Why Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Renaissance Brings Back Glorious Childhood Memories

08.17.13 4 years ago 3 Comments

Words by J. Bressler

Nobody had a stopwatch, but I swear I ran close to 50 yards in around four seconds while wearing a pair of size 6 Air Jordans.

It was a cold fall afternoon in 1995, and the Northwestern Wildcats had just defeated the #12 Penn State Nittany Lions in Evanston, Illinois. I can’t remember exactly why this happened, but my friend and I were sitting in the end zone, unsupervised. Every kid should attend a college football game sans parental guidance. We both grew up a lot that day. But I digress.

When the clock expired, I jumped out of my seat and booked it – in record time – towards the celebratory mob scene that had already formed at midfield. Somehow we weren’t trampled by linemen or unruly frat guys.

Twenty minutes after reaching the 50-yard-line and briefly tasting college life, we left, though I obviously wouldn’t shut up about my world-class sprinting skills. A regular Saturday night during that time period ensued, which probably included Sega Genesis (don’t even mention Super Nintendo to me).

For many college football programs, a win over a ranked team is no reason for the type of mass hysteria witnessed on that afternoon. But for that Northwestern squad – which had actually already beaten #7 Michigan, #9 Notre Dame and #24 Wisconsin – each triumph was a cause for jubilation. Prior to that year, the team had not played in, I repeat, had not played in a bowl game since the 1945 Rose Bowl.

The ’95 Wildcats went on to win the Big Ten and lose a memorable showdown with Keyshawn Johnson’s USC Trojans in Pasadena. Sadly, I only attended the Penn St. game, but the season will always live on for those of us who experienced any of it first-hand.

I retell this story to illustrate how far the Northwestern football program has come. With five bowl appearances in the last six years and a top-25 ranking as the new season approaches, it’s truly astounding to have observed the turnaround. Winning is now expected, which was not exactly the case, say, 30 years ago.

From 1972-1994, Northwestern helped redefine major college football futility. They weren’t even close to qualifying for postseason play. The school (probably) had to force students and faculty to show up on Saturdays. At one point in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s they lost 34 straight games. I would have transferred.

Then the magic of ’95 happened (along with its memorable field-storming), and a repeat Big Ten title in ’96, followed by another one in 2000, and more bowl appearances than anyone thought possible. And, finally, the first postseason win in 63 years, as Northwestern beat Mississippi State in the 2013 Gator Bowl.

The fearless leader of this current team is head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who happened to be an All-American linebacker for the Wildcats in ’95 and ’96 (and had 17 tackles against Penn State that then-life-defining afternoon in 1995). He’s one of the guys I remember as a player, along with running back Darnell Autry, who briefly played in the NFL.

Still only 38, Fitzgerald is widely considered one of the best young coaches in the country. At some point he’ll likely get an offer to lead one of the nation’s elite teams. But he’s recruiting effectively at Northwestern, and the winning should continue this season following last year’s success, as two proven quarterbacks (in a platoon) return along with many other key starters.

And, who knows, with a favorable schedule that features Michigan and Ohio State at home, they might just make an appearance in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game. I’ll bring my running shoes.

RelatedThe Cats’ Meow [Sports Illustrated, Nov. 13, 1995]

Photo: Getty

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