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When John Pont resigned at the end of last season as football coach at Northwestern University, the reaction on the pretty, elm-shaded campus in Evanston, Ill. was muted. Northwestern had suffered through six straight losing seasons, five of them under Pont, who was also the Wildcats' athletic director. After the team hit bottom with identical 1-10 records the past two seasons, athletic director Pont decided it was time to fire coach Pont. More or less typical was the response of a student who was hunched over a book in the library when a reporter for The Daily Northwestern asked whether a new football coach might help.
The student grew thoughtful. "That's no job for a human being," he finally replied.
So far Northwestern's new coach, Rick Venturi, has fared no better than Pont. The 32-year-old Venturi was a Wildcat defensive back in the late 1960s and stuck around for a while as an assistant coach before serving on the football staffs at Purdue and Illinois. He was named head coach at his alma mater a couple of weeks after Pont's resignation. Intimating that he bled Wildcat purple the way Tom Lasorda bleeds Dodger blue, the upbeat Venturi introduced a multiple offense and a flashy passing attack, explaining, "We feel we can create problems for the other team." And as Venturi's first season neared, bumper stickers promising EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED! flowered in Evanston.
Unfortunately something then happened that Venturi simply couldn't avoid—the 1978 season began. In his coaching debut the Wildcats struggled to a 0-0 tie with lowly Illinois, but after that things went downhill. Northwestern suffered Big Ten losses to Iowa (20-3) and Wisconsin (28-7) and then took non-conference shellackings from Colorado (55-7) and Arizona State (56-14). Back in the Big Ten, the Wildcats lost to Indiana (38-10) before last Saturday's 38-14 defeat by Minnesota, giving it an 0-6-1 record. Northwestern's new multiple offense may have created problems, but opponents seemed to be solving them without noticeable difficulty.
Like Venturi, I am a Northwestern Old Grad and while I can't say I bleed Wildcat purple, I share his affection for the school. A private coeducational university of high academic and social standing, our alma mater has a strong faculty, a robust $260-million endowment and an agreeable setting in Evanston, an affluent Chicago suburb of 77,000. Flanked on one side by busy Sheridan Road, the campus overlooks the restful beaches and gentle surf of Lake Michigan on the other. To the south stretches Chicago, whose shimmering skyline looms down the lakefront. To the north lie leafy bedroom communities such as Kenilworth and Wilmette. Squirrels scamper across Northwestern's lawns and purple crocuses bloom on campus in the spring. All considered, a singularly favored place.
But Northwestern's aura of well-being does not extend to the gridiron, and with Venturi still seeking his first victory, the feeling grows that, indeed, his job really isn't suitable for homo sapiens. Even though it was a founding member of the Big Ten, Northwestern has always had trouble holding its own in the conference. It won its last Big Ten football title—and its only undisputed one—in 1936. The Big Ten used to be the strongest football conference in the country but, with the possible exceptions of Michigan and Ohio State, its football fortunes have declined in recent years, and Northwestern's have sunk lowest of all. Having won only two of its last 35 games—losing many by five touchdowns or more—Northwestern is lucky these days if it entices 20,000 fans into 48,500-seat Dyche Stadium. That would be a gratifying turnout for a Mid-American Conference scrap between Toledo and Ball State. But the Big Ten?
Nor has Northwestern done much better in other sports. It has been 47 years since the school won its only outright Big Ten basketball championship and it has never won a conference title in track and field, wrestling or gymnastics. Northwestern's last Big Ten championship in anything came in cross-country in 1965. It fields teams in 10 men's sports, and last year half of them finished in the Big Ten cellar. These included the golfers, whose coach, Mickey Louis, had big ideas about upsetting Michigan State for ninth place. But a couple of his players faltered, and on the second day of the three-day tournament Louis conceded, "We had two chances, slim and none, and slim just went home."
When Northwestern's baseball team won its first five conference games, a banner headline in the athletic department newsletter trumpeted WILDCATS LEAD BIG TEN IN BASEBALL. Northwestern then lost 10 of its next 11 conference games and finished eighth. NU's wrestlers placed sixth in the conference, and unless you try to make something out of a fifth-place finish in fencing—which is difficult to do, because only five teams competed—those were the strongest performances of any Wildcat men's team.
As Northwestern struggles along, all sorts of explanations are offered for its poor showings. It is noted that North-western is the only private school in the Big Ten and that it is the smallest, with 6,500 undergraduates compared to 14,100 at next-smallest Iowa on up to 35,000-plus at Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota. And that its tuition is $5,025, more than double the tab at any other Big Ten school. And that its alumni are relatively few and widely scattered. Yet none of this necessarily explains anything. After all, Notre Dame and USC are also private schools with small enrollments.
What does help account for Northwestern's disheartening performances is its determination to have it both ways in college sport. In one breath its boosters relish the "prestige"—a curious word, given its sorry won-lost records—that comes with involvement in big-time Big Ten athletics, and in the next, Northwestern people espouse what is close to an Ivy League philosophy. Although it awards athletic scholarships, which Ivy schools eschew. Northwestern imposes on its athletes the Big Ten's toughest admission requirements and course loads. Its officials express genuine disapproval of such practices as altering transcripts and withdrawing scholarships from those whose jump shots might have gone awry. They also take pains to make sure their athletes graduate—and during the past five years, 93% of them have.