2011 Season
Review Page



"Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule."
 - Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

2011 was a season of Great Expectations.  The Wildcats had enjoyed three straight winning seasons.  Dan Persa, NU's great but injured quarterback, was expected to return full-bore to lead the 'Cats and compete for the Heisman.  The lines were veteran.  And the defense was expected to have improved substantially since 2010's meltdown ending.  Some media had expectations of NU similar to the bar set before the 2001 season, when Northwestern was supposed to defend its Big Ten title. 

However, like that season a decade ago, things in 2011 did not go Northwestern's way.  A miserable mid-season five-game losing skid deflated 2011's great expectations.  The drought began with a disturbing loss to Army, continued with a heartbreaking defeat at Illinois, and worsened with NU's first-ever Legends Division games, losses to Michigan and Iowa.  Persa, it turned out, had not yet recovered from his 2010 injury.  And the defense had not improved.

A highly-anticipated game with Penn State also ended in defeat for the 'Cats.  That game, a night homecoming game at Ryan Field, was just weeks before events at Penn State overshadowed the wins and losses of the conference campaigns.

Though their expectations had been dashed, the Wildcats did not quit, and they worked to create "a November to remember."  A turnaround win against Indiana was followed with a terrific win against #9 Nebraska.  It was the first win by a Big Ten team in Lincoln in nearly 28 years.  The 'Cats followed up the triumph over Nebraska by beating Rice and Minnesota, assuring at least a six-win season, the team's fifth straight.

Six wins, however, is where NU's rebound would end, short of a winning season, short of the long-awaited bowl victory, and-- yes-- short of expectations.

What follows are excerpts from some of the comments I posted on this site during the course of the 2011 season.  Please note that the comments posted below are only ones written by me, and this year I did not provide game previews or much postgame commentary.  As with last couple of years, the bulk of articles on HailToPurple.com in 2011 came from jhodges and the other contributors.  For their 2011 commentary and analysis, please check out the pages for jhodges, the Waterboy and the Lowes Line.

NU Football Announces Class of 2015 [posted Feb. 2]

Northwestern has announced the results of its recruiting drive for 2011, with 17 signed commitments.  The  slate of recruits leans heavily toward the offense, with 11 on offense and six on defense; there are no specified special teams recruits (making 2011 the second straight year without a kicker or punter).  Seven
of the recruits are linemen.

After recruiting only one player from Illinois last year, NU has returned to the state with five recruits this year.  NU continues to recruit heavily in Ohio (four recruits), Florida, and Texas (two recruits each).

Among the recruiting standouts is offensive lineman Shane Mertz, whom Rivals named one of the top 20 recruits out of New Jersey.  Wide receiver Christian Jones received four stars from ESPN and was named to the ESPN 150.

Neither Rivals nor Scout has scored any of NU's recruits with four stars.  Rivals no longer provides a national team ranking for schools not in the top 50.  However, they do rank NU 11th in the Big Ten (ranked ahead of Purdue).  Scout ranks NU at 55th in the country, up two spots from last month, when Scout ranked NU at 57th (the "Heinz Line," with which HTP readers should be very familiar), the exact same ranking they gave NU last year.

This is perplexing, since NU's average star rating on Scout is 2.88, which is better than 13 of the 15 schools ranked directly above NU, and better than quite a few ranked even higher than that.  Of course, Rivals and Scout also consider class "fit" into their rankings, which apparently means how well the fan base of the schools "fit" into their subscription revenue streams.

NU Football Passes a Forgotten Anniversary [posted March 6]

Although it was not celebrated anywhere (not even on Hail To Purple, which has been dormant for a month), Northwestern Football hit a milestone last month.  Tuesday, February 22, marked the 135th anniversary of the very first football game that Northwestern played against a team from outside the school.

On Tuesday, February 22, 1876, NU played one of the first-ever football games in the American midwest, hosting the Chicago Football Club in Evanston.  The details of the events leading to this game can be found here.

So light a belated candle and celebrate 135 years of Northwestern Football, the oldest football team in the midwest.

Spring Practice Concludes This Week [posted April 10]

Northwestern's spring practice sessions will come to an end this Saturday, during the annual Spring Game. . .

In keeping with the substantial changes taking place to the NU football experience, due to the school's new marketing initiatives, there are several changes to the Spring Game from previous years:
  • No longer called the Purple-White Spring Game, the event is now called the Spring Exhibition, emphasizing the importance of the event as a marketing tool and a fan-based experience.
  • The "Stretch With The 'Cats" event has been changed to a "Cool Down With The 'Cats," a post-scrimmage event open to all ages.  Children will have the opportunity to learn football fundamentals before the scrimmage.
  • NU is charging admission!  Well, not really: the school is requesting a canned food donation for entry, a great way to help Campus Kitchen.

