Robert's Retrospective: Looking back over the
In the Beginning
There’s no better place to start than the
Randy Walker addressed a small crowd of the faithful at
the spring game in April 2000. He explained that he had inherited a program
without a fullback and that he was breaking in a new group of tight ends, so he
had changed the offense.
Walker’s staff had researched the spread offense during
the winter, with offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson spending time with the
coaching staff of the St. Louis Rams. Walker told the crowd that he expected to
win, saying that he was approaching the fall season looking to go 12-0. After
the chuckles subsided (the ‘Cats had one win in the previous year’s Big Ten
campaign, and that took a last minute score against a hapless Iowa team) he said
that the team needed a lot of improvement over the summer.
“We've got to be a bunch better when we show up in
August,” said Walker.
The new offense looked promising during the spring game.
Although tailback Damien Anderson was held out, Quarterback Zak Kustok completed
20 of 37 throws for 168 yards. Some were excited by an attempt to pass to a
tight end. Others were not impressed.
“It was like watching Purdue,” remarked one Dark Ages
alumnus, “without the talent.”
A young man approached me after the coach’s talk. He
introduced himself as GoUPurple from the internet message boards and told me
that he was going to start a fan website dedicated to Northwestern football. I
was excited by the prospect and eager to see how his effort would unfold. Little
did I know that I had just met the creator of HailToPurple.com.
At the NGN Auction dinner, the bidding was light for one
of the better prizes: a seat in the WGN Radio booth next to Dave Eanet at the
upcoming Michigan game. Coach Walker took the microphone and exhorted the
attendees in the Welsh Ryan arena.
“This is Michigan! This is our house! We’re locking the
gates and we’re not letting them go until we’ve given them a good old fashioned
The bidding grew louder than the titters scattered about
the tables. The lofty price of $1000 was reached quickly.
There was some belief among the faithful and it was
starting to show.
The 2000 season opened on the Thursday night before Labor
Day weekend as the ‘Cats unleashed their run-based spread attack against the
Northern Illinois Huskies before a crowd of 23,352. The ‘Cats scored 21 points
in the first half on their way to a 35-17 win. Kustok hit no less than ten
receivers and did the unthinkable by hitting Ronnie Foster for a touchdown on a
third and twenty play. The program known as Nrthwestern, the team with no “O”
just the year before had been transformed.
What followed was a dizzying romp through the schedule.
Duke was dispatched 38-5. The annual non-conference loss came at TCU as
turnovers contributed to a 41-14 drubbing. The Wildcat faithful looked with
anxiety at the start of the Big Ten campaign with back-to-back away games
against ranked opponents at Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Both proved to be signature games for the
The ‘Cats opened the second quarter at Wisconsin down
16-7 and scored on the Badgers’ opening series when Kevin Bentley returned a
Dwayne Missouri induced fumble 50 yards for a touchdown. Thrice the ‘Cats
trailed in the fourth quarter and each time responded, with Tim Long kicking a
46-yard field goal as time expired in regulation. The ‘Cats went on to win 47-44
in double overtime.
HailToPurple.com captured the moment with a brilliant
movie poster, “Gone in Sixty Seconds.”
With the game tied at 10 at the end of the first quarter,
Michigan State coach Bobby Williams abandoned his game plan of running T.J.
Duckett and put the game in the hands of his freshman quarterback Jeff Smoker.
The ‘Cats offense kicked into high gear and the Wildcats prevailed 37-17. Damien
Anderson ran for 393 yards.
HailToPurple.com was there with another poster takeoff,
“The Crying Game.”
The naysayers who claimed that the win at Wisconsin was a
fluke were silenced. The ‘Cats had an explosive offensive attack. Opposing
defenses were stymied. Key on Anderson and Kustok would run. Load the box and
Kustok would throw. There were plenty of good receivers. Wilson and Kustok could
improvise on the fly.
The home opener vs. Indiana was played in unseasonably
cold weather before 30,021. The Hoosiers had no answer for the spread and were
brushed aside in a 52-33 laugher.
The crowd finally showed up for the next home game vs.
Purdue (41,053). Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, so did the Purdue defense who
practiced every week against Joe Tiller’s pass-oriented spread. The Wildcats’
defense didn’t stop Drew Brees and the Boilermaker defense crashed their ends to
disrupt the ‘Cats’ offensive line and play flow. The first Big Ten loss was a
big one as the ‘Cats fell 41-28.
The next two games were classics. At Minnesota and down
35-14 with just over 2 minutes left in the third quarter, the ‘Cats mounted a
furious comeback bid that induced an epic collapse of the Golden Gophers on both
sides of the ball. The game ended as Kustok hit Sam Simmons on a tipped 45-yard
pass for a touchdown as time expired. Called “Victory Right,” the play would
remain on highlight reels for the rest of the season.
