A gentle wind whistles off of Lake Michigan, traveling at a leisurely pace. It exacerbates the bite of a penetrating cold. Leaves rustle, whispering about the previous night’s happenings, or lamenting long hours of study. The rain-soaked ground glistens under the strong morning sun, as only a Northwestern rain-soaked ground can.
A campus incrementally awakes, and rises as one. Students scurry to class, some still enveloped by the clouds of a long night of revelry, and many sufficiently caffeinated after another night of insufficient sleep.
This is a Friday morning on the campus of Northwestern University. But this time around, it’s not just a normal Friday. It’s the Friday before the Northwestern men’s basketball season opener, now just two days away. And this year, it’s not just a normal Friday before the men’s basketball season opener. It’s the Friday before the start of a new era.
In fact, it goes on, because this isn’t your typical new era of Northwestern basketball. It’s arguably the most anticipated new era of any Northwestern sport in recent history.
Out over the lake, Chicago looms, like a big brother does over a little one. The big brother, a hub of basketball talent and history, recognizes every bit of its own prowess. The younger brother is naturally inferior. This is not only perception, but has been reality.
To put it bluntly, the Northwestern basketball program has been, over the past half-century, pitiful. Especially before the turn of the century, winning seasons were rare – and that’s being generous. Coaches came and went, yet the results remained constant.
But new eras, above all else, bring hope; and hope, above all else, is empowering. With the start of a new era, Northwestern basketball fans can dare to dream – dream that this time, it won’t all unravel down a hill. They can entertain the idea of looking that big brother in the eye, standing up to him, and one day reaching that point of growth where younger brother and older brother have a mutual respect for each other.
In Northwestern’s case, this represents living up to its moniker of Chicago’s Big Ten Team. In past years, Chicago has all but denounced the Wildcats as having any connection to the city. The basketball program, quite simply, was not up to the city’s lofty standards for the sport. But that was the past; this is a new era.
The beauty of new eras in sports is twofold. First, the past becomes irrelevant. The futility of the 70s goes out the window. The perennial last place Big Ten finishes of the 80s can be discarded. The false hope of the 90s can be forgotten. To new coach Chris Collins’ credit – yes, he’s the man who all the fuss is about – at Big Ten Media Day, he made a point to emphasize the importance of what Bill Carmody did for the program. Carmody was not the most beloved coach, but he took over a forlorn program and made it relevant. But at this point, the program’s current state and its potential future state are all that matters. How it got here no longer holds any bearing.
Collins’ job is to take this newfound sense of relevancy to the next level. In recent years, the program was relevant on a Big Ten level. Northwestern, on occasion, could compete with the conference’s heavyweights, and at times was mentioned in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament. What Collins must do is make this competitiveness and NCAA Tournament discussion consistent. He must take the program to the upper reaches of the conference, a place unexplored by the Wildcats since the league’s early years.He must make fans realize that the past has, in fact, become irrelevant.
The second beauty of new eras is that nobody knows. Nobody knows what the future holds. Nobody knows the final outcome of Collins’ tenure at Northwestern. Nobody knows its eventual length, nobody knows whether it will be entertaining or unsatisfactory, and nobody knows whether it will end in success or failure.
Will the 2014 recruiting class, ranked in the top 20 nationally by many experts, be a sign of things to come? Will Collins be able to successfully implement his offensive system in a timely manner? Or maybe more importantly, will he be able to change the culture of the program? Will he finally get Northwestern to the NCAA tournament?
Many people, fans and experts alike, will have their opinions in response to those questions. But that’s exactly what they are: opinions. Because the reality is that nobody knows.
Tom Crean’s first season at Indiana ended with a 6-25 record. Naturally, calls for him to lose his job were profuse. Five years on, the Hoosiers were Big Ten regular season champions and were awarded a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Contrarily, Matt Doherty went 26-7 in his first season at North Carolina. The Tar Heels thought they had found their head coach for years to come. Two years later, after a couple of inexplicably poor seasons, he was fired.
Fans will be quick to draw conclusions. Northwestern will, in all likelihood, beat Eastern Illinois this Saturday, and the Wildcats will, in all likelihood, fall to Stanford in Palo Alto next Thursday. But no matter the outcomes of these games – maybe the Wildcats lay an egg on opening night, or maybe they pull off an upset on the road next week – the fact remains: nobody knows.
In many situations in sports, the idea of an unknown has negative connotations. When a previously respected coach’s future comes into question, a program may be on the verge of upheaval. When a player’s health or status for a game is up in the air, a team’s prospects for victory dwindle. When off-the-field rumors begin to swirl, a team’s chemistry is imperiled.
But when an unknown is coupled with hope rather than doubt, and when the possibility is improvement of a subpar program rather than decline of a powerful one, the idea of an unknown is decidedly positive.
The point is that this new era doesn’t hinge on a game or two, nor does it hinge on a single season, and shouldn’t be judged thusly. Instead, fans should relish this period of the unknown. What’s important at this point is that there is hope; hope that the program is due for a reversal of fortunes; hope that this time around, it won’t all end in disappointment; hope that a basketball savior, born and bread in the city of Chicago, can bring the little brother up to eye level with the big brother and change the program forever.