In previous years, HailToPurple.com has posted a highlight video from the spring scrimmage.  Unfortunately, this year's spring event takes place earlier in April than usual, and it coincides with the NU Alumni Association's Day at Northwestern event.  Due to the schedule conflict, HailToPurple will not be able to cover the Spring Exhibition this year. . .

NU Will Play Notre Dame [posted April 14]

Still wondering what happened to the supposed NU - Stanford game in 2014?  Who cares!  NU and Notre Dame announced this morning that they will renew their series, dormant since The Game That Rocked College Football in September 1995.  The Irish will host NU in 2014, and Northwestern will host Notre Dame in Evanston in 2018. . .

. . . The NU - Notre Dame series is the most important non-conference series in Northwestern history, but that includes all of NU's history, stretching back to the first time the teams met, on what is now Deering Meadow, in 1889.  Really, there have been four series with the Irish:
  • The Early Series (1889 - 1903): let's face it-- NU hasn't had the best luck when confronting the luck of the Irish.  Even when NU was at the height of its power, Notre Dame usually had the Wildcats' number.  Early on, however, NU held its own.  The first four games with Notre Dame took place before the forward pass.  NU lost the first game with the Irish in a sloppy, close game, during which it is rumored that Northwestern fans shouted, "kill those fighting Irish!" and gave the team from South Bend their nickname.  NU's record during this series was  1-2-1, including a 0-0 tie at Chicago's White Sox Park.
  • The Second Series (1920 - 1948): The Irish and NU played nearly every year during this period.  For much of it, NU was terrific, notching four Big Ten titles (and coming very close to several more), a Rose Bowl championship, and sniffing two near national championships.  Yet the 'Cats won only twice vs. Notre Dame, falling 22 times and tying once.  The wins were big: a 1935 thriller in South Bend that ruined Notre Dame's hope for a national title and a 20-0 pounding at Dyche Stadium in 1940 that sent the campus into a frenzy.  Notre Dame, however, returned the favor in 1936 by ruining Northwestern's national title run.  It was during this period that the NU - Notre Dame series was a true rivalry (despite the series record).  The games were national events, and Notre Dame's first trophy series with another school began in 1930 with NU.
  • The Third Series (1959 - 1976): After the Rose Bowl season, NU did not face the Irish for 11 seasons.  Under Ara Parseghian, the series restarted, and Parseghian did what no other NU coach had managed: he dominated Notre Dame, winning the first four games of the renewed match.  Then, of course, Ara switched sides and kept on winning.  By 1976, the series was no longer competitive, and Notre Dame wasn't thrilled about visiting Dyche Stadium, and the rivalry was suspended.
  • The Fourth Series (1992 - 1995): Everyone remembers this one, and for good reason.  It ended with the game that redefined NU football.  The Irish insisted that NU move its home games to Soldier Field for this series, and NU cowered before the mighty altar and agreed.  But it was on South Bend's sacred soil that NU closed the series by staging the biggest upset in its history.  Both the Enchanted Lakefront and the Golden Dome haven't been seen quite the same way since.
The biggest stumbling block to starting a fifth series, until now, was the Evanston Issue: Notre Dame simply would not agree to a home-and-home with NU.  Either the games were to be staged in South Bend, or NU would need to find a Chicago location for its side of the rivalry.  Thankfully, Northwestern found its spine after 1995 and remained firm that any future series with Notre Dame would involve a blue and gold truck parked on Central Street.

And so, in a stunning move, the mountain has come to Mohammad, for the first time in what will be over 40 years.  Kudos to Northwestern for sticking to its guns.  "With schools such as Boston College, California, Syracuse and Vanderbilt visiting Ryan Field in future years, combined with the addition of Nebraska to our division in the Big Ten, there's no better time to be a Wildcat football fan," Jim Phillips said in the announcement Thursday morning.   And he's right: the schedule is daunting and world-class.  NU is again in the center of big-time college football, and the need to keep the program strong and balanced is as vital as ever.

