Laking the Posts


by Larry LaTourette

None of Northwestern's other school and sports traditions rivals "laking the posts" for its unique aspects and infamy. The curious ritual lasted only a decade and was carried out only about a dozen times (and two of those times happened after Wildcat losses), but it made an indelible mark on the school's public image. Several networks, including CBS and the Big Ten Network, have aired features about the tradition.* NU football's most famous fan blogger, LakeThePosts, even used the tradition as the basis for his Internet name.


To understand the origin of "laking the posts," one must first know about "laking" in general. At Northwestern, the student tradition of laking didn't begin with football equipment; it started with people. Laking-- or throwing people directly into Lake Michigan-- as a celebration began decades before laking the posts, but it was most popular in the 1970s and '80s among the school's fraternities.

Fraternity houses would "lake" one of their members for one of several specific reasons: turning twenty-one years old, (in some cases) becoming the chapter president, or-- most commonly-- becoming "pinned" to the person's significant other. "Pinning," or giving one's fraternity pin to one's date, was seen as a romantic step more "serious" than just dating, but not as serious as being engaged. In the '70s and '80s, it was common on campus to see a group of fraternity members hoisting a recently-pinned member through the fraternity quads, down to the beach, and into the lake.

FIRST WAVE: 1981 - 1984

The first instance of laking the goalposts came during the nadir of the football team's Dark Ages, when Northwestern broke the NCAA record losing streak. The record up to that time, held jointly by Kansas State and Virginia, was 28 straight losses. NU had won a game in 1979 against Wyoming-- its first win since 1977-- and then proceeded to lose the rest of its games in '79, all of its games in 1980, and its first few games in 1981 to reach the apocalyptic 28-straight mark.

NU's next game was at Dyche Stadium against Michigan State on November 7. The school handed out buttons to students that exclaimed, "Stop State at 28!" and national media descended on NU to cover what would undoubtedly be a record-breaking game. As expected, the 'Cats did lose, 61-14. As the final seconds lapsed, students flooded the TartanTurf, chanting, "We are the worst!" Some raised a finger to signify that the team had become "#1." After a moment of milling about, the students focused on the goalposts.

Northwestern had torn down goalposts before, but this time was obviously different. In the past, 'Cat fans had torn down the posts after titanic victories-- even the Rose Bowl posts in 1949 weren't safe-- but never after a loss. Also, once the posts were down, that had always marked the end of the celebration. This time, frustrated students and fans decided to take the south post to NU president Bob Strotz's house in protest.

Strotz had irked fans, the athletic department, and alumni that week when he said, "I think having a bad [athletic program] can help a school's academic reputation."

The students pushed the goalpost over the south stands in Dyche Stadium, and a second group collected it and marched it down Central Street. They continued their "We are the worst!" chant and added, "We really suck!" Arriving at the president's house, the crowd shouted, "Strotz! Strotz!"

Strotz was at home (skipping attending the game in person) and appeared on the front porch. "We're going to beat them next year!" he shouted to the crowd. The group of several hundred fans shouted back, "Bullshit! Bullshit!"

Then, the chant changed.

"Lake it! Lake it!" The group made for North Beach and threw the post into Lake Michigan.

[Syllabus photo] 
Wildcat fans conducting the first laking in 1981. Here, they are parading
the post down Central Street, heading toward President Strotz's house.

They are not happy.

By September of the following year, "The Streak" had reached 34 losses. On September 25, 1982, the 'Cats hosted Northern Illinois at Dyche. Fans sensed that The Streak might be coming to a merciful end. NU unloaded on the Huskies, 31 to 6. With 34 seconds still on the clock in the fourth quarter, students rushed the field and quickly took down both goalposts. The crowd decided to repeat the previous year's spectacle, this time hoisting both goalposts over the stands and marching them down Central.

Again, the group marched directly to Strotz's house. Again, he was at his house and not at the game. And again, he appeared on the porch and addressed the crowd.

"One in a row!" Strotz shouted. "Can you 'Cats growl?!" He asked. The crowd complied, and Strotz returned to his house. The group left for the beach-- this time making the longer trek to South Beach. They paraded the goalposts down Sheridan Road and waded into the lake.

[Daily NU photo] 
The NIU '82 laking, the first laking after a win.

The next laking was just two weeks later. Northwestern upended Minnesota at Dyche Stadium, the team's first Big Ten win since its 1977 victory against Illinois, an incredible five years before. This time, the fans ripped down just one of the $3,000 replacement posts and dumped it into North Beach.

1983 would be a strange year for the tradition: two lakings, but only one by NU fans! On October 22, 1983, the Wildcats beat Minnesota for the second straight season. Fans took down the south goalpost and paraded it east. Strotz was in Evanston Hospital at this point, having just had brain surgery. The fans, supported by a police escort, took the post to the hospital and chanted, "Strotz! Strotz! Strotz!" before sending it into the lake.

