Commentary: The Curse of Patten Gym
by Jonathan Hodges

After the devastating loss to Minnesota in the 2012 Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern basketball looks like they will once again fail to reach the NCAA Tournament. As you may have heard, the Wildcats have never been to the tournament and are one of just a handful of teams in existence since the start of the tournament in 1939 to have never participated (they are the only major conference team never to have made it). That's 73 years for those counting at home, and includes approximately 1,000 at-large spots that they have managed not to earn (the tournament began at-large bids in 1975 and expanded to the recognizable 64 team bracket in 1985). One hypothesis as to why NU continues to fail at its attempts to make the big dance is a curse: the Curse of Patten Gym.

In the early 1900's, Northwestern constructed a new gymnasium that was a "handsome building with an imposing façade whose structural form derived from armories and massive train sheds" thanks to the fundraising of a prominent Chicago commodities broker by the name of James A. Patten. The building opened in June 1909, and the Northwestern Archives has a good deal of background information on this gym as well as some photographs. The key piece of information, though, is that this gym hosted the inaugural NCAA Tournament in March 1939 (Oregon defeated Ohio State in the championship game of the eight team tournament).

That same year, though, NU determined that it would build the Technological Institute building (commonly referred to as Tech) to house the School of Engineering on the site that Patten occupied. The gym would have to be relocated, and the decision was made to raze the gym and build a new gymnasium (the resulting building was also named Patten Gym and still stands, a couple of blocks north of the original structure, though it is notably smaller than the original).

In the 1930's, Northwestern fielded a respectable basketball team and won conference titles in the early part of the decade (1931 and 1933) and seemingly would be in the running to make the tournament field at some point (also remember, Otto Graham was also a very good basketball player and would suit up for NU). Instead, the Wildcats haven't won a conference title since, haven't had a winning conference record since the 1960's, and haven't even won four consecutive Big Ten games since that same decade. NU was essentially relegated to the bottom of the conference for long stretches, including the time that directly preceded current head coach Bill Carmody's tenure.

The Wildcats have been close to that ever-elusive tournament berth, particularly in recent seasons when late losses have doomed them to the lesser postseason tournament (NIT). Before 2012, losses to bad teams commonly doomed the 'Cats, particularly when playing Penn State, a team that has been down in recent times. In this season, the 'Cats seemingly got over that hump and avoided bad losses (i.e. losses to 100+ RPI teams) only to lose to a mediocre Minnesota team in the Big Ten tourney and see themselves begin a slide down the "bubble" that they cannot stop, having played their final scheduled game. This seemed to be "the year" with F John Shurna leading the league in scoring and also breaking the Northwestern career points scored record. But, once again, NU will likely not be a name thrown around as people across the nation fill out their brackets beginning Selection Sunday evening.

This can be explained by the Curse of Patten Gym. In 1939, Northwestern chose to tear down the site of the inaugural NCAA Tournament (which would grow over time to become one of the biggest sporting events in the nation and generate billions of dollars in revenues) to build an academic building. I am an engineering graduate and certainly spent my share of time (and more) in Tech and appreciate that building, and I also realize that the old Patten Gym would not be a viable competitive sporting venue today (not that Welsh-Ryan Arena is that much better) but it would be quite a historic site if it was still standing today (after renovation, of course).

Instead, Northwestern's choice to tear down the site of history and supplant it with an academic structure was a decision not taken lightly by the "basketball gods." Yes, we know that Northwestern cherishes its academic standards, but that does not mean sacrificing athletic success for academics; many other institutions have shown that one can have both (even Northwestern's own football team starting in 1995). Having academics exclusively prioritized over athletics would lead to the slow decline of Northwestern's football and basketball teams, with a low point being the years under University President Bob Strotz, who essentially undermined athletic programs (something that multiple people in the university continued to do until the resurrection of the football program under Gary Barnett).

To overturn the Curse of Patten Gym and finally make the field of the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern must aim for athletic success while also maintaining high academics standards, something that is attainable despite the obstacles that NU has run across before. And, building a new basketball arena in/on top of Tech wouldn't hurt, either.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

Previous jhodges commentary

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