"It's the continuity," explains Taylor patiently. "Repetition makes you react and not think."
Big problem there. That's all anybody does at this school: think. Northwestern is small (enrollment 7,400), private and, academically, a beast. The average SAT score of incoming freshmen over the last four years was 1,250. You want champions here, you can find them inventing stuff in the Technological Institute (now being rehabbed for $120 million) or organizing stuff at the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management (perhaps the nation's finest business school) or just reading stuff in the College of Arts and Sciences, where two-time national debate champions Sean McCaffity and Jody Terry, both seniors, are expanding their noggins. They whipped Harvard in the finals the last two years to make Northwestern the winningest school (eight titles) in the history of the National Debate Tournament.
But football? Here is third-ranked Northwestern, improbably poised to play Southern California on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl, which will be the Wildcats' first bowl appearance since 1949.
Continuity? How's this for continuity: Northwestern football has stunk so continuously since its last winning team, in 1971, that when the Wildcats went 4-7 in '73 and again in '86, many alumni were euphoric. You recall Jeff Jacobs, class of '85, standing in the rain with a few other souls in that heady year of '86, watching Northwestern humble Princeton 37-0 in that Ivy League stadium in New Jersey. Jacobs was roaring with bloodlust and denouncing the Tigers as "sissies." Weber was there too, smiling cruelly. 'We understand it is painful for them, but they wanted it." Weber said of the host school, which, despite giving no football scholarships, thought it could play with the Wildcats. "Hubris is a terrible thing."
So is wretchedness, which used to have a death grip on the Wildcat program, the grip's five fingers being the lack of a winning tradition; lack of support from boosters, alumni and the administration; tough academic standards; questionable coaches; and tough academic standards. After those spurts to 4-7, for example, Northwestern quickly headed back to more comfortable ground, whining about grades and test scores all the way.
One of your favorite helmeted eggheads was a kid named Roosevelt Groves, a starting cornerback from 1979 to '82. Groves still holds the Wildcat career touchdown-save record, 15, and in your montage memory he is a skinny defensive back endlessly being dragged closer to the goal line by faceless wide receivers and tailbacks. Groves had a double major—nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering—and he once told you that his goal was to do design work for a nuclear power plant and to make good money. He noted that his academic and athletic aspirations didn't "really fit together" unless you figured that "splitting a receiver from the ball is like splitting an atom."
Then, too, there was that piquant moment you shared in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1969 with your pal and teammate Mike Adamle, who would win the Big Ten MVP award in 1970. You were playing Southern Cal on a hot night, and the scoreboard could barely register USC's rising score. After each touchdown the Southern Cal mascot, a man dressed as a Trojan warrior, would gallop around the stadium in celebration on his great white horse, Traveler II. Then...well, let Adamle himself take over the narration:
"After Southern Cal had scored its fifth or sixth touchdown and the Trojan guy and the horse were circumnavigating the interior of the Coliseum, the horse collapsed in the end zone. You, me and our trainer, Dick Hoover, were watching from the bench, and I remember saying, 'My god, we killed Traveler II.' "
Time for some numbers.
•From 1985 to '94 Northwestern placed only seven football players on the All-Big Ten first team but 55 players on the academic All-Big Ten team.