That was NU's only home win in 1983, but there would be one more laking. Illinois was running the table, carrying a season-long winning streak into the finale at Dyche Stadium. The Illini had already torn down their own goalposts in three games during '83. A trip to the Rose Bowl was at stake for Illinois at the NU game, and over 50,000 fans packed the stadium-- the last time ever that 50,000 spectators would see a game in Evanston. When Illinois won 56-24, the visiting team's fans rushed the field and tore down both of NU's goalposts. Having heard of NU's wild tradition, the Illini fans decided to do as their hosts would do, and they carried the posts and threw them in... the North Channel, before realizing their mistake, fishing them out, and laking them properly.

The 'Cats would not win another game until September 22, 1984, when they edged Indiana, 40-37, at Dyche. By this point, fans assumed that any win would result in the posts going into the lake, and some fans started to attend games specifically to watch (or participate in) the event. Dutifully, as time expired, fans tore down the north goalpost (the south was too heavily defended by security) and laked it.

[Daily NU photo] 
Win against the Hoosiers? Into the lake we go.

This time, however, the laking had some media backlash. The Daily Northwestern and other papers wrote that the tradition was getting tiresome, cost too much, and was too potentially dangerous.

They needn't have worried: NU did not win another home game for over a year. When the 'Cats won their 1985 home opener against NIU, fans made a half-hearted effort to bring down the posts, but security staff thwarted them.

After the '85 win against the Huskies through the 1988 season, NU won a mere five home games, and only a couple of these wins featured the post-laking tradition. Laking the posts appeared to be fading out.

But then the team did something to revive the ritual: they began to lose like it was 1980 all over again. From their November 1988 win against the Boilers until September 1990, the 'Cats lost 14 games straight. Students referred to the period as the "Mini-Streak," and it became clear that if NU broke the Mini-Streak at home, the posts were doomed.

FINAL WAVE: 1990 - 1991

On September 29, 1990, NU hosted NIU, the same team that had provided relief for the 'Cats in 1982 and 1985. When the 'Cats won, students descended on the field and went to work on the goalposts. Since 1988, however, the school had sunk the posts in cement. Cement did not stop the mob, which ripped out both sets. NU Coach Francis Peay reacted to the posts being demolished by joking, "Could there be steroid use in the student body?"

[Daily NU photo] 
Steroids? No. Stroh's? Yes, probably. Students parade one of the posts
after the 1990 win vs. NIU (BTW-- I'm in this picture, in the background)

While fans toppled both posts, only one set made it into Lake Michigan.

NU outlasted Wisconsin, 44-34, the following month, breaking the team's 11-game conference losing streak. Electrified by the win, the Wildcat homecoming crowd dumped both posts in the lake.

The 'Cats won no more games in 1990, and the team dropped its first two games in 1991. Against Wake Forest on September 28, 1991, NU found its groove, smacking Wake with 34 points in the second quarter on the way to a 41-14 victory. Fans managed to get one set of posts out of the stadium and into Lake Michigan.

For 1991's homecoming game, NU faced defending Big Ten champion Illinois. Fans wondered if the 'Cats could pull off a second homecoming upset in as many seasons. NU played one of its finest games under Francis Peay, beating the Illini 17-11 in a driving rainstorm. Despite the weather, students stuck through the game and ensured that both goalposts wound up in the lake. It was arguably the greatest game—against the strongest opponent—of all the Lake the Posts games.

And it would prove to be the tradition's finale.

[Comcast Image] 
Leaving Dyche for what would be the final laking in '91.
(I'm somewhere in this mess as well)

When Gary Barnett came into the program, he had the school's engineering department find a stronger cement to anchor the posts. Barnett hated the laking the posts tradition— to him, it was the behavior of a program that did not know how to win, and it projected the wrong image. He also banned the decade-long sister tradition of marshmallow throwing in the stands.

Barnett made these decisions a part of his public persona: "Act like you've done this before [when you win]." Laking the goalposts was the opposite of his mantra to Expect Victory. He even made a TV promo in the early '90s in which he explained his decision to make the goalposts impossible to tear down, saying, "You see, at Northwestern, we expect to win a lot more games," while— in the background— a single student jumped wildly while standing on one of the posts (unfortunately, there is no online record of the commercial).

And so, the tradition of laking the posts ended. During the fantastic 1995 season, students attempted to tear down the posts on several occasions, to no avail. They came closest after NU's win over Air Force in '95 when students heavily damaged the north goalpost. However, no posts since 1991 have made their way to NU's watery victory circle east of Central Street.

*Here is the CBS Sports 2020 spot featuring laking the posts:

[Uploaded by CBS]

...The BTN clip about post laking, part of a feature about Big Ten footbal traditions:

[Uploaded by NUHighlights]

...Finally, a longer clip from Comcast Sports Nite (featuring comments by Jay Sharman LakeThePosts himself!):

[Uploaded by NUHighlights]