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Original Issue


On Sunday mornings this fall I've been waking up, getting a cup
of coffee, flipping on Headline News and pretending I'm
interested in watching Toria Tolley detail the latest failed
cease-fire in Bosnia, the new hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico
and President Clinton's ongoing budget battle with Congress. But
what I've really been doing is trying not to watch the college
football scores as they flick across the bottom of the TV
screen. I've struggled to avert my eyes as the SportsTicker
starts with the results from the games played in the East, and
then runs through the games in the Midwest. By then I'm
desperately hoping that the phone will ring or a dog will
bark--anything to distract me when the Big Ten scores finally
appear. That's because I am a Northwestern fan, and I'm
terrified of pressing my luck.

This season, in which the infamous Mildcats have beaten Notre
Dame and Michigan and risen to No. 8 in the national polls with
a 6-1 record, has been almost incomprehensible to those of us
who were at Northwestern when the Wildcats tied Illinois 0-0 in
1978 for the only blemish on that year's 0-10-1 record.
(Question: Who were the opposing coaches in that game? Answer:
The legendary Rick Venturi for Northwestern and Gary Moeller for
Illinois.) It is as if the Nobel committee had called to say I
had won the prize for literature based on my work a decade ago
as the sports editor of the Houma (La.) Daily Courier, where I
wrote about high school football and fishing rodeos.

But if Northwestern's season has been hard to believe, it has
not been hard to enjoy. In fact, the Wildcats' 35-0 victory over
Wisconsin last Saturday was a terrific example of just how much
fun winning really is. For the first time in my adult life I'm
not cowering during the college football season, enduring the
slings and arrows of outrageous fans from every trash-talking,
rules-bending school that goes 6-5 and winds up in some
postseason game like the Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl in
Shreveport, La. This season I can look down my nose at teams
from Alabama, Auburn, Miami, Oklahoma and Texas A&M--knowing that
Northwestern's players are not only smarter but better. (Q: Who
was Northwestern's only All-America between 1983 and '95? A:
Legendary punter John Kidd, who clearly got a lot of practice.)

When I attended Northwestern in the late 1970s, the only thing
the Wildcats led the Big Ten in was number of students studying
in the library on Saturday night. Our cheer, as we watched an
autumn afternoon end in another 45-7 thrashing, was "S-A-T,
S-A-T, S-A-T!"--a reminder that there were more important things
in life than college football. (Q: Who dismissed legendary
Wildcat football coach John Pont after he coaxed the '77 team to
a 1-10 record? A: Legendary Wildcat athletic director John Pont.)

This season, it's difficult to keep those more important things
in perspective. Why care about test scores when Northwestern is
headed for its first bowl game since Bob Voigts led a bunch of
27-year-old ex-GIs to the 1949 Rose Bowl? Why care that
Northwestern alumni include two Nobel Laureates, a former UN
ambassador and a Supreme Court justice when opposing defenses
must stack eight men on the line to try to stop sophomore
running back Darnell Autry? Why care that Northwestern's
business and journalism schools are among the best in the U.S.
when Ohio State--hated, feared and despised Ohio State--won't go
to the Rose Bowl if it loses one of its remaining conference
games and the Wildcats win the rest of theirs? (Q: Name the
legendary quarterback who led Northwestern to a 7-4 record and a
victory over Ohio State in 1971--the last time the Wildcats beat
the Buckeyes and, until this year, the last time they had a
winning season. A: The legendary Maurie Daigneau, who then found
fame and fortune in one season with the Chicago Fire of the
World Football League.)

What's even worse than losing my perspective are my fantasies. I
find myself wondering what it would be like if Northwestern--god
forbid--ran up the score against some hapless opponent like
Illinois or Purdue. (Hey, I get excited just typing "hapless
opponent" in reference to a team other than Northwestern.) The
ultimate fantasy, of course, would occur on Jan. 1, 1996, in
Pasadena. I envision a college football universe in some sort of
post-Einsteinian turmoil after Florida, Florida State, Kansas,
Nebraska and Ohio State have all lost a game, and the Wildcats
go to the Rose Bowl with a chance to finish No. 1 in the
country. Then I see Northwestern knocking off Southern Cal and
the pollsters being forced to acknowledge that football players
who know who Kierkegaard is can also be national champions.

On the other hand, I am a Northwestern graduate, and the winter
wind that blows across campus from Lake Michigan tends to make
realists of us alumni. And if the wind doesn't do it, history
always does. I'd love to be in Pasadena--or even in Shreveport on
Dec. 29--but for now I'll wait for the scores on Headline News.

Jeff Siegel is a freelance writer who lives in Dallas.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of football players attempting to tackle Northwestern University player who is using books as shoulder pads]