For the better part of the post-World War 2 era, the tiny, private university nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan, has been known as a bastion of learning. Northwestern University has created some of the finest actors, journalists, doctors, attorneys, and businessmen in the world. Rabid sports fans, however, have never flocked to Evanston to support this University’s athletic prowess.
No, this was always a ‘thinking man’s’ place of higher learning, a progressive oasis in the otherwise ultra-capitalistic “North Shore” area of the Chicago suburbs. When you step onto the campus, you can feel the creative juices flowing. You simply have a sense that some of the most talented, and finest minds, have been molded and shaped there.
But something magical happened in 1995. The country fell in love with these brainiacs in their black-and-purple uniforms. There have been countless stories written, television specials produced, etc., so I am not going to re-hash this story again, we all know it. The 1995 Big Ten Champions had more than their 15-minutes of fame. So why I do I bring it up? Funny you should ask.
I head back to 1995, because this is the season that set the stage for the current landscape of Northwestern athletics — specifically football and men’s basketball. Gary Barnett was the head coach of that 1995 team, which followed up their impressive Rose Bowl berth with a 7-1 record in the Big Ten in 1996, and the Citrus Bowl nod — an automatic invitation for the Conference runner-up. That date with the Peyton Manning-led Tennessee Volunteers would prove to be the end of that era, but it was also the beginning of another.
The middle linebacker and emotional leader of those 1995-96 teams was none other than Pat Fitzgerald. In 2001, Fitzgerald joined the late Randy Walker’s staff. Following the unexpected death of Walker, “Fitz” — as he is affectionately referred to by, well, almost everyone — was quickly named the successor. Since taking over as Northwestern’s head football coach in 2006, Fitz has led the Wildcats to a respectable 84-65 (0.564 winning percentage), including seven Bowl berths* — winning 2 of those, a feat which had not occurred since 1948.
*Northwestern is currently Bowl eligible with a 7-3 record in 2017.
For a bit of context, the Northwestern football team had accumulated a record of 147-335-7 (0.300 winning percentage) from 1947 through 1994. Included in this time, was the infamous 34-game losing streak. That doesn’t exactly scream Big Ten football, now does it?
I certainly have some gripes, but overall, I can’t complain much. I have been going to Northwestern games since 1989 — including the aforementioned Citrus Bowl game. I grew up in the midst of some truly putrid football, but those Barnett-led years gave us some hope. Coach Fitz has turned a perennial doormat into a perennial contender, and thorn in the side of teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan. These teams have always been winners, but Northwestern has seemingly joined their ranks.
But we all knew about the football program, that has been solid for more than two decades now. No, the thing that is exciting is the basketball program.
If you thought the football program had fallen on hard times, consider that from 1950-2013, Northwestern had a 695-1,031 record (0.403 winning percentage). They had — infamously — never appeared in the NCAA Tournament. From the 1968-69 season through 2016-17, the best conference record they achieved was 8-8, in 2003-04. In 110 years of Wildcat basketball, they had exactly two 20-win seasons in school history.
Athletic Director Jim Phillips inherited one of his two cornerstone coaches in Fitz, but he needed to find someone to turn the ship around at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Incumbent coach Bill Carmody was having as much success anyone in the modern era of Northwestern sports, but patience in him — plus his poor recruiting chops and his out-dated Princeton-style system — was wearing thin. After four consecutive NIT Tournament appearances, a 13-19 season finally doomed Carmody, and the hunt was on for a replacement.
There was one name that seemed to make sense. A name who’s father was synonymous with Chicago basketball. A name that had spent the previous 13 seasons coaching with the venerable Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University — his top recruiter, which has beguiled this program for decades. A name that played under the very same coach at Duke. A name that seemed to check every box. That man’s name is Chris Collins.
In four short seasons, Collins has brought four of Northwestern’s highest ranked recruiting classes in school history, has a 73–60 (0.549 winning percentage) record — including a 24-win season in 2016-17 — which culminated in the school’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. On top of that, the Wildcats came within six points, and one highly controversial non-call, away from defeating Gonzaga, who went on to lose to North Carolina in the National Championship game.
That is an awfully long way for a program to come in such a short period of time. Surely, basketball is a bit easier of a program to turn around quickly as opposed to say, football, but the meteoric rise is impressive nonetheless.
In an era of “firsts” for Northwestern athletics, it is only fitting that for the first time ever, the men’s basketball team was ranked in the AP poll. They were the preseason No. 19 team in the nation. As a cherry on top, the football team was also ranked No. 25 last week for the first time this season. Not only did the basketball team finally break through, but the football team’s impressive overtime win over Nebraska had vaulted them to the final spot on the ranking.
If you follow Northwestern athletics, which I am assuming you do if you are reading this, then you feel it too. There is an air of excitement around these teams that is simply palpable. Fitz has his team bowl-eligible yet again. Collins has his veteran squad poised to make another run at the NCAA Tournament. Exciting times indeed.
It may all come crumbling down at some point, but right now, relish it Wildcat fans, this truly is the “Golden Age” of Northwestern athletics.