The following week saw the ‘Cats hosting Michigan on
national television before a crowd of 47,130. The ‘Cats fell behind by 18 points
late in the second quarter and fought furiously throughout the rest of the game.
A late fumble by Anthony Thomas with 0:46 remaining in the fourth quarter gave
the ‘Cats the ball on Michigan’s 35-yard line. “We’re going in,” Kustok told the
huddle. Three plays later he hit Sam Simmons on a slant for a touchdown and
after a successful two point conversion toss to Teddy Johnson, the ‘Cats led
54-51. A botched snap on the final play - a Michigan field goal attempt -sealed
This was a signal win for the ‘Cats and a seminal game
for college football. Dubbed “The Instant Classic” and in active replay for
years, the game served notice to the college football coaching fraternity that
the spread offense was real and powerful. Among the myriad of record statistics
were the facts that the 654 yards of total offense and the 332 yards of rushing
offense were the most ever hung on a Michigan defense.
The Wolverines had indeed
been given a good old fashioned butt-whipping.
The migration to the spread
offense commenced. Even Michigan would make the move in 2008.
Both the Michigan and Minnesota games showed that the
“never give up” ethos that defined Randy Walker’s teams at Miami (Oh.) had taken
hold in Northwestern football.
The ‘Cats stood atop the conference standings and had a
clear shot at a return to the Rose Bowl. They dropped their next game at Iowa
27-17. Some claimed it was the “Dyche Curse” of former SID George Beres at work.
The regular season and Big Ten campaign ended with a runaway 61-23 win over
Illinois before 40,658. The Wildcats tied with Michigan and Purdue for the
conference championship – Northwestern’s last football title.
In the ensuing madness that is the bowl selection
process, the Wildcats were passed over by the Citrus and Outback bowls and
landed at the Alamo bowl, facing an angry Nebraska team. Of the 66-17 loss, a
bowl record, the less that is said the better. HailToPurple.com was there,
though, in the heady run up to the contest with the memorable graphic of Randy
Walker on the Pickleboat en route to San Antonio.
The Wildcats entered the 2001 season favored to repeat as
Big Ten champions. This was hardly surprising given the high percentage of
returning starters and the sensation surrounding their spread offense. They
would end up tied with Minnesota for last, completing the only first-to-worst
swoon in a single season in school history. The best news from this dismal year
was the addition of Pat Fitzgerald to the coaching staff as the defensive backs
While injuries took a toll on the team’s fortunes, the
main cause was the tragic death of defensive back Rashidi Wheeler during the
conditioning test in Evanston just prior to the start of Camp Kenosha. Wheeler’s
sudden death before his teammates and the subsequent lawsuit and litigation
initiated by his mother, Linda Will, rent the team’s psyche. While the ultimate
effect was delayed, the ‘Cats dropped their last six contests to finish
4-7. Along the way, they suffered
back-to-back blowout losses at Indiana (56-21) and at home against Iowa (59-16)
in early November. The defensive collapse led to the hiring of Greg Colby from
Kent State as defensive coordinator upon the promotion of Jerry Brown to
assistant head coach.
Also departing after the season was offensive coordinator
Kevin Wilson, who left to join Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Damien Anderson’s career
ended with a separated shoulder sustained in the second half of the Indiana
game. Zak Kustok was lost to graduation.
The Air Willie Years
‘Cats came into the 2002 season with a whole lot of new. Mike Dunbar
became the new offensive coordinator. He found himself long on ideas
about the spread offense and short with material to work with. Greg
Colby took the reigns as the new defensive coordinator and installed a
new system. With Kustok’s graduation, the ‘Cats would have to find a
Dunbar would eventually settle on Brett Basanez as his
quarterback. Jason Wright and Noah Herron would emerge as the tailbacks. The
Wildcats would finish 3-9 with a lone Big Ten win over Indiana, allowing them to
tie for last rather than end up in solitary confinement in the conference
While the defensive system had changed under Colby, the
blowout losses remained. They began with the opener at the Air Force Academy
(52-3) and HailToPurple.com featured the unforgettable graphic of Willie the
Wildcat washing ashore amidst a cargo of pickles from the sunken pickelboat.
beat went on: TCU (48-24), Penn State (49-0), Purdue (42-13) and Iowa
For this and the next few years four characteristics
defined Northwestern football in general terms. The offense was inconsistent but
improved overall and when it clicked it was very exciting to watch, especially
as Brett Basanez and the offensive line matured. The defense was chronically
challenged on third downs and prone to giving up big plays that led to multiple
blowout losses. Special teams play was inconsistent at best and sometimes
downright awful. Despite all the handicaps, the ‘Cats would often play a
respectable first half at home. At halftime Air Willie would appear. Perhaps
inspired by Nebraska’s Lil’ Red from the Alamo bowl, this hot air monstrosity
became a harbinger of doom that frequently foretold a flat performance by the
‘Cats at the start of the second half and an eventual home loss.
