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In a curious way, Northwestern's rich theatrical tradition seems of a piece with the school's show-must-go-on attitude toward big-time college athletics. It is as though Dyche Stadium were standing there, like some enormous stage set, merely to lend authenticity to what college life is supposed to be all about. There may be no better explanation for the more or less contented way Northwestern has limped along athletically since it joined the University of Chicago and five state institutions in 1896 to found what later became the Big Ten. NU teams sometimes did well in earlier years, especially in the country-club sports. Around World War I, the Fighting Methodists, as the school's teams were then known, dominated Big Ten swimming, and in the 1940s Northwestern was a ranking power in tennis. NU even won a national team title in 1941, the first NCAA fencing championship. That victory was tarnished, however, by the fact that NYU, Columbia and other Eastern powers then dominating the sport had skipped the meet.
There are a few moments to cherish in football, too. Northwestern's teams shared four Big Ten titles in earlier years and would have done better save for repeated late-season pratfalls; NU often had solid frontline performers but just as often lacked the depth so essential as the season wears on. In four years—1916, 1930, 1931 and 1936—Northwestern went into the final game undefeated, only to lose. As a result, the school has never had a perfect season. But even in lean times, NU teams were, often as not, entertaining. The Wildcats snapped losing streaks with timely upsets and tended to be daring on offense. In the 1940s Northwestern even had its own alltime gridiron great, Otto Graham, whose passing and running kept NU fans happy though their team lost more games than it won during his three seasons. There was also Northwestern's 20-14 win over California in the 1949 Rose Bowl. Few cared that the Wildcats, the Big Ten runner-up, had made the trip to Pasadena only because a conference rule prevented Big Ten champion Michigan from going to Pasadena for a second year in a row.
These relatively modest achievements were enough for Northwesterners. Or they were until the mid-'50s, when the Wildcats won only one Big Ten game in three years and were not even remotely entertaining. The 1955 team went 0-8-1 and was outscored 241-66. A new, big-bucks era was dawning in college sport, and it was the football mills, not the schools with Northwestern's exacting academic standards, that were attracting athletes. While some Wildcat fans urged that those standards be eased, The Daily Northwestern was demanding that the school quit the Big Ten as Chicago had done in 1946 ( Michigan State took Chicago's place in 1949 to bring the Big Ten back to strength). Northwestern President J. Roscoe Miller rejected both courses of action, elevating the have-it-both-ways philosophy to official doctrine. But he also presided over a very unNorthwesternly athletic purge. In 11 months the athletic director and two head football coaches were sacked (or resigned) as well as an assistant football coach who would later do some hiring and firing of his own: George Steinbrenner.
The next football coach was Ara Parseghian, who took over the Wildcats in the fall of 1956 just as I was arriving as a freshman. Bad as the team was that the 32-year-old Parseghian inherited, the spectacle of college football at Northwestern remained intact, especially during homecoming, when there was a variety show, a big parade through Evanston and extravagant house decorations. I remember a huge papier-m�ch� cash register with a sign reading, with bravado, NORTHWESTERN RINGS UP THE BUCKEYES. There were also Friday-night pep rallies that students attended voluntarily and at which the dark-visaged Parseghian, a spellbinder of revival-tent dimensions, would whip everybody into something actually resembling a frenzy. "We're going to pull some surprises!" Ara would cry, eyes flashing. "Get behind us!"
Parseghian also applied his persuasive powers to recruiting. A believer in the importance of instilling confidence in his players, he was not about to let on that high entrance requirements might be anything but good for a football team. So he turned them into a virtue. "If you get a degree from Northwestern, it means something," he assured coveted prospects. And, "At Northwestern, you'll get to play a lot." And again, "You'll be in a small-school atmosphere, but you'll also be in the Big Ten." The young men who bought this pitch found no athletic dorms at Northwestern, and they actually were expected to study. Nonetheless, certain accommodations were made. Jocks were provided with tutors by the athletic department and loaded up on the intellectual offerings of Dr. William McGovern, a delightful political science professor who refused on principle to give grades lower than C in courses fondly known as McGoos.