There is one seemingly trivial thing to consider between now and the game in South Bend three years from now.  NU and Notre Dame had a rivalry trophy, the Shillelagh, that began in 1930.  The details of the trophy can be found here.  This was Notre Dame's first football trophy, with a richer history than the Irish's trophies with Purdue or USC.  It faded from the rivalry by the 1976 close of the Third Series, and it was never mentioned during the 1992-1995 series.  Where is that trophy?  Of course, it should be with NU, but its current whereabouts are unknown.  We have three years to find the Shillelagh, polish it, and have Air Willie float above Notre Dame Stadium with it, taunting the Irish fans with the stick before carrying it back to Evanston.

Some Additional (and Gruesome) Details Concerning
NU's First Tussle with the Irish [posted April 30]

After last month's announcement that NU and Notre Dame will again play each other on the football field, we looked briefly at the history of this series, including the first time ever that the teams met, back in 1889.  I had mentioned some of the details of that game in my book (including the legendary-- and possibly mythical-- origin of Notre Dame's nickname, which came from several of the 200 NU fans present shouting "kill those fighting Irish!"), and had included accounts of the game from several of the newspaper articles written at the time. 

Here is a newspaper account of the game that was not included.  This article comes from that bastion of world-class journalism, the Logansport Daily Pharos (now called the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, and still located in central Indiana), from November 15, 1889:

Just so we're clear: the Notre Dame captain lost a row of teeth and had his jaw fractured, and another Notre Dame player lost part of his face, but "nobody was badly hurt."

NU Football Summer Update [posted June 18]

. . . Among some of the news around the program:
  • Fitz's contract puts him in Evanston through 2020, for a total of three more seasons than NU's ironman coach, Pappy Waldorf, coached here from 1935 to 1946.  It also ensures that Fitz will become NU's all-time winningest coach.  Local papers have reported that Fitz's contract is worth $1.8 million a year, which would make him the higest-paid NU football coach.
  • We are expecting to see the university's report on athletic facility upgrades this fall.  Most people assume that the report will recommend that Dyche Stadium / Ryan Field be kept and renovated, and that Welsh-Ryan Arena be torn to the ground, bombed, burned, the ashes mixed with holy water and scattered, paved over, rebuilt, burned again, and then re-rebuilt.  In June, Jim Phillips announced that he had observed over 30 other universities this spring, collecting information about their facilities. 
  • Seriously: we'll need to find a lot of holy water for the Welsh-Ryan razing.
  • There are increasing rumors that Northwestern's relationship with Adidas might be drawing to a close.  Several posts on the Rivals board mentioned that Under Armour would like to supply NU, and the Wildcats were conspicuously absent from Adidas's recent college football media campaigns, which featured nearly every other Division I school that it supplies.
  • I'm not sure, but something bad might be going on at Ohio State.  Someone should check on that.  Maybe if the media covered it more...

Media 2011 Previews and Predictions for the 'Cats:
The End of "The Heinz Line"? [posted June 18]

. . . For the past few years most media predictions have typically placed NU at ninth place in the conference, ahead of Indiana and one school from the group of Illinois, Michigan State or Minnesota.  There is also what I call the "Heinz Line" at the 57 spot nationally: if a previewer favors NU, it will place the 'Cats just above the 57th spot among the ranked Division I-A teams; a bad prognostication consigns NU to a lower rank.  If the sportswriter has no overly optimistic or pessimistic feel for the team, he will invariably rank NU at 57.

However, NU is riding three straight bowl seasons, with a host of returning talent.  For the first time in a decade, the media could break the Heinz Line rule and propel the 'Cats higher in the national preseason rankings and picks.  Reader expectations or no, most of these publications are likely tired of being burned by constantly under-picking the 'Cats. . .

