “where everybody knows your name”. That name is Northwestern basketball.
In retrospect, I’m frustrated CBS didn’t show pans and wide shots – the entire south side of the arena was full up to the rafters. Players were introduced one by one and they must have had lumps in their throats seeing the throng of fans that had shown up for them considering it was on par with some non-conference crowds for actual games a few years ago.
The ceremonies, hosted by Dave Eanet, kicked off with this stirring video – “It’s Time”.
Jim Phillips spoke and said “I always wondered what history looked like. Now I know.” He feted many folks, but as he literally walked around the words “Welsh-Ryan Arena” he talked about the blessing of Pat and Shirley Ryan and told the story of how the arena was named by them in honor of their parents. The Ryan family received a standing ovation.
Chris Collins felt the moment as he fought back tears when he called his family to join him on the floor. He talked about the one word that kept coming up over and over again when he was mentally trying to prepare for this moment.
“Belief”. That was the word. He talked about a dream and a vision and how many people he talked to told him not to take this job, but the belief Morty Shapiro and Jim Phillips had in him inspired him. He talked about the belief in himself. He talked about his pitch to every player asking them to believe in him – and themselves – and it all led up to being in the moment they had all dreamed of. One that we had all dreamed of.
The theme of the speech wasn’t lost on any old-timers. It was probably about 10-to-15 feet away from the exact spot former Northwestern football coach, Gary Barnett, famously told a Welsh-Ryan crowd in 1992 soon after his hiring that we were going to “Take the Purple to Pasadena”. His mantra? “Belief without evidence.”
ESPN’s Darren Rovell, who was not there, must have felt the vibe when he shared this tweet, hours later:
The tension in Welsh-Ryan during the Selection Show was thick. You knew that CBS was teasing us and teasing a national audience. But, in that arena, it wasn’t funny. As Big Ten teams continued to be unveiled with relatively poor seeds, the fleeting thought did enter most of our heads “we are in…right?” It felt like those now famous images of Welsh-Ryan fans seconds before THE PASS. Because of the pandemonium that ensued with the announcement, it wasn’t until nearly 11 pm when I actually had a chance to watch the rest of the Selection Show and ESPN’s coverage.
Seth Davis clapping for Northwestern on the set of the show and yelling “what took you so long?” was pretty special. But, kudos to ESPN for taking the drama up a notch by surprising Doug Collins on screen to congratulate his son and facilitating a surreal moment where the father and son expressed their emotions and love for one another in what seemed like a Facetime conversation for the sports world.
Now, it is on to Salt Lake City. A purple invasion of the West Region where Gonzaga holds the 1-seed and we face 9-seed Vanderbilt in the second game of the first session on Thursday (TBS, approximately 4:40 pm et/3:30 pm ct). The rhetorical hoops question has been answered. But, I’m greedy. I didn’t want to just make the Tournament. I want to win one game in the Tournament.
I want to experience being in a remote city with legions of purple for the full experience. A Friday watching hoops with our fans and random fans from other teams. Northwestern is the biggest story of the tournament and as one of my favorite Nike campaigns used to advise – we want to stay in Bracketville as long as we can.
Vanderbilt, the “Northwestern of the south” is more like the Purdue of the SEC. They hit threes in bunches and have bigs that make you choose your poison. They happen to be the first at large team to ever get in with so many losses (15) and several pundits thought their 9-seed was high. The pairing of academic heavyweights caused smirks among NU fans who of course feel this wasn’t a coincidence.
We’ll get in to that later this week. For now, savor the moment. Former NU blogger Rodger Sherman said it best – “Today, Northwestern loses the thing that has made it unique. Yes, it’s a uniqueness we’re happy to be rid of.”
The moment we heard our name called and we jumped out of our seats, I saw one daughter clapping with tears streaking down her cheeks. The name “Salt Lake City” meant “no go” for her and her sister. The consolation speech was this was the first of many opportunities that could come as early as next week, if we survive and advance. Or next year, when expectations rise and we may get the geographic nod based on our seed. The 1% “problems” of being relevant in March Madness.
A new era is here and with it, hopefully, come normal program aspirations and challenges. For now, it’s off to Salt Lake City, a place like everywhere else in the college basketball world THIS March, everybody knows our fair name.