The ritual began with my brother before me, becoming one of the few traditions my family had.
Every Sunday after each of us went to college, we would call home to assure our parents that we were staying warm, we hadn't missed any classes, and we hadn't gone to school 1,000 miles away simply because we wanted to get as far away from them as possible. We would be truthful on at least one count most of the time.
Inevitably, as the conversation wound down, Mom or Dad would ask, "So how much did Northwestern lose by this time?"
Not, "Did Northwestern lose?" They knew that would have been a waste of breath.
Years after graduating, the ritual varied only slightly. Wherever I lived, I'd buy the Sunday paper and leaf through the back of the sports section to see how badly the Wildcats had done that week. When the alumni association solicited donations, I'd send a check and earmark it for the journalism school, not for the athletic fund, because it seemed no amount of money in the world would help the Wildcats' athletic teams.
That's why, as Northwestern racked up victory after victory this season, I remained skeptical. Beating Notre Dame had to be a fluke, a bad day for the Irish. Bill Dwyre, The Times' sports editor, agreed. The following week, when the Wildcats fumbled a snap and lost to Miami of Ohio, that only proved his point. Back to form for Northwestern. Back to mediocrity.
Even though Northwestern kept winning and setting school records, I still expected them to self-destruct. I laughed when people began suggesting the Wildcats might go to the Rose Bowl. Be serious. Dwyre considered it so remote a possibility that he vowed to run through the newsroom, naked and screaming, if Northwestern became the Big Ten's Rose Bowl representative. No one bothered to prepare for that spectacle. Neither did he.
Better start working out, Bill.
Reality didn't sink in until late Saturday afternoon. I had just watched Michigan upset Ohio State, 31-23, which dropped the Buckeyes to second in the Big Ten and gave the conference title to Northwestern. Walking toward the Ohio State locker room, I saw a Rose Bowl representative hiding a bouquet of roses behind his back. The Buckeyes wouldn't be getting those roses. Northwestern was going to the Rose Bowl. We were going to the Rose Bowl. It was staggering.
Despite a fine school of speech, a highly regarded journalism school, a superb engineering program and medical and law schools that rank among the best in the nation, Northwestern has long been known for its hapless football teams. Fans around the country laughed through the Wildcats' 34-game losing streak, joking they'd probably lose to Evanston Township High or the Little Sisters of the Poor if they were fortunate enough to get that matchup.
For most students, Saturdays are party nights. At Northwestern, Saturdays during football season were depressing. The walk from the dorms to Dyche Stadium was a pleasant trek past stately, old homes along Sherman Avenue, but as we approached the stadium, we'd remember that our team was about to become lunch for Ohio State, Michigan or Notre Dame and our school become the butt of jokes, and our spirits would sag.
We also knew we couldn't forget the day's indignities by indulging in a few beers that night. When I arrived in Evanston, the Northwestern campus was dry and the national headquarters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union was next door to one of the biggest dorms. Righteous matrons regularly crashed parties and emptied tubs of spiked punch on the front lawn. Beer and wine weren't allowed on campus until the late 1970s, but we eventually discovered they couldn't take the sting out of the Wildcats' constant losses.
There were occasional moments of bliss. We watched in disbelief one autumn as Northwestern took a 3-0 lead over Michigan, then watched the Wolverines score the next 72 points. I saw Northwestern win a few games only because they'd usually squeeze Northern Illinois into the schedule. A colleague at The Times calculated that the Wildcats were 3-40-1 during his undergraduate years.
While we were students and even later, we rationalized all the losses.
We were better academically than the farmers at Ohio State, Indiana and Illinois. We were smaller than those football factories at Michigan and Michigan State. Our undergraduate enrollment was only about 6,500, compared with their 35,000 or 40,000. Naturally, we couldn't compete with them, and hey, we didn't want to if it meant lowering our standards. Besides, we led the conference every year in academic All-Americans.