The 2011 List

Every summer since 2000, HailToPurple.com has posted a recap page of what the larger 'Net and print publications predict for NU.  Here are the
2011 Wildcat predictions so far (more to come later in the summer):
  • Since it has the most accurate pick crown two years running, let's start with Athlon.  Athlon isn't quite as high on the 'Cats this year, predicting that NU will finish 6-6, 3-5 in the conference, good for only fifth place in the Legends Division (ahead of Minnesota, uniformly seen as the dog in the Big Ten this year, and just behind Michigan).  However, Athlon does predict that Persa, if healthy, will have a great year and that NU could still bowl at 6-6-- in the Pinstripe Bowl (!) vs. UConn.
  • You think The Sporting News was optimistic about NU last year?  Wait!  TSN picks Northwestern #16 in the nation.  One-Six.  That is, by far, the highest preseason ranking for NU by one of the major media since 2001 (when most media tabbed NU between 12th and 18th in the country).  TSN picks NU to finish second in Legends (behind only Nebraska).  Among the players heralded by TSN are the usual suspects: Persa, Ebert, Peters and Browne.  However, the picks aren't all sunshine and flowers from TSN: it predicts NU will spend the postseason in Detroit.  How this will happen to a team that finishes second in Legends is not explained.
  • The much-revered Phil Steele also likes Browne (ranked fourth nationally by position, and All-Big Ten) and Persa (14th, also All-Big Ten), as well as Netter (11th).  How does he like NU overall?  A ho-hum fourth in Legends, tied with Michigan, and behind MSU, Nebraska, and Iowa.  Steele does see the 'Cats bowling, but as an at-large, in the Kraft Bowl, playing Cal.  If he's right, maybe NU might squeeze off a bowl win: the 'Cats have had good luck playing Cal in the postseason...
  • Lindy's seems to put the Heinz Line to rest, finally, picking NU 44th in the nation, eighth in the Big Ten, and a somewhat disappointing fifth in Legends.  Browne and Netter are featured.
  • CollegeFootballNews.com released its summer bowl picks, and NU is tabbed for. . . Detroit.  CFN's "first look rankings," released in June, slotted Northwestern in at #44 (which is starting to look, more or less, like a consensus ranking), seventh in the conference.  However, by August CFN dropped the 'Cats to #47.
  • Internet statistician and ranking mogul James Howell has been offering his rankings and game predictions for many years.  For the 2011 preseason his power rankings take a lower view of NU, ranking the 'Cats 61st.  However, he does put NU seventh in the conference.
  • Rivals is not too high on the 'Cats, tabbing NU to finish fifth in the Legends division, ahead of Minny.  They rank the team 48th nationally, adding "Defensively, it's all about how the front seven comes together."

Ed. note: Each year's Season Review Pageincludes the media's preseason predictions.  For 2011, most of the media nailed the picks for the 'Cats.  NU underperformed in '11, finishing 8th in the Big Ten (5th in the Legends Division).  The most accurate predictions were from Athlon, Lindy's and Rivals.

In most years, the "dog" pick from the media usually comes from the site that ranks NU the lowest-- the 'Cats have typically overperformed.  However, this year's dog pick unfortunately goes to The Sporting News, with its too-optimistic prediction for NU.

PersaStrong Campaign
Latest in NU Heisman History [posted Aug. 27]

From hand weights sent to the media to billboards plastering Chicagoland, the school's marketing efforts for the Dan Persa's Heisman campaign are at full blast.  Whether or not Persa ends up a strong candidate for the trophy as the season progresses (or even if, given his health, he is able to start for the bulk of the season) is somewhat beside the main point of the campaign.  This is a marketing drive, and-- as such-- it is already a success, much as NU's Wrigley Field venture last year was a success, even before the game began.  Northwestern has generated a fantastic amount of preseason buzz, with quite a lot of it coming at the national level.  The Persa billboard that the school placed in Bristol, CT, just outside of ESPN's headquarters, was an inspired idea.

The billboard

And, as mentioned on the billboard, NU has launched PersaStrong.com to supplement the Heisman drive.  It is an unprecedented amount of marketing for an NU player. 

The level of marketing is new, but NU has had a Heisman candidate before.  In 2001, coming off the Y2K title, NU did market Damien Anderson for the Heisman, albeit on a much smaller level.  Here is the banner from the HailToPurple page that followed Anderson's 2001 campaign:

That campaign didn't last long: Anderson was injured midway through 2001, and the season was dominated by the fallout from the death of Rashidi Wheeler.  NU's ranking of 14th in the nation by midseason quickly evaporated as the 'Cats fell apart, and the Heisman campaign never really took off.

Of course, there is being a Heisman candidate, and then there is being a Heisman finalist.  We have a long way to go to see if Persa will eventually be a finalist for the award this year, and the likelihood seems somewhat remote.  But if Persa does make it to New York, he'll be the latest of a handful of Wildcats to get the honor of having a place in the Downtown Athletic Club's big vote.  Since HailToPurple.com usually takes a historical perspective of NU football, let's take a look at the team's three past Heisman finalists.

  • Otto Graham
    1943: Third Place

    Graham had electrified Dyche Stadium since his 1941 debut, but in his final year as a Wildcat, Graham shattered Big Ten passing records and carried the team to a 6-2 record (losing to #3 Michigan and to Notre Dame, the eventual national champion), good enough for a ninth-place finish in the AP Poll.

