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Walk on the Wild Side: The Magic of the 1993-94 NU Basketball Team

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At first glance, the 1993-94 NU men’s basketball team may not seem very impressive. They certainly won’t be featured on any Big Ten Network documentaries. The team finished last in the Big Ten with a 5-13 record, and squeaked out a winning overall record largely due to a favorable preseason schedule. However, those who experienced that season remember what a magical ride it was. There were more twists and turns than any Hollywood scriptwriter could imagine.

It began with nine straight wins, followed by nine straight losses; it featured a bizarre coaching meltdown that captured the attention of the nation; an epic final day win to earn a postseason bid; and ended with a heartbreaking overtime loss. Perhaps more than any other team in Northwestern sports history, this group demonstrated the value of perseverance, grit, and will. Looking back, they were the harbinger of better days ahead for Wildcat athletics.

THE BACKGROUND

The fall of 1993 was a seemingly bleak time for NU sports. The 1993 football team was winless in Big Ten play under second year coach Gary Barnett. The football program had not had a winning record since 1971, which seemed an eternity to Wildcat fans. The men’s basketball situation was also grim — the program had only one winning season since 1969. Ironically, that one winning season was the 1982-83 campaign, during which Welsh-Ryan Arena was being renovated. That season’s home games were played at DePaul’s Alumni Hall in Chicago.  This meant that NU had gone 22 years without a winning season of either revenue sport on campus.

The cumulative years of failure left many wondering if NU could ever be competitive in Big Ten athletics. Although never true, the arrival of Penn State to the league in 1992 caused significant rumors and speculation that NU would leave the league and drop to a lower level of competition.  Wildcat fans were anxious to see any sign that NU could compete, and were ready to embrace a winner.

BILL FOSTER

Ricky Byrdsong was the coach of the 1994 Wildcats, but previous coach Bill Foster was the architect of the team.  Wildcat basketball fans were excited in 1986 when NU pulled off a major coup — they hired Bill Foster, a coach with a strong track record of turning programs around. He had won 20 games at four different schools (a significant feat back then, when schedules were shorter).  More importantly, Foster was the man who restored the Duke program to prominence during the 1970s.  He was named National Coach of the Year for taking the Blue Devils to the 1978 National Championship game. That squad was immortalized in John Feinstein’s book “Forever’s Team." Foster’s ability to win at an academically challenging private school made him a seemingly ideal fit for NU. (Side note: When Foster left Duke in 1980, he was replaced by a young coach with a funny name).

Foster’s hiring, coupled with the recent renovations of Welsh-Ryan, had fans optimistic about NU hoops in mid/late 1980s. The team struggled during Foster’s first couple seasons, but things were looking up when Foster brought in some quality recruits, most notably a talented California guard named Rex Walters. However, the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” was actually an oncoming freight train. Walters, along with teammates Kevin Nixon and David Holmes, transferred out of NU after the 1990 season. Evan Pedersen, considered another building block, left on a Mormon mission in 1990 and never returned to the team. The program was devastated. Fans had abandoned hope, and the NU basketball seemed forever doomed to irrelevancy.

A handful of experienced players returned for the 1990-91 season, joined by a new group of freshmen. Todd Leslie, who as a freshman played behind Walters the previous season, was joined by freshmen Patrick Baldwin, Kip Kirkpatrick, Kevin Rankin, and Eric Simpson.  Expectations were low, and with good reason — the Big Ten was at the height of its basketball power, featuring legendary coaches like Bobby Knight and a defending national championship team at Michigan. Northwestern lost every single Big Ten game that season, something never before accomplished in Wildcats’ dreary basketball history.  The team’s five nonconference wins included a home double-overtime win over Dartmouth, a team that went 4-10 in Ivy League play that season. Although less talented and heralded than the “Walters Gang” that left in 1990, the new group of Wildcats showed more heart.

