Over the next few weeks, I will looking at each team of the Big Ten and examining what aspects of each program—or the school, in general—make them special. With our first installment, let’s take a look at the lovable Purple People, the Northwestern University Wildcats.
Welcome to beautiful Evanston, Ill., an affluent suburb north of Chicago and home to Northwestern University, one of the best academic universities in the nation.
Located on a picturesque small beach on the coast of Lake Michigan, you can see the skyline of Chicago on the horizon. And if you’re lucky, you might even see some Purple People roaming these lands.
Northwestern University has produced such prominent alumni as Warren Beatty, Stephen Colbert, Michael Wilbon, Brent Musburger, Dick Gephardt, Charlton Heston, Elaine from Seinfeld, J.D. from Scrubs, Jerry Springer, and the lovely Rachel Nichols.
With world-renowned programs in journalism, business, law, and education, Northwestern is a bastion for higher education in the Midwest.
The high academic standard applies to the athletic program as well.
For instance, the football team has generally maintained an academic success rate of over 90 percent—and even had a perfect academic standing from 1999 to 2002—meaning the overwhelming majority of the players who come through the program graduate.
Among the schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Northwestern is one of the few major programs around the country that harbors an ideal representation of what the college student athlete should be—one who excels in both the classroom and on the football field without having to compromise either.
I could gush about the quality of the University all day, but what about the football program? Well, that’s a slightly different story.
Outsiders regard Northwestern as the little brother to the Big Ten’s larger powers: Ohio State and Michigan. Over the past seven years, the Wildcats have a combined 1-11 record against the two and have not beaten the Wolverines since 2000.
Even historically, Northwestern has gone through some dry spells, including their notorious 34-game losing streak in the early '80s. They have also won only one bowl game—which happened over a half-century ago, when they won the 1949 Rose Bowl.
While Northwestern may not have the most illustrious historical football program, the Wildcats have had their fair share of success over the years.
In fact, Northwestern has been ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll twice in its history—in 1936 and 1962. They have won eight Big Ten titles in their history and produced NFL greats such as Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer Otto Graham, Pro Bowl lineman Chris Hinton, and San Diego defensive tackle Luis Castillo.
In addition, Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian held the same position in Evanston from 1955 to 1963 before leaving for South Bend. The 1990s were good to Northwestern’s football team. Gary Barnett came to the program with a winning mentality. During his tenure, the program had some of the most success in the history of Wildcat football.
At their height in 1995, NU beat Notre Dame in their opening game and went undefeated in the Big Ten, as they were ranked No. 3 at the end of the season and received a berth to play Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
Although Barnett left for Boulder in 1998, the program continued to flourish in the beginning of former Miami of Ohio head coach Randy Walker’s tenure. Walker introduced a spread offense where veteran quarterback Zack Kustok and running back Damien Anderson thrived.
After playing in the Alamo Bowl in 2000, Northwestern returned to the bottom of the Big Ten for a few years. After a few losing seasons under Coach Walker, the program was invigorated in 2004 by beating Ohio State for the first time in over 30 years. The following year, Walker led the team to the Sun Bowl.
With the momentum back in his corner, 2006 promised to be an important year for the state of Northwestern Football. Unfortunately, tragedy struck as Coach Walker unexpectedly died of a heart attack, sending the program spiraling back to mediocrity.
Former Northwestern great and current head coach Pat Fitzgerald has brought even more life to the program since Walker's passing. Just down the road from the beach at Ryan Field, fans are excited about the prospects for Wildcat Football in 2008.
Former freshman All-American Tyrell Sutton is ready for one last go-round in the purple and white. Experienced quarterback C.J. Bacher should have a breakout season. And several defensive players, including junior cornerback Sherrick McManis, look to hold the fort on the other side of the ball.
While Northwestern may not have the size to compete with a team like Ohio State this year, the Wildcats may surprise some teams. When the Illinois Fighting Illini travel to Evanston for their annual Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy, Zook, Juice, and Co. better bring their A-game, because the ‘Cats are thirsty for an upset.
Although Northwestern is a small school, the fans are still passionate about their football team, win or lose. They will never have the intense/crazy factor as shown by fans in Columbus, Madison, or Happy Valley, but they are loyal to their guys and show excellent fortitude.
The spirit of Randy Walker lives on at Northwestern. Willie the Wildcat and the Purple People will live to fight another day.