    Unfortunately, because of the massive national media blitz around Notre Dame's march to the national title, Irish quarterback Angelo Bertalli won the Heisman.  Graham finished third in the voting, the highest finish ever for an NU player.
  • Darnell Autry
    1995: Fourth Place

    After Graham, Northwestern had to wait a generation to get another Heisman finalist, despite such greats as Art Murakowski and Ron Burton playing in the intervening period.  During the 1995 race to the Roses, Darnell Autry tore up the NU record book, rushing for 1,785 yards and 17 touchdowns.

    By season's end, Autry was receiving national attention, but not enough to win the Heisman.  Autry came in fourth, behind Ohio State's Eddie George, who had rushed for 1,927 yards and 24 touchdowns.  Voting was the closest to date: George beat out Nebraska's Tommie Frazier by 264 votes.

    1996: Seventh Place

    In 1996 Autry became NU's only two-time finalist for the Heisman.  Autry rushed for 1,452 yards and another 17 touchdowns as he helped lead NU to its second consecutive Big Ten championship.  During the Iowa game, Autry put on a clinic, scoring four rushing touchdowns.  He finished the year having averaged 111.6 yards per game for his career at NU.

    The 1996 trophy was awarded to Florida's Danny Wuerffel, who had passed for 3,625 yards and 39 touchdowns.  Autry finished seventh in the voting.
  • Damien Anderson
    2000: Fifth Place

    Anderson took Autry's records and-- en route to the Big Ten title-- vaporized them.  As part of the experimental 2000 no huddle spread offense, led by Zak Kustok, Anderson went wild, rushing for 2,063 yards and 23 touchdowns, records that still stand.

    Anderson finished fifth in the Heisman voting, losing the trophy to FSU quarterback Chris Weinke, who had passed for 4,167 yards for the season.  As mentioned above, Anderson was considered a candidate for the 2001 award, but fell out of contention by midseason.

75th Anniversary of the
Great Halloween Game [posted Oct. 31]

On Halloween afternoon, October 31, 1936, the Wildcats hosted Minnesota for homecoming.  Northwestern was riding high in its Golden Age: the 'Cats had come close to a Big Ten title in 1925, and had actually won the title in 1926, 1930, and 1931. NU had reloaded under second-year coach Pappy Waldorf.  The team had knocked off Notre Dame the previous year, and Waldorf had earned the first-ever national coach of the year award.

The Gophers in 1936, however, were on another level entirely.  Minnesota, the defending national champ, was basking in a 28-game unbeaten streak and was firmly planted at number one in the AP Poll.  So when the Gophers descended on Evanston, it was more treat than trick, and the buildup for this game was on a scale seldom ever seen by Wildcat fans.  Dyche Stadium sold out for the first time in six years, and both CBS and NBC broadcast the game by radio to a national audience.

Waldorf had planned well for the game, and instituted the very first "read and react" defense, with tackles refraining from immediately leaving the line of scrimmage at the snap.  The NU defense held the Gophers to one field goal attempt in the first half.  The play was a fake, and Minnesota failed to score.

According to Cameron and Greenburg's book, Pappy, the Gentle Bear, Waldorf described the fantastic finish to the game.  With NU leading 6-0...

'There were five minutes to go, Minnesota had the ball on their 20-yard line and called for an off-tackle play.  Uram came off tackle.  Vanzo, who had been in all 55 minutes, was in at the right side to tackle him.  Just as he was tackling Uram, he flipped the ball to (Rudy) Gmitro, their fastest man.  Gmitro, in the 100-yard dash, could beat Vanzo by 10 yards.

'Our films showed that, as Vanzo was coming up on his knees after making the hit on Uram, Gmitro was six yards down the field, and yet 40 yards further down the field, just as Gmitro dodged our safety and had a clear field for a touchdown, it was Vanzo who caught him from behind.  How he got there, I will never know.

'After 55 minutes of awfully hard football, as hard as any boy ever played, he had the courage to get up and go after what seemed to be the impossible, and it saved the game for us.'

The win resulted in near riots in Evanston, and it put NU on the top of the AP Poll for three weeks.  The 'Cats would go on to claim their fifth Big Ten title.

For a great photograph of Dyche Stadium during the game, click here (the link will open a new window with the photo, which is too large to display on this page).

NU Wins!
Wildcats Hold On to Beat #9 Nebraska [posted Nov. 6]

If there ever was a game that exemplified Wildcat football-- and what it means to play as a Wildcat-- Northwestern's landmark win in Lincoln against the ninth-ranked Cornhuskers was it.