Northwestern soared to a .500 record in Parseghian's first season, but in 1957 the injury-riddled Wildcats went winless. Still, Ara was gathering around him a few good football players. Among them was a fleet halfback named Ron Burton, who serenely read the Bible in bed while others in his dormitory staged pillow fights and played bongo drums outside his door. And Irv Cross, slender, gentlemanly and good at catching passes. And Fred Williamson, startlingly handsome but with a contrary nature; in the basement of McCulloch Hall I once saw Williamson slap somebody's face for being slow to obey his order to change a TV channel.
In 1958, my junior year, Parseghian's men began pulling some of the surprises he had promised. A suddenly explosive Wildcat team featuring Burton and Quarterback Dick Thornton won five of its first six games, drawing ever-bigger crowds into Dyche. When the news was flashed to other stadiums around the country that Northwestern was leading Michigan 43-0 at halftime, gasps of disbelief filled the autumn air all over the U.S. Believe it: Northwestern coasted to victory on that giddy day in Evanston, 55-24 (SI, Oct. 27, 1958). And later, before a homecoming throng of 51,102—at the time the second-biggest crowd ever at Dyche—Northwestern did ring up Ohio State's Buckeyes, the Wildcats scoring a stunning 21-0 victory that snapped the Ohioans' Big Ten-record 15-game win streak. Caught up in the euphoria of one of the biggest upsets in conference history, members of the "Block N" section flipped their flip cards onto banks of spectators sitting in front of them. The flying cards injured some fans, and the Block N section was disbanded the following week.
A lack of reserve strength, that old Northwestern curse, took its toll and the Wildcats lost their last three games, although not before Burton ran his scoring total to 76 points, still the school record. In my senior year, Burton was All-America and the campus was thinking Rose Bowl as Parseghian's team won six straight, climbing briefly to No. 2 in the national polls. The victims included Oklahoma, a dozen of whose players suffered food poisoning on arrival in Evanston. The mystery of the food poisoning was never solved, and Northwestern beat Oklahoma 45-13 (SI, Oct. 5, 1959). But the Wildcats again lost their last three games (just as, a few years later, Parseghian's 1962 team, led by the exceptional passing combination of Tom Myers-to-Paul Flatley, would self-destruct after a 6-0 start and a No. 1 national ranking). Nonetheless, they drew 492,667 fans home and away in 1959, still a school record.
Parseghian departed for Notre Dame and far greater glory in 1964, but his achievements there were really no more impressive than what he had wrought in Evanston. Although he had no better than a 36-35-1 record to show for his eight seasons, he had lifted Northwestern out of the football doldrums. While Karen Black, Ann-Margret, Paula Prentiss and Dick Benjamin, all of whom were undergraduates during the Parseghian years, were pretending to be celery stalks, the boys at Dyche were giving a convincing portrayal of a football team. It seems somehow appropriate that Parseghian today is an ABC-TV color commentator; that Cross is deskman (with fellow NU alum Brent Musburger) on CBS' pro football scoreboard show; and that Fred Williamson, notorious in his pro football days with the Kansas City Chiefs as the Hammer, has gone Hollywood.
In 1971, under Parseghian's successor, Alex Agase, Northwestern edged Ohio State for the Big Ten runner-up spot behind Michigan, thereby becoming the improbable answer to the trivia question: Which is the only Big Ten school to break the 1-2 stranglehold that Michigan and Ohio State have had on the conference during the past 10 years? But 1971 was also Northwestern's last winning season. Since then, the Wildcats have gone on the skids in football and other sports as well, one result being that the athletic department has been running roughly $1 million a year in the red. At a time when at least some universities managed to make money on athletics, NU had to meet its deficits by using funds from the general budget that might have been put to academic purposes. For all its talk about de-emphasizing football and other sports, Northwestern finds itself subsidizing them in a big way.