by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
After 64 years and 10 bowl games, the narrative surrounding Northwestern football will finally change.
The next time the Wildcats take the field, the talk won’t be about blown fourth quarter leads, the cliché “Cardiac Cats” or 0-9. Rather, the conversation will shift to an up-and-coming program and 1-0 — the narrative NU has been trying to achieve for years.
There’s no way to describe Northwestern’s 34-20 Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State without it being a giant understatement, so here it is plain and simple: this was a monumental win for Northwestern athletics. A program-changer, a defining moment, whatever cliche adjective you’d like to use. It doesn’t matter, because the scene on the field spoke for itself.
After a choked up Pat Fitzgerald gave a rousing speech to the thousands of NU faithful in attendance, a Gator Bowl official tried to take the trophy from senior linebacker David Nwabuisi.
“We ain’t giving it back!” Nwabuisi responded. Eventually the Gator Bowl got the trophy back to ship it up to Evanston in a week, but Nwabuisi’s defiance was symbolic of the scene: nobody was taking this moment away from the Wildcats.
Moments like this one come once in a generation, or in this case, once in a few generations. Whenever a team breaks a curse or a bad streak, there is always a reflection on the struggle of the previous years. NU didn’t downplay the significance of the streak, and Fitzgerald dedicated the win to every Wildcat since 1949.
But this wasn’t about the end of an era; it was about the beginning of a new one.
For the better part of a decade now, NU has been trying to prove itself as one of the big boys, trying to prove that it wasn’t a one-hit wonder, trying to prove that this is no longer your dad’s Northwestern team. The athletic department shelled out for a marketing blitz and begged for publicity. For a long time, this program has been better than it’s gotten credit for.
But to get credit, you have to show it, not say it. Until a moment like this, Northwestern was going to be synonymous with blown opportunities, a lack of athleticism and fans who show up to games with novels to read. Now, it’s a clean slate and a new direction for the program. Now, the Wildcats will get the credit.
NU made sure to savor the moment at the end of the game, but it was immediately onto the future for Fitzgerald, athletic director Jim Phillips and the entire program. Because this isn’t the end of rough patch; it’s the beginning of something very special.
“The sky’s the limit for where our program can go,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten off to an unbelievable start with our fundraising campaign. We’re way ahead of schedule in improving our facilities, going from where they are now to the best in the country in a setting that’s unparalleled in college football. To have that kind of support is just unbelievable in where the future may go for us.”
Typically, you might write something like that off to coach speak, an exaggeration. But in this case, Fitzgerald is exactly right. There is no telling where this program might go, but this much is clear: the ceiling has been raised much higher than it was just a day ago.
Northwestern isn’t playing for a Gator Bowl title each year — it’s playing for a Legends Division championship, a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl title and even a National Championship. Sure, that last one is very unlikely, but for it to even be possible, NU had to get a bowl win. The Wildcats got it. And if you couple that with the academic prestige of the university, world-class facilities and an exciting playing style, NU has one helluva recruiting pitch, too.
“It’s no secret that our goal is to be champions,” Fitzgerald said, “and this was the first step in accomplishing that mission.”
Today, Northwestern is a bowl champion for the first time since 1949. It’s uncertain what tomorrow holds, but the one certainty is that it will only get even better than this.
“We always tell our guys act like you’ve been here before,” Fitzgerald said. “Well we’ve never been here before. But as David Nwabuisi said, ‘We’re here now.’
“And we’re here to stay.”