NU, just two weeks removed from a disappointing 2-5 record and a five-game losing skid that began at West Point, took momentum from its much-needed win at Indiana and upended the Legend leading 'Huskers, 28-25.  NU did so as 17.5-point underdogs, with no one (except the Lowes Line) picking the team to win on the road.  Northwestern came into the game riddled with injuries, and the game resembled the football scene from the movie "M*A*S*H," with 'Cats leaving the game in pieces.

Dan Persa, already hobbled and playing some of the toughest Wildcat football in the team's history, passed for 74 yards and averaged seven yards per scramble before he was brought down hard on his left shoulder, suffering a soft tissue injury.  Persa soldiered on before finally being forced to call it a day.

No matter-- NU has worked through such matters with its (oft-criticized) double-headed quarterback attack.  Only against Nebraska, a different kind of signal-calling monster needed to be fashioned, and Fitzgerald and McCall had one ready: behold the quarterback hydra, a three-headed Wildcat phantasm that sent the children of the corn into paroxysms of panic.  With Persa down, Kain Colter had the game of his career, showing off some of the finest athleticism ever exhibited by a Wildcat.  Colter's superhuman leap to tip the football into the goal line pylon deserves to be on every highlight reel across college football this month.  Colter had taken some pretty harsh criticism this season; that he clawed back to hand in this performance demonstrated the heart and the will of a Wildcat.

Colter, however, was not done contributing to the NU highlight reel.  Early in the fourth quarter, with Northwestern nursing its four-point lead-- the Wildcats would end up leading the entire game-- Colter fired a perfect downfield strike to Ebert, who tore ass through Nebraska's secondary, making the 'Husker safeties appear trapped in syrup as he streaked to the end zone for the play of the year.  The 81-yard touchdown was the second-longest passing score in Wildcat history.

Just when the 'Huskers thought they had the quarterback problem worked out, the Wildcat QB hydra had revealed its third head, Trevor Siemian, who completed three of his four passes (with one pick) for 67 yards.

The Wildcat hydra had some incredible help.  NU's offensive line, troubled for much of October, roared back to life against Nebraska.  The famous 'Husker defense, which had just been rewarded their famous blackshirts days before the game, watched helplessly as the Wildcats O-line tore those shirts to shreds, allowing just one sack all day.

The Northwestern offense had a Wildcat-worthy performance, but it was unexpectedly NU's defense that really hearkened back to the team's Wildcat origins, and showed what Wildcat football has always meant.

One of Northwestern's earliest football heroes, Walter Scott (who would eventually become the school's president), broke his hand in a game early in the 1892 season.  As described by NU historian Walter Paulison, "instead of quitting, [Scott] obtained a boxing glove and played out the season with the hand encased in this protective device."  Against Nebraska last Saturday, safety Brian Peters broke his hand early on.  Rather than quit, Peters had his hand bandaged and wrapped up and played through, reminiscent of Coach Walker's warning before the legendary 2000 Michigan game: "they'll have to kill us to beat us."  Another player from NU's early era, captain Harry Allen would later recall, "To leave a game was a disgrace unless the player had to be carried off the field."  Peters, and the rest of Northwestern's defense, chose to make a stand against Nebraska, and they didn't leave the field until the 'Huskers had been dismantled.

Congratulations to Coach Fitzgerald on the biggest win by the team since 2009, and congratulations to the players for not giving up on this season.  To have done so would have been completely understandable, but it would not have been the act of a true Wildcat.

It Is Time to Recognize Coach Barnett [posted Nov. 16]

This Saturday, during the Minnesota game, Northwestern will celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the 1996 Big Ten championship season.  It will do so by bringing back 40 players from that great team-- so often overlooked because of the team, and the season, that it followed.

Also returning for the festivities: Coach Gary Barnett.

Coach Barnett, in some ways, never really left NU, of course.  His legacy, his mentality, stayed with the program, and it courses through the words and deeds of current coach Pat Fitzgerald, who will count among the 40 alumni of the 1996 team to return on Saturday.  We have recently seen Coach Barnett at Northwestern practices, but the last time we saw him on the field for a Wildcat gameday was in Hawaii, nearly 13 years ago:

Has it really been 13 years since the end of Barnett's era?  A lot has happened in those 13 years.  To Northwestern.  And to Coach Barnett.

Some things haven't changed.  Some NU fans remain upset at Coach Barnett, at the events of 1998, at the scandal, his wanderlust, the way he looked around, the way he left.

It is time to put that aside and to recognize what Gary Barnett did for NU.  We need to recognize his legacy and to thank him.

