Ten years ago Wildcat fans were, to understate the matter, a little anxious.
The team had just followed up its back-to-back Big Ten titles with
three straight losing seasons. Granted, the 5-7 season in 1997
wasn't a total loss: a thrilling win against Iowa at bitterly-cold and
recently renamed Ryan Field was most satisfying, as was the Wildcats'
amazing feat of survival against heavily favored Michigan State.
The following year, however, NU would unleash a winless conference
campaign, a string of stunning public embarrassments for the program,
and Gary Barnett's controversial end to his once brilliant career in
Evanston. Randy Walker's debut season at NU, while promising, was
still a three-win effort that showcased an offense in disarray and a
defense on the decline.
Heading into the 2000 spring practice, Coach Walker was focused on
restructuring his team's offense and crafting something with the parts
he had inherited. Fans were mostly leery, and were beginning to
suspect that NU's success in 1995-96 might just have been a fluke, as
critics and other teams had long asserted. Most casual football
fans, and even casual NU fans, assumed that NU was returning to form as
a Big Ten bottom-dweller, and they (wrongly) assumed that the bottom of
the conference is where NU had always found itself.
That was one of the reasons that this site began in the summer of
2000. Like my online mentor, Far East Wildcat, I thought that the
history of the program had been given short shrift, that the woes the
program experienced in the 1970s and '80s had clouded the rest of the
Wildcat story and had unfairly tainted expectations for the
future. For the next ten years, the history of the program, its
players, its coaches, and its fans opened up to me and revealed a
fascinating series of setbacks and triumphs, some forgotten for decades.
But in July 2000, my first thought was getting a barebones site
online. The site went up with the use of an ancient 486 processor
and a 14K modem, the same tools I had used when I first set up my
GoUPurple address in May 1995. Back then, before even the victory
over Notre Dame, there wasn't much Northwestern football activity on
the Web. Mike Nolan's "NWU Sports List" and an AOL message board
were the main representatives. RivalNet was still a year or so
away, and the first true NU fan Websites would pop up in the middle of
the '95 season. I thought of trying to join the sites by Chris
Chen, Jim Jackson, Brad Kaiser, and others, but eventually put it off.
By 1998, NU football had a lot more fan activity online. The
Rivals site, led by Chris Pool, was in full swing, and Far East Wildcat
had begun his groundbreaking site. I had begun using the Web to
research more of the team's history, but had not yet jumped in with a
When I did, on July 12, 2000, one of my goals was to teach myself
HTML. Ten years later, this is akin to taking up Indycar racing
in order to teach oneself the workings of a steam engine. While
my site is still basically the same HTML site I posted initially on
AOL's old Hometown section, NU football online has progressed far
beyond. The explosion of online information in general,
particularly around 2004 (when sites like Wikipedia began to boom), the
expansion of the online fan base in message boards, and the explosion
of fan blogging (Mr. Hodges, Lake the Posts, Sippin' on Purple, Spread
Far the Fame, WR Ramblings, Bring Your Champions, They're Our Meat, Black N Purple, and a host of others) have
transformed the experience Wildcat fans have online and have increased
the level of discourse and analysis substantially.
The online fan experience has changed, but not nearly so much as has
the Northwestern football program itself. In ten years,
Northwestern's program has transformed, through intent, accident,
adversity, and effort, beyond recognition. Only the core remains:
the banding together of a group of student-athletes who are willing to
fight as Wildcats and do so in a manner that brings victory and honor.
The anxious fans back in the spring and summer of 2000 had little idea
of the twists and turns that awaited them. Moments as
exhilarating as any from 1995-1996 would be followed, almost
immediately, by gut-wrenching horror or unexpected transition.
Off and on during the next ten days, we'll take a look at some of these
changes. We'll also explore where the program has been, and where
it might be going, and we'll do so through the lens-- sometimes sharp,
sometimes tinted, sometimes hilariously warped-- of the fan and the online experience.
The HailToPurple International Web Headquarters, open for business and celebrating ten years.
We begin this look by noting the top ten biggest news stories of NU
Football from the last ten years. HailToPurple.com has always had
a penchant for making lists,
and this list, like the others, is totally subjective. Here lie
the triumphal events of the Purple in the 21st Century and-- while I'd
like it not to be so-- two of the darkest times in the entire history
of Northwestern Wildcat Football.
The Ten Biggest Stories of NU Football, 2000 to 2010
10. April 2010: NU announces a home game with Illinois at Wrigley Field.
Let's start this top ten list with a controversial one, shall we?
Fans will continue to debate the wisdom of moving one of NU's home
games to Chicago's Wrigley Field and the media effect it will
have. However, the move signifies more than just a change of
venue: it is perhaps the opening salvo in a marketing war that
Northwestern delayed far too long in joining. As the 'Cats
increased their success on the field in the last five years, the
attendance at Ryan Field and NU's share of Chicago's media spiraled
downward. Jim Phillips and company have served notice with this
move that they are willing to do some bold things to turn this
around. Unlike moving home games against Notre Dame to Soldier
Field (done in cowering response to Notre Dame's unreasonable demand)
or moving a home game against Ohio State to Cleveland (show me the
money!), the Wrigley Field move is entirely driven by the effort to
raise Northwestern Football's profile in the city of Chicago and with
the media. Whether or not it succeeds will determine how
appropriate this event is on this list.
9. 2000 and 2005: Damien Anderson and Zach Strief are named All-Americans.
Would this have made another Big Ten school's list of its major stories
of the decade? Maybe not, but for Northwestern, having a
first-team All-American is a big story. Consider that NU has
averaged only two All-Americans per decade since the 1960s, and only
three or four per decade before that. Remember, this does not
indicate the level of performance for Northwestern.