For the 1991-92 season, the core group of young Cats was joined by Cedric Neloms, a freshman forward from Colbert County High School in Alabama. This group continued to take lumps, with a Big Ten losing streak that reached 29 games in January 1992.  However, a breakthrough happened on February 1 of that year, when Neloms sank the winning shot to beat Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The season ended with only two conference wins. The 1992-93 season was another tough one.  Todd Leslie missed the year with a medical redshirt, and the team finished 8-19 with three Big Ten wins. The bright spot was a road win at Purdue, Northwestern’s first road Big Ten win in seven seasons. The losing continued in Evanston, but unlike the team from 1990, this group stayed together through the adversity.

The losses continued to pile up, and changes were coming off the court. Northwestern athletic director Bruce Corrie abruptly resigned in April 1993. Bill Foster, then 63 years old and with health problems, took the position of interim AD for the following year.  The Foster Era, which opened with massive hope and expectation seven years earlier, ended with no postseason bids and six last place finishes in seven years.

RICKY BYRDSONG  

Foster’s move upstairs meant that NU would need a new hoops coach to lead a senior-laden team into the 1993-94 season.  In May 1993, NU decided upon Ricky Byrdsong, who had spent the previous five seasons as head coach at Detroit Mercy. Despite a losing record during his tenure there (53-87), the decision makers at NU (Foster did not have complete authority on the hire) liked the upward trajectory of Detroit’s program. Plus, he had a reputation as a “players’ coach," and a strong sense of humor.

Byrdsong would take over the most promising NU roster in many years. Todd Leslie would return from his medical redshirt, joining seniors Rankin, Kirkpatrick, Baldwin, and Simpson. Cedric Neloms, now a junior, was among the better players in the league.  And as one last parting gift, Foster recruited an incoming freshman center from Ohio named Evan Eschmeyer. Eschmeyer was large and talented, and had the potential to start from Day One.  This team had a good chance to not only escape the Big Ten basement, but quite possibly make it to the postseason.  The NCAA tournament was a major goal, but most fans would be very happy with an NIT bid.

The team took a summer trip to Europe to help build cohesion with the new coach.  All systems were in place for a strong season.  However, Eschmeyer was injured before the season started, and missed the entire campaign. Hopes that Eschmeyer and Rankin would serve as “Twin Towers” were dashed. Kevin Rankin would play at the five position, with Cedric Neloms at the four.

THE WINNING STREAK

The 1993-94 non-conference schedule, which emphasized quantity of wins over quality, was designed largely to build to an NIT bid. Back in those days, the NIT operated independently of the NCAA tournament, and preferred to invite “power league” teams with .500 records over smaller conference teams with larger win totals.  Much like bowl games of today, the NIT promoters wanted large conference teams in order to boost attendance and TV ratings.  This system changed in 2005 when the NCAA took over the NIT.  Nowadays, the NIT uses RPI rankings similar to the major tournament.

The season opened with a 94-43 beatdown of Division III University of Chicago, followed by three more wins over lower-caliber instate opponents (Western Illinois, Illinois State, and Loyola).  The Cats' first out-of-state road trip was a win over traditional football power Youngstown State.  The Cats finished the non-conference slate at 9-0, including its first preseason tournament championship in 25 years (at the Hatter Classic in Florida).  The highlight of the preseason was a road win at Texas A&M, at the time a member of the Southwest Conference.

Kip Kirkpatrick reflects on the 67-48 win: “Tony Barone was the coach [at A&M] and everyone said we really hadn't played on the road yet so we were going to get our wake-up call. We destroyed them.”

WHAT GOES UP…

NU entered the 1994 calendar year with an undefeated record and some buzz.  The Wildcats had a week off to prepare for the Big Ten opener at home against Purdue. The Boilermakers, ranked No. 10 in the nation, featured future No. 1 overall NBA draft choice Glenn Robinson. The Boilers pulled out a hard fought 68-67 win on a Robinson shot over three Wildcats with only 8 seconds left. Kirkpatrick called the bitter defeat, “the most frustrating memory of that season was the loss to Purdue as I believe it really knocked the confidence out of our team. While we didn’t play our best we hung around to be up one and then Glenn hit a shot from the baseline -- I swear it went in over the backboard with a few seconds left.”