Next month will mark another anniversary of sorts.  In December it will have been 20 years since Northwestern athletic director Bruce Corrie, after choosing not to renew Coach Francis Peay's contract, brought Coach Barnett to Northwestern.  The following month, January 1992, Coach Barnett addressed a Wildcat crowd at a basketball game and announced, "We're going to take the Purple to Pasadena."  It would take Barnett three seasons to get the program in the place needed to make good on that promise.  I would argue that no one else in the country at that time would have been able to do what he did.

Remember what Northwestern Football was like 20 years ago.  Remember what greeted Barnett in December 1991:

[Northwestern] flew Mary and me me out, and we met a group for dinner. . . as we talked to everybody it became apparent to me that no one had any idea about what it took to have a winning college football program.  When Mary and I went up to our hotel room later, she said, "They don't have a clue, do they?"

It seemed incredible, but none of them had ever been a part of a winning team.  If you haven't seen it done, of course, there's no way you can understand what it takes to pave the way to having it done.  And these were the people who were going to have to pave the way!

They were asking me questions about how I was going to cut spending-- when Northwestern was already light years behind the other budgets in the Big Ten. . .

I did think Dyche Stadium was neat, and Bruce Corrie, the athletic director, took me up into the creaky old press box.  I mean, it's antiquated.  When we got up there, somebody turned the power off and the elevator off and we were stuck for almost an hour.  It was freezing, and there was no way down.  We finally got out by crawling through a side window.

High Hopes, p. 81

That would be the only side window at Northwestern that Coach Barnett crawled through.  He would spend the next three years knocking down walls instead, blazing a trail to winning football that NU had not seen in 20 years, and doing it with style and with integrity.  Barnett's program was strong and clean, and it set a standard.

Just as it did for Ara Parseghian, Northwestern held a special place in Gary Barnett's life.  However, like Coach Parseghian, Coach Barnett left NU amid tension: Parseghian tersely and famously uttered, "I'm restive" when asked about his chances for leaving Evanston, shortly before he did.  And in 1999, then-athletic director Rick Taylor, whose style and priorities never quite meshed with Barnett's, stated when announcing Coach Barnett's replacement just one day after Barnett resigned, "the king is dead; long live the king."

The head coaching careers of both men to whom Taylor referred, Coaches Barnett and Walker, would eventually end at the exact same time: Walker's last game was the Sun Bowl in December 2005; Barnett's (as head coach of Colorado) would be against Texas that same month.

Coach Barnett has since been in exile, for reasons both within and without his control.  His legacy is complex, and so are the reasons for so much of the sentiment about him.  But he is returning to the school that put him on the map, the school he put back on the map, and it is right that Northwestern show Gary Barnett the appreciation that he richly deserves.  Barnett dared to give Wildcat fans high hopes, belief without evidence, and then he and his players provided the evidence, as well as the memories of a generation.

Thanks, Gary.  Welcome back.

THE Comeback [posted Nov. 19]

In beating Minnesota, Northwestern accomplished the greatest comeback in school history.

"But wait," you might say say.  "NU never trailed against Minnesota.  Not much of a comeback."

No, NU did not come back on Saturday to win the game.  NU came back against Minnesota at Ryan Field to win the season.

At the end of October, heading to Bloomington, Indiana, Northwestern had found itself choking down a 2-5 record, its season apparently shot.  Four games later, the Wildcats are bowl eligible, having won at least six games for the fifth straight season, a stretch unmatched in Northwestern football history.  At 2-5, NU had been three games under .500, but it will finish the regular season with at least a .500 record.  This is only the third time in history that the 'Cats have come back from three games down to secure a non-losing regular season.

The first time the team accomplished this was in 1956, Coach Parseghian's debut season, when NU came back from having one win, four losses, and one tie to finish 4-4-1 by beating Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois at the end of the season.  In 1970, the 'Cats started 0-3, only to break off a 6-1 tear for the remainder of the season.  That performance helped Coach Alex Agase secure the national Coach of the Year Award.  However, 2011's comeback is special.  Never before has NU come back from a five game losing streak to finish the regular season at .500 or better.

Congratulations to the 2011 Wildcats, the group that has earned the distinction as the team in Northwestern history that simply would never quit.

The Texas Bowl and What Might Have Been [posted Dec. 21]

Northwestern’s game against Texas A&M could very well be a landmark—the Wildcats’ first bowl win since ’49—but it will also mark the passing of what might have been: it would have been the planned end of the Randy Walker era.

The bowl game, NU’s final game of the 2011 season, would likely have been Randy Walker’s last game as NU head coach, had he not died in June 2006.  In April of that year Mark Murphy, NU’s athletic director, announced that the school had extended Coach Walker’s contract (due to expire in 2007) through 2011.

