Northwestern's athletic policies were established for the most part by previous administrations but are interpreted, defended and agonized over by the school's president, Robert Strotz. Strotz is sometimes accused of being less than dynamic, probably in part because he has a slightly rumpled demeanor instead of the tailored. Cary Grant look they're showing in university presidents this year. On the subject of athletics, though. Strotz is forceful enough. He tirelessly inveighs against overemphasis on profit and victory in collegiate sport, and he deplores the direction Michigan and Ohio State, the conference heavies, have taken.
"People ask me what's wrong with Northwestern, but I feel they should be directing their criticism toward the schools at the top of the conference," Strotz says. "They regard sport as big business, and they're under tremendous pressure to win. We like being in the Big Ten and consider it a classy group of schools. And we like to feel we can become competitive. But we view sports as a wholesome aspect of our total university and not as a big business. We don't think the idea of college athletics is to make a profit. If we did, we wouldn't be in it."
Highminded as all this may be, the fact remains that Northwestern is not competitive and hasn't been for some time. And the burden of defeat hangs heavy in the Evanston air. Northwestern football games still have some of the traditional trappings, including pompon girls and a marching band, but pep rallies are held only at homecoming, and their organizers have to hold them outside the stadium shortly before kickoff to attract a crowd. Intercepted as they arrive, students reward cheerleaders with a few dispirited yells and dutifully sing, Go U Northwestern. But everybody, even the brave soul dressed as Willie the Wildcat, knows that Northwestern isn't going anywhere. Michael Spound, a senior who has served as master of ceremonies at homecoming pep rallies the past couple of years, plaintively asks, "Ever try getting people excited about a 1-10 record?"
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that not everybody buys Northwestern's have-it-both-ways approach. Some partisans think Northwestern should go whole hog in the Big Ten by becoming more "flexible" in its academic standards for athletes. Others feel the school should carry its Ivy League impulses to their logical conclusion and drop out of the Big Ten. There is hardly anything new about this. Demands that Northwestern quit the conference—and rumors that it might—have been heard in Evanston for at least a quarter of a century.
But most Northwesterners either approve of, or at least acquiesce in, their university's approach to sport. They see it as proof that the school is unique, special and different. They would like to win but aren't going to get pushy about it. "Northwestern people aren't fanatical about football," says Payson Wild, the university's retired provost. "They're proud of their school's academic standards and would merely like the football team to be respectable." Dean of Administration Laurence Nobles, the school's Big Ten faculty representative, says, "Most of our fans want us to shoot for the middle of the pack. That way we might get to the top as a kind of random event."
Meanwhile, in the absence of football respectability, Northwesterners are proving that it is possible to survive on a diet of steady defeat, a little-known fact that partisans of schools like Alabama and Penn State might find incredible. In spite of everything, many Northwestern students do attend games, often buoyed by the sort of brave good humor demonstrated by Brad Hall, a senior from Santa Barbara, Calif., who says he finds going to NU games beneficial to his ego. "I played high school football and wasn't very good," he says, "but when I watch Northwestern's football team. I think to myself, 'Hey, maybe I could play in the Big Ten.' "
Some Northwestern alums grumble about the football team but for the most part they are forbearing. Cornered by alumni on the sorry subject of football, Strotz is reputed to have said, "Well, somebody's got to lose." They actually let him get away with it, too. Some NU Old Grads accept defeat, others simply ignore it. In New York one day I ran into a woman who had been in Evanston at the same time I was. "I'm doing a story on football at Northwestern," I told her.
She asked cheerfully, "Oh, is Northwestern good in football now?" She was serious, too.
It is a sign either of their gentleness or of their despair that NU alums never cried for John Pont's scalp, although they might well have. Hired as football coach in 1973 (he added the athletic directorship the next year), he tried to grind it out Big Ten style, only to get ground down, hamburger style. The dignified, white-haired Pont belongs to a Great Books club, and on the afternoon I visited him in his office in the shadow of Dyche Stadium he was fretting about the fact that he had not finished reading Graham Greene's The Human Factor in time for that evening's meeting. It had apparently been a similar twinge of conscience that prompted Pont to quit as coach, because he insists he was under no pressure to do so.
"There was a sense of alumni frustration, of course," allowed Pont, "but I doubt that I received 10 complaining letters in all those years. And there were probably only two really mad ones."