The Purdue game started a string of Big Ten losses. The streak included road beatdowns at Illinois and Michigan State, and a devastating home loss to Penn State. “We were all disappointed and frustrated,” remembers Kirkpatrick.

THE WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

The Penn State loss was the seventh straight for NU, which now took to the road to face No. 22 ranked Minnesota. Nobody realized at the time, but the trip would make national news and become a permanent part of Northwestern sports lore. The Wildcats lost their eighth straight game, this time by a 79-65 margin. But the night would be forever remembered for Coach Byrdsong’s bizarre behavior during the game.

The weirdness began pre-game, when Byrdsong turned the team over to Paul Swanson, his top assistant.  Byrdsong stayed out of huddles during timeouts, and watched the game from a stool at the end of the bench. He stayed courtside during halftime, refusing to enter the locker room.  Early in the second half, things really got strange.  Byrdsong went onto the court to argue a foul call. After being charged with a technical foul, he began wandering around Williams Arena.  As the teams battled on the court, Byrdsong roamed about the Minnesota crowd.  He shook hands, waved, laughed and began having conversations with Gopher fans. He stopped by the Minnesota band and high-fived Goldy Gopher before sitting in an aisle. Security moved him back to his stool, where he watched the rest of the game.

Ironically, the players on the court were not distracted by the incident.

“I didn't notice that Coach Byrdsong was in the stands. I was playing at the time,” said Todd Leslie, now a real estate lawyer in St. Charles. “The players on the bench knew. And in my opinion, that was Coach's point in doing it.”  Leslie considered Byrdsong’s actions to be motivational. “He was trying to shake us out of losing streak and get us to re-focus all week in practice. The fact that the guys on the court didn't know what was happening showed that we were re-focused.”

The incident, which was quickly dubbed “The Walk on the Wild Side," made national news. It was the strangest behavior ever seen from a Big Ten coach not named “Bobby Knight." Byrdsong requested a leave of absence from NU, leading to widespread speculation about his mental health. Rick Taylor, who was hired as the new AD only one month earlier, had a full-blown crisis on his hands.  He and NU President Arnold Weber granted the leave to Byrdsong, putting Swanson in charge of the team on an interim basis.

The ongoing drama became local and national news.  The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times had updates on Byrdsong virtually every day. Current “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts, at the time a reporter for ESPN, came to Evanston to interview the team for a SportsCenter story. Byrdsong’s mental condition became an ongoing topic not just across campus, but across the sporting world.

The Minnesota game was followed by another road loss at Purdue. There would be no last second Glenn Robinson heroics in this game, as the Boilers cruised to an easy 98-81 win. NU now stood at 9-9 with nine straight conference losses. The Cats needed a win in the worst way, and they got it.

Illinois came to town for NU’s first home game since the “Walk on the Wild Side." As always, Illinois brought a capacity crowd, and the ongoing Byrdsong situation meant there would be lots of additional media coverage.  The Cats came through in a big way, winning 79-68 over the 24th-ranked Illini. It was NU’s first win in six weeks, and it stopped the bleeding. Swanson would get another big win one week later, when the Wildcats knocked off Wisconsin 66-54 in Madison.  The team split its four games under Swanson, leaving NU with an 11-10 record and a stretch run to make the NIT.

On the Saturday of the Wisconsin win, NU announced that Byrdsong would return to work on Monday.  The administration felt that his actions represented “exceptionally poor judgment," not a mental breakdown. The “Walk on the Wild Side” continues to spark debate to this day. Many fans still believe that Byrdsong cracked — after all, coaching NU basketball is not generally viewed as a sane job.  However, Wildcat players disagree. They considered the event an ingenious motivational tactic.

Looking back, Kirkpatrick believes that Byrdsong was trying to take pressure off his players. “He then became the 'distractor; on a daily basis, and no matter how crazy his actions were, our job was to ignore him and focus on winning,” said Kirkpatrick, who is now a Co-CEO of The Vistria Group, an investment firm. “I remember how we all came together as a group to defend Ricky.”