At the time, Murphy said, “I’m really pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with Randy on a contract extension.  I have tremendous respect for the way he runs the program.  We’ve enjoyed great success in recent years.  Just as significantly, we’ve seen this improvement while continuing to be one of the nation’s leaders in student-athlete graduation rate and winning the AFCA Academic Achievement Award three of the past four years.”

HailToPurple.com commented at the time, “Should Coach Walker remain at NU through the period of the new contract, he will have coached the ‘Cats for 13 seasons, which would give him the record for longevity (Pappy Waldorf coached at NU for 12 seasons).  Of course, Walker is closing in on another of Waldorf’s records: Waldorf is NU’s winningest coach.  His teams won 49 games, and Walker’s have so far won 37, giving him sole possession of second place.”

Coach Walker had made it clear that he wanted to retire after the 2011 season.  Referring to taking the Northwestern head coaching job, Walker said, “It's the last stop, it's the last thing for me, it's all I have in my life. I think our kids know that, and everyone who knows me knows that. It is entirely what I'm about.”  In a 2001 interview, he continued to map out how he envisioned his career concluding: “If I could script it, part of the severance package would be two season tickets. And on Saturdays Tammy and I would walk down Sheridan Road, come over to the stadium, sit in the stands and watch some other crazy person coach this team!”

After his death, it was revealed that Coach Walker had known just who that “crazy person” should be.  He had wanted to groom Pat Fitzgerald for the job, with Fitz assuming the reins in 2012.

And here it is, the eve of the end of the 2011 season.  Coach Walker has been gone for five years.  Coach Fitzgerald is now the second-winningest coach in NU history, with nine wins to go until he ties Waldorf.  And we stand at the gate of the bowl game that, if life had worked out the way we would have scripted it, would have signaled a farewell to one age of Wildcat football.

Instead, the game will be, perhaps, a milestone of another sort—the kind we can’t script or predict, but can strive to make a fitting and fair chapter in the team’s story, one that can build on the legacy left by those who loved the program and its players.

'Cats Fall to Texas A&M, 33-22 [posted Dec. 31]

And so the beat(down) goes on.

Northwestern, having secured a school-record fourth straight season with a bowl game, lost its ninth straight bowl, falling to Texas A&M 33 to 22 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.  The loss gives NU a tie with Notre Dame for consecutive bowl losses, adds one more year to NU's now-legendary bowl drought, and-- similar to 2003-- flips the team's record to a losing one for the season.

The 'Cats looked unfocused early, letting the Aggies take an initial lead (with what looked like a touchdown.  However, A&M's seeming TD catch in the first quarter was ruled out of bounds, and the Aggies had to settle for a field goal).  NU then managed to score, but eventually fell further back when the Aggies quickly answered with a touchdown and a field goal.  NU, apparently willing to take a ten-point deficit into halftime, played the final minutes of the second quarter in conservative mode, only to blow clock management and give the ball back to Texas A&M.  The Aggies, not playing particularly well at the time, could not pass up the gift, and added three to their lead.

But the Aggies weren't finished pulling ahead.  In the third quarter the wheels on the Wildcat's wagon popped off, and Texas A&M slid to a 30 to 7 lead, seemingly insurmountable.

NU, however, was following the pattern it has established in recent bowls: come out flat, watch as the opponent takes a multiple-score lead, then tear back to within striking distance.  And the 'Cats did just that, behind Dan Persa's final game as a Wildcat and behind Kain Colter's determined performance.

Persa needed 19 passing attempts to take the NCAA career record for passing completion percentage.  With 37 attempts in the game, Persa finished his time at NU with a completion percentage of 72.7 percent, shattering the previous NCAA record of 70.4%.  During the Texas Bowl, Persa passed for 213 yards, no touchdowns, and was hit with a whopping seven sacks.  Given the offensive line's subpar performance, this could have been even worse.

NU, as usual, limited Colter's passing game (although he did come up with NU's only passing touchdown), but he did rush for 65 yards and another TD.

The Wildcats' comeback attempt launched in the fourth quarter, when Brian Peters caught an interception, the 12th for NU's outgoing safety.  The pick set up Colter's rushing touchdown, which NU followed with a nice two-point play, with Jeremy Ebert passing to Demetrius Fields for the score.

NU would put up another TD to come within eight, but that is where the comeback would end: A&M strung out a drive that ended in a field goal, giving them an 11-point lead and the game.