Commentary: Changing Perceptions: Tradition in College Football
by Jonathan Hodges

College football is truly a unique sport as demonstrated on the field by the importance of every game throughout the season and off the field by the large following that it draws to schools across the nation.  It is a game that is full of tradition, which is a great way to bring a university community together, but it can also lead to blatantly incorrect assumptions about the team on the field.

The primary reason behind this article is the recent publication of a piece in ESPN the Magazine (not available online) titled "6 Things You Should Know about Cheering for a Losing Team" that featured an interview with Northwestern cheerleader Krissy Cox, who is currently a senior at NU.

While there has been much ado about this piece, which should finally be put to rest by this North by Northwestern article that goes in depth to show how the article completely misconstrued the actual interview content, this article will focus on the basic premise of the ESPN the Magazine piece, that Northwestern is a "losing team."

Northwestern Football: Perception and Reality

Yes, it is true that for a large swath of time stretching from the 1970s through the early 1990s, also known as the Dark Ages, Northwestern was bad at football.  There is the infamous Streak (34 game losing streak) and 23 consecutive losing seasons during that span.  Northwestern WAS bad, with WAS being the operative word.

From 1995 through 2009, 15 seasons, Northwestern has won three Big Ten conference titles, gone to seven bowl games, and had two additional .500 non-bowl seasons.  This decade, Northwestern has a winning record (61-60) and has six non-losing seasons.  This year NU will be headed for its second consecutive bowl game and has eclipsed eight wins in each of those years.

As any good Wildcat fan knows, that magical 1995 season wasn't a flash in the pan: It marked a true change in the program.  Since then, Northwestern football has been a competitive team in the Big Ten and has actually been better than multiple teams in the conference.

Since 2003, Northwestern has the sixth best Big Ten conference record, at 29-27, and is trailed by Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana.  Outside of Indiana, none of those programs is considered a perennial loser, yet the Wildcats have a better record than them and have beaten them all multiple times over that span.

On the field, most teams respect the Wildcats because they focus on the now: NU's recent record and what they see on film.  For fans and the media, though, it's a much different story.

College Football Traditional Perceptions

Going back to college football tradition, fans know what teams are historically good or bad.  With the average fan knowing little about the talent level or even the names of the players on a team in any given year, thanks to a revolving door of players that is a fact of life in college, these casual supporters typically fall back on school name recognition and historical perceptions.

This is exacerbated by the media, who continues to focus on the "traditional football powers" because they have the most fan following, partially thanks to that name recognition.  The recent rise of recruiting publications and websites gives even more subjective ammunition to back up the "name" schools, despite the fact that schools with lower rankings find a way to beat schools with higher rankings on a regular basis.

Professional sports have some bias, but none close to what exists in college football.  Fans have routinely seen pro teams rise and fall depending on their total salary and draft picks.  Even in other college sports, like men's basketball, fans can accept the rise of a lesser program or fall of a big one, especially with a high profile tournament giving an opportunity to a small commuter school like George Mason to make a Final Four and a name for itself.

College football, though, is controlled by the most successful schools in the most successful conferences.  There are 120 schools in I-A/FBS level football, but only 66 BCS conference schools who, for the most part, have the money and status to thrive.  And out of those 66, there are maybe two dozen who have the name recognition and traditional status to carry them to a mythical national championship.

Northwestern, despite its recent successes on the field, has found it extremely difficult to overcome the traditional perceptions that it carries.  See a recent article on the bowl games at College Football News where the "pressure might be even bigger" for Auburn (7-5) to beat the Wildcats (8-4) because "it's still Northwestern."

Speaking with fans, even some NU alums, many are still surprised to hear that Northwestern has a winning record or has beat any given Big Ten team.  I have heard, more than once, "Northwestern had that one good year in the 90's but they're no good now, right?"

Changing Perceptions

Something that will take a lot of time and effort is actually changing those perceptions.  Despite 15 years of sustained competitiveness, Northwestern still can't shake off that losing image.

There are many obstacles to changing, like the fans and media who are rooted in tradition, recruiting that is supported by those perceptions, along with the distribution of revenue and bowl berths where that perception often trumps on-the-field results.

Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald is doing all he can to help turn around that image for good, putting together one of the most successful sustained runs in program history while saying and doing the right things.  And that is while still maintaining high academic standards because Northwestern takes its role as a university seriously, which is something that some other schools find to be a joke.

The next step is to get more fans on board, something that Northwestern is definitely lacking with Ryan Field attendance declining to one of its lowest levels in decades.  With winning and a concentrated marketing effort, that will eventually come around.

Many Northwestern fans have conditioned themselves over the years to expect the worst and to fall back on academics to turn away insults from others.  While a solid education trumps athletic success, which some other schools and fans fail to realize, when the team takes the field it's time for fans to change their attitude and expect the highest level of success from Northwestern.  NU fans can put away those preconceived notions and wholeheartedly support the team.

It's time to expect victory.

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.