THE STRETCH RUN

Despite all of the turmoil, Northwestern still had its goal within sight. If the Cats could split their last six games, they would make it to the NIT.  However, three of the games (Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State) were on the road, where the Wildcats virtually never won. Of the three home games, two were against highly ranked competition (No. 12 Indiana and No. 8 Michigan).  The season’s final three weeks would become a heart-stopping roller coaster ride for players and fans alike.

It began with a home loss to Indiana, which dropped the team to 11-11.  Two days later they were in Iowa City to face a Hawkeye team that had already beaten them by ten points in Welsh-Ryan.  The scrappy Cats managed to get a win, putting them back over .500 for the season. Each game went back and forth – a road loss at Penn State (12-12), a solid home win over Wisconsin (13-12); and then a close loss at Ohio State (13-13). There was one game left on the schedule: Michigan.  A victory would almost certainly lock up an NIT bid. The NIT required at least a .500 record, so a loss would definitely send the Wildcats home at 13-14. (note: The Big Ten Tournament would not be created until 1998, so Senior Day was the final game of the season.)

THE MICHIGAN GAME: ALL THE MARBLES

It was appropriate that NU’s season-defining game would be against Michigan. The hardscrabble Cats were polar opposite to Michigan’s star-studded team. Michigan’s “Fab Five” recruiting class, which included four High School All-Americans, stormed onto the college basketball landscape in 1991, redefining hoops style and going to two National Championship games. The most prolific of the Fab Five, Chris Webber, left for the NBA in 1993.  However, the remaining “Fab Four” were still a very potent bunch. Despite their many accomplishments, there was one feat that the group had never accomplished: winning a Big Ten Championship. A victory over Northwestern in Welsh-Ryan would have given the Wolverines a league championship, furthering their legacy.  Both teams took the floor of Welsh-Ryan with a lot to play for.

Welsh-Ryan was packed for the epic game, and Northwestern fed off the crowd’s energy early. The Wildcats got off to a 13-6 lead, scoring eleven unanswered points. The Wolverines responded by taking a 35-26 lead late in the first half.  However, a string of ten unanswered Wildcat points gave NU a 39-37 halftime lead.  The teams continued to battle back and forth in the second half, with NU holding a slim lead in the final seconds. Future NBA player and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose tied the game on a drive with 6 seconds left, sending the contest to overtime.

NU center Kevin Rankin hit the first key shot of the overtime period, a three-pointer that put the Cats up 85-82. They would never relinquish the lead. Baldwin sank another huge three pointer with the shot clock winding down late in OT. Kirkpatrick hit clutch free throws in the final seconds, and Northwestern prevailed 97-93.

Reflective of their team culture, many players contributed to the win. Neloms led NU’s scoring with 28 points. Baldwin had 19, Rankin had 10. Kirkpatrick and Leslie also reached double-digits, including key three point baskets. A key contribution also came from Eric Simpson, often the most overlooked player among the seniors. Although scoring only one point, he forced Michigan guard Dugan Fife into committing his second and third fouls midway through the first half. This affected Fife, who eventually fouled out in OT, for the rest of the game.

The victory sparked the largest celebration at NU in a generation. Students poured onto the floor, helping to release the decades of pent-up frustration suffered by Wildcat fans.  NU alum Sam Maniar, at the time a CAS sophomore, remembers the mayhem: “I attended the Michigan game with my roommate Rob. I remember that we stormed the court, and I ran smack into Juwan Howard. I looked up at him and thought I was going to get clobbered, but Rob pulled me away.” (note: Yes, that is the same 6-foot-9 Juwan Howard who played for the Miami Heat last season).

DEPAUL… AND TONYA HARDING?  

The next day’s Chicago Tribune carried the headline “NU on Top of the World." It was no exaggeration: the upset ensured an NIT bid, which brought a taste of success to the long-suffering program.  On “Selection Sunday”, which was the day after the Michigan game, NU learned that it would host DePaul in a first round game. The news sparked a ticket-buying frenzy, as Welsh-Ryan would be packed for the nationally-televised game.