The ‘Cats improved to 6-6 for the regular season in 2003,
suffered only two blowout losses (Miami, Oh. 44-14 and Michigan 41-10) and lost
to Bowling Green at the Motor City bowl. Another bowl loss, for sure, but it was
The HailToPurple.com site did not lose its sense of
humor. As the calls for Penn State’s head coach Joe Paterno’s retirement reached
fever pitch, another media poster appeared, this time invoking Paterno’s
quarrels with the Big Ten officials as well.
Nor did GoUPurple lose interest in the ‘Cats. He started
a multi-year effort to build a complete database for the historical record. The
culmination was twofold. After years of lobbying, Northwestern finally accepted
the evidence that its records were wrong and that the 1903 team had indeed won
10 and not 9 games as was recorded. He also undertook the project of “writing
the book” on the history of Northwestern football.
At long last there was a contemporary voice to spread the word that all was not
Dark Ages in NU’s football history and that indeed teams did not look forward to
playing the Wildcats in the 30’s and 40’s under Dick Hanley and Pappy Waldorf or
the ‘Era of Ara’ in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
The 2004 Wildcats also hit .500 with a 6-6 finish but
were denied bowl eligibility in an eleven game regular season. The team had
matured and posted some impressive wins against Penn State at Happy Valley, over
Purdue at home (and their first win against Joe Tiller) and most significantly
against Ohio State in a home night game. The 33-27 overtime thriller exorcised
the last vestige of futility from the Dark Ages of Northwestern football and
stands as the finest hour of the Air Willie era.
Air Willie went missing in the 2005 season. There were
whispers of scandal, rumors of a “leave” but most significantly, “His Airness”
did not return. The 2005 season marked a resurgence of Northwestern
The combination of Brett Basanez in his senior year and
freshman running back sensation Tyrell Sutton was the balanced one-two punch
that Mike Dunbar had been waiting for. The ‘Cats jumped to a 5-2 start and
briefly contended for the Big Ten title before finishing 7-4 and earning a berth
in the Sun Bowl. Along the way was a spectacular win against Iowa when the
‘Cats, trailing 27-14 late in the fourth quarter scored 14 points in the final
three minutes to win 28-27. The “never give up” spirit of the 2000 team was
The Sun bowl was a thriller. Sparked by two interception
returns for touchdowns, the ‘Cats led UCLA 22-0 in the first quarter. The Bruins
shifted to a running attack that the ‘Cats could not stop, with the final score
of 50-38. UCLA’s last two touchdowns were scored on returns of Northwestern’s
attempted onside kicks, both recovered and returned by the Bruins’ Brandon
Breazell. Brett Basanez went out in a blaze of glory, throwing for 416
Expectations were bright for the 2006 season. Although
Mike Dunbar had decided to leave for Cal and the ‘Cats would have to break in a
new quarterback, they had Tyrell Sutton returning. Wide receivers coach Garrick
McGee was promoted to take over as offensive coordinator from
Everything went blur the night of June 29 when Randy
Walker died of an apparent heart attack.
The news devastated the entire Northwestern community as
well as the nation’s football coaching fraternity. Randy Walker was known for
trying to do the best for his team and his coaches and for doing things the
right way. He stood tall in terms of the character that he demanded of himself
and his players in an era of many lapses of integrity in the ultra-competitive
world of college football. Randy had altered the program forever with the
changes that he began implementing for the 2000 championship season. His best
days were expected to lie ahead of him. He is still missed by us
Eight days after Walker’s death the university announced
the appointment of Pat Fitzgerald as head football coach. Fitzgerald took the
reigns at the tender age of 31 and faced the daunting tasks of holding the team
together through the brutal emotional shock of Walker’s passing and preparing
for the 2006 season, just seven weeks away. By an irony of prior scheduling,
Fitz’s first game as the new head coach was against Walker’s alma mater, Miami,
at Oxford, Ohio. Quarterback Mike Kafka led the offense to a 21-3
The ‘Cats struggled for the rest of the season, with
injuries at quarterback taking a severe toll on the offense. Of note, however,
were wins at Iowa (21-7) and at home against Illinois (27-16). Also of note was
what is believed to be the last appearance of Air Willie at the Michigan State
game. With C.J. Bachér making his first start of the season at quarterback, the
‘Cats rolled to a 38-3 lead. “His Airness” was on the field in the fateful third
quarter as the Spartans rallied to set a new NCAA comeback record by eventually
winning 41-38. The ‘Cats ended the season with a 4-8 record.
Air Willie in the north end zone in the third quarter vs. MSU,
slouching toward infamy.
