Commentary: Northwestern's Seemingly Fickle Fans
by Jonathan Hodges

After Northwestern's 17-20 disheartening home loss to Purdue under the lights this past Saturday, it seems as though many in the online NU football community have already thrown in the towel on the 2010 season, in spite of the 'Cats' 5-1 record with some win-able games left on the schedule.  And this isn't the first time that we've seen this from NU fans, who seemed to be ready to call it quits just last year after NU limped out to a 2-2 start (before, of course, NU went on a November tear and earned a berth in the Outback Bowl on January 1).  This confirms something I've seen from some Wildcat fans since joining the Northwestern bandwagon as a freshman in 2000: NU fans are quite fickle.

Early on in my Wildcat fan experience there were definitely ups and downs, most notably the 2000 Big Ten Co-Championship season where fan support was quite good, but also the 2002 season where NU experienced its "low" point over the past decade.  But, NU did establish sustained success beginning in 2003 and continuing through this season with the only blemish being the season directly following Coach Randy Walker's passing.  Despite that sustained success and 4 bowl trips since 2003 (and 2 more seasons at 6-6), fan support never seemed to catch on as shown by the decreasing attendance numbers until this season.

Sure, some of the attendance issues have to do with lack of marketing by the athletic department, which has thankfully done a 180 this season (with positive results thus far), but I think it's also evidence of something deeper: the fact that it's quite common for Northwestern fans to jump off the bandwagon.  And even the die-hard Northwestern fans find ways to doubt the team and the program when something goes wrong for the 'Cats.  Let's explore why.

Northwestern Students

I don't usually harp on the academic position of Northwestern when it comes to Wildcat football, but I think that the high standing of Northwestern actually affects how the students and alumni support the football team.

First, there are relatively few students who apply to and select Northwestern based on its athletic programs and/or geographic proximity.  NU is really a national (or even international) school in terms of its student population, meaning that there is a large portion of students who have never seen the 'Cats play (even on TV) before applying or considering attending.  There are very few (if any) who put NU high on their list because they enjoy going to watch football games.

This is very much different than other Big Ten schools, where many students grow up devoted to a school and quite often carry out their childhood dream of attending that school.  Trust me, as I grew up in Ohio and knew many childhood Ohio State fans who did indeed matriculate at that institution.  Also, there is a much higher likelihood of fans picking a school based on their athletics, wanting to be in that student section at the football games in the fall.

While NU students do turn out quite well to football games, especially in recent years, learning to support your team is a much larger task than continuing  ingrained fandom for a school that you've always supported.  Many students in fact have to change their allegiance when they attend NU, which can be difficult as well.  Finally, being such an academically-focused school with a relatively small undergraduate population, there are many who just aren't sports fans by nature, making becoming a true "fanatic" for the 'Cats an even more difficult task.

Northwestern Alumni

Once we've graduated, things don't become easier, and, in fact, may become more difficult.  One potential reason is that the solid NU education has actually taught us to think more objectively while also setting the highest of standards.  We expect to have success in our professional lives and we expect NU athletics to have success on the field, all while upholding the academic and personal attributes in which we believe.

It is very difficult for most 'Cats fans to have belief without evidence.  And when things go wrong, most NU fans tend to analyze everything and draw the sometimes misguided conclusion that NU has a bad football team.  This is especially true when the 'Cats are favored to win, which has happened a lot more over the past 15 years, which is something that will be discussed later.

I know that it is very hard to dissociate the analytical Northwestern-trained part of my brain from the fan part and just wholeheartedly support the 'Cats no matter what's going on.  But, I manage to do so and try to limit my public comments to constructive criticism.  Unfortunately other NU fans don't take the same approach and let the analysis-induced negativity overtake their fandom and end up just plain bashing their own team.

It is rather uncommon to see this from fans of other schools.  Yes, sometimes they know their team is down, but they show up and cheer them on while remaining positive (at least publicly) seemingly no matter what.  Especially when compared to these other fan bases, Northwestern fans (especially those who are alumni) are made to seem rather fickle when looking at their actions and public comments following games such as this.

The Dark Ages

To some extent, Northwestern fans still don't know how to handle success all that well.  For over 20 years, NU football was comically bad.  I won't go into more details than that, because if you follow NU, you know all about it.  But despite winning 3 Big Ten titles in a 6 year span and going to 7 bowls since that magical 1995 season, 'Cats fans are seemingly always on edge about slipping back into the abyss from which NU emerged that year.

Many know the 'Cats as a perennial underdog, and the fact is that winning games as the underdog makes life relatively easy for fans.  You expect to lose most of the time, and when you win you get a much larger benefit.  But when you expect your team to win and improve year after year, losing, especially to other underdog teams, is difficult to handle.  Many NU fans are easily frustrated by this and publicly express that negativity, which sure doesn't help the problem.

Also, Northwestern is essentially missing a generation of fans grown outside the university since, with the 'Cats being so bad for such a long period of time, there was little reason for those not associated with the university to become Wildcat supporters.  This not only makes the pool of fans smaller, but also decreases the veracity of which such fans support NU.

What to Do

Thankfully, things are looking up for the NU fandom, but there is still a ways to go.  First, there is now a concerted athletic department-supported grassroots effort to get students more involved in supporting Northwestern athletics.  This should help NU students transition into the role of a Wildcat fan which will build a nice base moving forward.  It will also eventually help the second item on the list, NU alumni, since these well-founded fans will eventually graduate.

Next, consistently winning will eventually help transform the others.  Coach Fitz is poised to create a long-term winning legacy at NU, and while the 'Cats haven't yet reached a top tier bowl or conference title in his tenure, he is taking care of business the majority of the time - something that few NU coaches have ever been able to do.  Eventually those winning ways will not only bring in new fans but help transform any existing embittered fans to a more positive and/or constructive way of thinking and supporting the 'Cats.

What all NU fans can do now is show your positive and constructive support for Northwestern every game and every day.  Yes, you can be disappointed and/or upset, but try to internalize the negative thoughts and find a way to stay positive externally.  For instance, realize how well Coach Fitz's teams have performed in November (9-4) against tough competition and acknowledge that NU's best football may still lie ahead.

Outsiders, casual fans, and the team itself all pick up on the attitude of the NU fanbase and it's important to show unwavering support for your school and your team even if they have had some disappointing results.  If anything, the disappointments should teach you to savor victory even more, and, thankfully, the 'Cats have given fans quite a few victories to celebrate over the past few seasons - with even more to come.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.