Editor’s note: Michael Wilbon is the co-host of “Pardon the Interruption” on ESPN. He grew up in Chicago and graduated from Northwestern in 1980, where he was a columnist for the student newspaper. He occasionally mentions Northwestern on his show, and will be an honorary captain for the Northwestern-Nebraska game.
FIVE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT …
(As told by Northwestern alum Michael Wilbon)
1. Northwestern football has improved its reputation, with winning seasons in three of the past four seasons, and is looking good again this year with a 6-1 record.
“I think people in the region don’t look at us the same way they did 20 years ago. Nationally, people don’t really know about Northwestern. They don’t know we’ve been to four straight bowl games, they don’t know we beat Nebraska (28-25) in Lincoln last year. Nationally, we don’t have much of a reputation, other than the team that hasn’t been to the (NCAA basketball) tournament yet. Football has been to a Rose Bowl, been ranked in the top 25 (earlier this season for the first time since 2008).”
2. Pat Fitzgerald was an All-America linebacker at Northwestern in the 1990s. He’s in his seventh year as head coach with a 46-37 record.
“I love (Fitzgerald). He’s perfect for what we do. Being an alum and being an All-American, he understands the mission of the place and the difficulty and the set of challenges that are ours, and may not exist in other schools. And he’s not daunted by it. He’s not grading on the curve. He expects to win these games. He’s probably as good an ambassador as we’ve had in my lifetime. … Academics are (challenges). It sounds sometimes politically incorrect to talk about, but we don’t have the same admission standards as everybody else in the conference. That’s a fact. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge those things. Stanford and Notre Dame football, Duke basketball and Northwestern women’s lacrosse are the models of what a private, academic institution can be athletically. On a scale of 1-10 where I am with Fitzgerald, it would be a 10. We’re talking about a school that hadn’t been to a bowl game from 1948 to 1995. People don’t realize that. Rose Bowl in 1948 and then no other bowl game for 50 years. Now it’s four bowl games in a row. For him to do that is extraordinary.”
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3. The football program now is very different from the one many Northwestern alums knew during college. Now, we know we have a chance to win many of our games.
“We’re 6-1. We won half of this season total my four years in school. I think our record was 3-40-1. The one was a scoreless tie against Illinois, which was probably the worst game ever played. That was just a different time. Fitz has acknowledged that, and he has to deal with alums who only had that. He’s dealing with alums like me who come and watch practice and say how great the program is and here’s what we used to be. He smiles through that and has to grin and bear it. But it has nothing to do with his time at Northwestern, because when he was there, he went to the Rose Bowl.”
4. While the football program has improved, we’re still not like some other Big Ten schools.
“The fan base is being built. This is a work in progress. All this is improving, but I expect Cornhuskers to occupy 50 percent of the seats this week. It’s not a sports school; it’s not ever going to be a sports school. What I’d like to be -- as an alum and trustee -- I’d like to be Stanford. I think that’s the goal. We’re not going to be a football factory and we’re not going to make 10 (NCAA) Tournaments in a row. That’s not what the school should be doing. You should be winning as much as you can. Obviously, the coaching staff would like to be exactly what I just said. The mission of Northwestern is not the same as Michigan and Nebraska and Wisconsin and Michigan State. It just isn’t. It’s a small, private school that wants to be good in sports. We’ve won seven national championships in eight years in women’s lacrosse. There are places where the school can succeed on a big level in sports.”
5. The one thing you have to experience if you’re coming to Evanston, Ill. for the Nebraska-Northwestern game is … nearby Chicago.
“There is a lot more to see in Chicago. The one arrogant thing I’ll say is there a lot more to see in Chicago than there is in Nebraska. If that’s the matchup, we’ll win that matchup. People can come for the weekend and can see the lakefront and do things in Chicago -- go to great restaurants and great museums. It’s too bad they can’t go see (Bulls guard) Derrick Rose in a preseason game. The Bears are playing the Lions that weekend. They can go see Ndamukong Suh get beat on Monday night. (Northwestern) is not going to have 70,000 people tailgating. The fact (Nebraska fans) can come is because there are tickets available. But six hours of tailgating, that’s not what we do. What it might be is a real game. If Nebraska came to the Big Ten about 20 years ago, we couldn’t have given the Cornhuskers a game, much less be coming off a win in Lincoln. It’s not a football school. It’s not a Big 12 school. It’s a school where kids are very likely to leave the library Saturday and walk to the stadium. It’s getting better. But it’s not like coming to Lincoln.”
-- Brent C. Wagner