The Wildcats returned to more familiar .500 play in the
2007 season. Bachér settled in as the starting quarterback but Tyrell Sutton
missed much playing time due to injury. Of note were a 48-41 overtime win at
Michigan State and a 49-48 nailbiter win at home against Minnesota. Finishing at
6-6 the ‘Cats were bowl qualified, but wound up uninvited.
Fitzgerald’s breakthrough season came in 2008. New
coordinators were brought in: Mick McCall on offense from Bowling Green and Mike
Hankwitz on defense from Wisconsin. Hankwitz had sudden impact. Opponent scores
dropped and the blowouts began to fade away. The defense actually started to
help the offense with field position.
The ‘Cats stunned their fan base by sweeping their
non-conference slate as well as winning their Big Ten opener at Iowa. They
stumbled in prime time in the following game at home against Michigan State but
recovered and ended the regular season at 9-3. Among the highlights was the
first win in Ann Arbor over the Michigan Wolverines since 1995. Also noteworthy
was the 24-17 victory at #17 Minnesota. Mike Kafka, starting for the injured
Bachér, ran for 217 yards and passed for two touchdowns while the game was won
in the final minute on an interception return for a touchdown by Brendan Smith.
The Alamo bowl came calling after the Outback bowl passed the ‘Cats over again.
Northwestern led #21 Missouri for most of the game, but lost 30-23 in an
overtime set up by a missed extra point and a bungled punt returned for a
There’s no need to recap the most recent season of 2009.
Suffice to say that the ‘Cats scored impressive November victories at #4 Iowa
and at home against #16 Wisconsin en route to an 8-4 record. The intense
lobbying of athletic director Jim Phillips paid off with an Outback bowl
invitation. Given little chance against Auburn, the ‘Cats twice overcame 14
point deficits but fell 38-35 in overtime. All of America awoke to the New
Year’s Day spectacle and though beaten, the ‘Cats could hold their heads
1) Balancing the Spread
Northwestern’s spread attack has mutated several times
since its implementation as a run-based strategy. When pressed by TCU in the
2004 opener, Mike Dunbar all but abandoned the run and used the pass with
abandon in a shootout. To his credit, the plays and the players were there to
use. By the end of that season, injury had forced the ‘Cats into a nearly
exclusive running attack. Again, the personnel and plays were there, as was the
fluency to execute with success.
Over the last couple of seasons, though, the lack of a
main running back has hampered the rushing effort. It is probably not in the
best interests of overall success to be dependent on the quarterback as the
leading team rusher.
Something is terribly wrong here. Where is
For perspective, average attendance in the nadir of the
Dark Ages – the end of the Pont and through the Venturi era – was around 20,000.
It rebounded quickly under Dennis Green up to 32,000 and slipped in the Francis
Peay era to the high 20’s. Even in Gary Barnett’s initial losing seasons of
1992-94 average attendance never fell below 30,000.
Last season’s average attendance slipped to 24,190. This
isn’t just a Dark Ages level of performance, its bad Dark Ages performance. The
perplexing aspect is that the ‘Cats are winning. Something needs to change –
drastically – in how Northwestern markets the football team. Chicago is, after
all, a great sports town. It once supported two Big Ten football
A Peek Ahead
In contrast to a decade ago, Northwestern is poised for a
golden age of football, the likes of which has not really been seen since the
days of Ara Parseghian, Pappy Waldorf and Dick Hanley.
The university has shown a strong commitment to football
by way of facilities and the very intelligent handling of the abrupt coaching
change when Randy Walker died. Coach Fitzgerald has shown his ability to attract
both coaching and player talent. The spread offense is an attractive magnet for
quality receivers and running quarterbacks. The system is adaptable to the
dictates of personnel changes. Coach Fitz is comfortable recruiting the right
type of player for both his system and Northwestern. Above all, his passion for
the game and ability to relate to his players makes him a quintessential
player’s coach. He has inculcated a culture of trust that has allowed the team
to respond quickly to adversity.
Big Ten titles will be harder to win in a divisional
format, but the ‘Cats should become contenders. As to the ever elusive bowl win,
the record shows that we are getting closer. All of the bowl games since the
debacle at San Antonio in 2000 have gone to the wire. If the ‘Cats can show up
with their offense, defense and special teams in synch they will
Lastly, I had the chance to speak with one of the
graduating seniors last spring. I asked him about his take on all of the changes
he had seen in the program – in this case, going back to the Walker era.
“Look,” he said, “What Coach Walker did was great. You
have to understand, though, that Coach Fitz has taken this to a whole different
level. You have no idea of how much these players want to win for Fitz. And in
college football, that is huge.”
And in the End….
Congratulations to the ‘Cats for a great finish to a
tumultuous decade and to HailToPurple.com for ten wonderful years of service to
the Wildcat Nation!