Although DePaul lacked the national profile of Michigan, this game would also be critical for Northwestern. In 1994, the Blue Demons were already years removed from their glory days under longtime coach Ray Meyer. However, the DePaul Basketball brand still carried significant residual respect in the Chicago community. Byrdsong felt that a win over DePaul would mean even more in local recruiting circles than the win over nationally-ranked Michigan.

Unlike the Michigan game, the partisan home crowd was little help to the Wildcats in the first half.  DePaul held a 43-31 lead at halftime, paced by 13 points from star forward Tom Kleinschmidt. However, in yet another bizarre twist of fate, thousands of NU fans around the nation missed the early part of the game on TV. ESPN pre-empted basketball to show live coverage of Tonya Harding’s legal proceedings. The Harding case, which involved an attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, had captivated the national and global media during that entire winter.

By the second half, ESPN had returned to basketball. Fortunately, the Wildcats were ready. They scored the first ten points of the second half to make it a tight game.  Depaul led 63-59 with 7:36 to play, but NU’s defense and Blue Demon miscues allowed NU to take a 64-63 lead on a Kirkpatrick putback of a missed Rankin free throw. Depaul went scoreless for over seven minutes before a meaningless Kleinschmidt three pointer at the buzzer finished a 69-68 Wildcat win.

XAVIER… THE END OF THE LINE

After the DePaul win, the NIT decided that Xavier would travel to Welsh-Ryan for a second round game. Fan excitement reached new heights. NU announced that tickets for the Monday night game would be on sale Saturday from 10am to 2pm. Much to everyone’s surprise, the line started forming at midnight (note to younger readers: this was still a few years before the internet). “I got there at 8 in the morning to buy a ticket for my mother, and there were already 100 people in lined up in front of me.” said then-WNUR Sports Director Julie Swieca to the Chicago Tribune.

The game was yet another thriller, this one going into overtime.  The game was close throughout, but the Cats failed to close out the Musketeers.  The battle was most intense down low, where 6-11 Rankin battled future 12 season NBA player Brian Grant. However, unlike the Michigan and DePaul game, there would be no happy ending.  Xavier won 83-79, and the three game stretch of Welsh-Ryan euphoria was over.

THE LEGACY

The 1994 season did not turn around NU men’s basketball. The 1994-95 squad, depleted by graduation, won only a single Big Ten game.  The Wildcats would not return to the NIT until 1999, when Evan Eschmeyer, the talented freshman who missed out on the 1994 thrill ride, would single-handedly carry his team to winning record.  After his graduation, a new set of Wildcats carried out yet another mass transfer in 2000, echoing Walters’ defection of a decade earlier.

Although they didn’t restore immediate glory to NU hoops, the 1994 team demonstrated that success was possible in revenue sports at NU.

Todd Leslie reflects on the team’s impact: “Coach Barnett had used our success that season as a motivational tool for the football team.  He apparently had told them how you can turn things around quickly if you stick together as a team, keep working hard, and remain confident that you can win games.” As most NU fans know, the football team won the Big Ten the following year, and that program has had significant success since then.

The impact of the 1994 team took on a new form this year when Patrick Baldwin was hired as an NU assistant coach. As part of Chris Collins’ staff, he will try to build on the recent success of the program under Bill Carmody. His teammates are very excited to see him back with NU.  “We think it is outstanding that Coach Collins saw the value that Pat can add," Kirkpatrick said. "He is a very high integrity and loyal individual who cares deeply about NU basketball."

Before 1994, NU had a grand total of one NIT appearance and one bowl game. Since then, there have been ten bowl games and five NIT teams. Much of this is attributable to increased number of postseason bids. However, the 1994 hoops team helped to set a winning tone in the athletic department, and they reminded NU students, alums, and fans that sports can be a lot of fun. As Kirkpatrick says, “What they [the football team] did was way more significant than what we did and they did it on their own. But I'd like to think we played a very, very small part in what came after.

"Even if we didn't, it sure was fun to see how excited NU can be for athletics.”