All-Americans, like any other such award, is won by popular vote, and
teams like the Buckeyes and Irish will always have more willing
voters. But the voters could not overlook the awe-inspiring
performances that Anderson and Strief submitted, and so these players
now have their names forever marked on the side of the stadium.
Anderson also was Northwestern's third-ever Heisman finalist, placing
fifth in the 2000 voting (the other two were Otto Graham, who placed
third in 1943, and two-time finalist Darnell Autry, who placed fourth
in 1995 and seventh in 1996).
8. 2003 through 2009: NU's program enjoys consistent on-field success.
2009's eight-win season capped the best seven-year run of success for
Northwestern since the 1930s. In six of these seven seasons, the
Wildcats finished the regular season with a .500 record or better, a
feat not matched since Pappy Waldorf's teams managed it. Although
there were no bowl or conference championships, the team's performance
was stabilized and consistently solid, which is a tremendous
accomplishment. Add to this track record the fact that, during
this stretch, NU's team had graduation rates and academic success
higher than at any other time in the program's history. In fact,
the NU football graduation rate was the #1 in the country (Divisions I-A and I-AA) for four out of the last eight years.
7. November 2009: The Sweet Sioux Trophy is retired; the LOL Trophy begins.
The decade closed with the termination of Northwestern's
longest-contested trophy, the Sweet Sioux. Begun in 1945, Sweet
Sioux finally succumbed to the politically correct movement that brought
an end to any Native American iconography associated with the
University of Illinois. The most recent incarnation of Sweet
Sioux, a framed metal tomahawk, is now retired in Evanston, and the new
rivalry trophy for NU vs. Illinois, the Land of Lincoln bronze hat, has
been inaugurated. Northwestern claimed victory in both the Sweet
Sioux finale and the LOL debut.
6. July 2006: Pat Fitzgerald becomes Northwestern's 29th official head football coach.
The university, the program, and fans everywhere were still in mourning
on the morning of July 7, 2006, just one week after losing Coach Randy
Walker. When, just before noon, NU President Henry Bienen and
Athletic Director Mark Murphy announced that Coach Walker's replacement
would be linebacker coach Pat Fitzgerald, they set in place the future
of Wildcat Football. Fitzgerald was already being groomed to helm
the program, but that transition was slated to begin in 2012.
Instead, the Fitzgerald era begin with a 31-year old assistant
unexpectedly taking the reins of the Big Ten program. Fitz has
since reshaped the program, while keeping the core of Coach Walker's
ethic and determination.
5. November 2000: Northwestern stuns Michigan in a 54 - 51 shootout.
This is not a list of NU's greatest games (we'll discuss those in the
retrospective later this week), and Northwestern's glorious win over
the Wolverines on November 4, 2000 is not on this list because it was
one of NU's biggest wins; rather, the scope and scale of what happened
at sold-out Ryan Field, and its effect on college football made this
game one of the biggest stories of the decade for the 'Cats. In
2010 Sports Illustrated named the game among the ten best college
football games of the decade, and many analysts cite this game as a key
catalyst in the rise of the spread offense across the country.
4. January 2010: The Wildcats take Auburn to the wire in a wild Outback Bowl.
This game does not make HailToPurple.com's Greatest Games List, but it
does make the list of the top stories of the decade, and for good
reason. Even if the game had been a dud, it was big news that
Northwestern had scored its first January bowl game since 1997, and had
done so by asserting position over Wisconsin in the bowl selection
process. Once the game had been played, however, its significance
rose to a new level. NU and Auburn put on a spectacle, and the
Wildcats fought savagely and creatively before eventually succumbing in
overtime on a play that will rate, along with 2000's "Victory Right,"
as among the most famous in the team's entire history.
3. November 2000: Northwestern wins the Big Ten Championship.
Only the hardcores saw this one coming. Northwestern, three
losing seasons removed from its last Big Ten title and with few
prognosticators picking them before the season to go even to a bowl
game, struck offensive gold and claimed the 2000 conference title
(along with Purdue and Michigan). Working Coach Walker's modified
no-huddle shotgun spread offense to perfection, Zak Kustok and Damien
Anderson unleashed total Hell on the Big Ten and served notice that
NU's 1990s renaissance was not "two and through."
2. August 2001: Rashidi Wheeler dies during a preseason workout.
Unfortunately and unavoidably, the top two stories of the decade for NU
football are tragedies. When Rashidi Wheeler suffered an asthma
attack on Northwestern's lakefront practice field on a muggy day in
August 2001, the stage was set for an unfolding disaster that would
affect the nation. The University marked Wheeler's passing by
retiring his number 30, the only time ever that NU has retired a
football number. More famously, Wheeler's death was marked by a
string of litigation that is still being unraveled, nearly a decade
1. June 2006: Coach Randy Walker dies.
There really is no question that the top story of the decade for
Northwestern football was the loss of Coach Randy Walker, suddenly,
unexpectedly, at the age of 52. Walker had inherited diamonds and
dust when he took over at NU in 1999-- the program had experienced
unbelievable success and had some outstanding talent, but it was also
in disarray and unstable. Walker's first four seasons were also
erratic, with tumultuous highs and lows. However, by the end of
the 2005 season, Walk had performed a fantastic turnaround, stabilizing
the program and leading it through three straight seasons of six or
more wins. NU football looked to be on solid ground, and Walk was
ready to stay at the helm of the Pickleboat for at least seven more
years. And then, in a flash, he was gone.