SI Vault
Rick Telander
December 25, 1995
In an improbably sensational season, Northwestern emerged from a fog of futility to earn a trip to sunny Pasadena
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December 25, 1995

Purple Haze

In an improbably sensational season, Northwestern emerged from a fog of futility to earn a trip to sunny Pasadena

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•From that last winning season in '71 until the start of this year, the Mildcats won 46 games. For the mathematically impaired, that's an average of two wins a year for 23 years.

•From 1976 to '81, which is sometimes referred to as the Tranquil Period by Northwestern football historians, the Wildcats had a record of 3-62-1, a numerical sequence that one can study for hours and still find provocative.

•In the middle of that string, which was the handiwork of three coaches, resides the crystalline fabrication of Venturi, coach from 1978 to '80. Venturi is a former Northwestern player and was your defensive backfield coach in '70. He had rushed you during your first weeks on campus, urging you to join his fraternity, Delta Upsilon, which you agreed to do because you couldn't look into his fiery eyes and say no. You never showed up for Pledge Night, however, and he did not talk about the betrayal while he was your position coach. At any rate, the Wildcats went 1-31-1 during Venturi's three years at the helm. His reign started on a high note, a 0-0 tie with Illinois, but degenerated so far that over the course of his tenure, Northwestern was outscored 1,270 to 358. Venturi's lone win was a 27-22 comeback squeaker over Wyoming in '79. You often wished that he had been allowed to engineer two more losses, so that his final record as a Northwestern coach would have the elegant symmetry of a numerical palindrome.

Then there was the Streak itself. By losing the game after the victory over Wyoming—a 54-21 thrashing by Syracuse—and 19 games after that, Venturi was able to hand a 20-game losing baton to Green, who succeeded him in 1981. Green promptly lost 14 consecutive games. This gave Northwestern sole possession of the longest Division I-A skid in history.

You attended the 29th loss in the skein, a 61-14 throttling by Michigan State in 1981, which pushed the Wildcats beyond the 0-28 streaks of then record holders Kansas State and Virginia. At the end of that contest Northwestern students tore down the goalposts, giddily chanting, "We're the worst! We're the worst!"

As the Streak progressed, students became intrigued by their own passive participation in the historic event. In the stands before a game against Northern Illinois in 1982, which the Wildcats would win to end their slide, you spoke with a senior named David Gaines, from Stamford, Conn. "I haven't seen the team win," he said evenly. "I've been to all the home games except the Wyoming game, on the day I arrived, in 1979. I didn't go because I decided I'd rather unpack my bags than watch a football game. I regret that extremely." As Gaines spoke, the people around him threw marshmallows and generally ignored the teams as they warmed up. "I don't know what it's like to see them win," Gaines continued. "The only feeling that might compare to winning was tearing down the goalposts after the loss to Michigan State. There was tremendous excitement then." Gaines thought for a moment. "As a student, the Streak hasn't affected me," he said, "but it's been a nice conversation starter with girls."

After the momentous 31-6 win over Northern Illinois, Wildcat kicker Rick Salvino evaluated the victory in the terms of his major, philosophy: "Jean-Paul Sartre said you secrete your essence through time; you could have been this, you could have been that—but in the end, you're nothing but your actions. Our actions say we're 1 and 3."

True, the worst was over. But the good was a long way off. In fact, careful study of the Northwestern record book leaves no question that Green's 1981 team, loaded as it was with Venturi recruits, was the worst in the Wildcats' 112-year history. Not only did this team score only 82 points, the fewest by Northwestern in 24 years, but it also gave up 505, the most in Wildcat history. Robert H. Strotz, then president of the university, said of the carnage, "In a subtle way we may be proving the problems inherent in maintaining high academic standards."


Oh, the moaning over the brain cells needed just to get into the Harvard of the Midwest! The average SAT of incoming Wildcat scholarship players from 1991 to '94 was 1,037, 213 points lower than the student body's average but higher than that of every other Division I-A football squad except Stanford's. But to hear the apologias through the years for Northwestern's pathetic performance, you might think only young Einsteins and pupal Fermis could strap on Wildcat headgear.

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