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View from the Bleachers: From the Floor to the Ceiling

Expectations have been a funny thing for Northwestern football over the years. With a handful of exceptions, such as the 1948 (7-2 prior to a Rose Bowl victory over Cal) and 1962 (7-2, ranked #1 in the AP Poll for two weeks) seasons, Northwestern’s ceiling after WWII was never impressive. A lack of depth caused the Wildcats to fade as the year went on during those good years. This was well before the 85 scholarship limit of the 1990s that reshaped college football for the better. They had a handful of good seasons through 1971, but the floor dropped as low as possible, lower than was conceivable, just a few years later.

It’s worth mentioning that we just passed an anniversary, of sorts, for Gary Barnett’s “Expect Victory” slogan:

Fans turned away during the “Dark Ages.” Northwestern’s average attendance of 42,000 in the 1960s fell below 20,000 in 1978, lowest in modern history, according to

The situation is finally improving, though the “win and they will come” assumption hasn’t exactly proven out. It’s about more than winning. When Northwestern went 9-3 in 2008, they did so in front of an average Ryan Field crowd of 28,590. The next year, which led to the dramatic Outback Bowl appearance, saw 24,190 file through the turnstyles per game. The drop was almost entirely due to Ohio State coming off the schedule, but the fact that ticket sales fell after a second year of on-field improvement under Pat Fitzgerald was disconcerting. This would change the following year thanks to the hiring of a full-time outgoing ticket sales staff, which has turned into a brilliant move by the athletic department, and the Wrigley game.

I could talk about attendance for a while, but the attendance drop from 2008 to 2009 is, perhaps, the most significant point here in highlighting the growth of this program. When I went down to San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl in 2008, I was part of a very excited crowd of purple that was larger and more vocal than our Missouri counterparts. It made those who followed NU football more passionate, but it didn’t make that group any larger.

There are probably many reasons why attendance didn’t grow in 2009, including the awful home slate of Towson, EMU, Minnesota, Miami, Indiana, Penn State, and Wisconsin. But I believe the biggest factor was expectation. The media, both local and national, largely viewed 2008 as a fluke. Many fans agreed or, at the very least, needed proof that they should believe. The schedule wasn’t particularly strong in 2009, either. Northwestern started with a blowout victory of Syracuse, a team that would finish with a 3-9 record and cost Greg Robinson his job. After a close, untelevised win at Duke, they returned home to stomp SIU in a driving rain and put everyone to sleep with a 16-8 win over Ohio. Momentum was gone following the home loss to Michigan State and they suffered a heartbreaker at Indiana two weeks after that.

As an aside, remember when it was a “given” that Northwestern would lose at least one game every year to an inferior team? That’s no longer a thing. You can thank the 2012 team for that.

Those seasons, while neither sexy nor productive in immediately affecting attendance, laid an important foundation. Establishing a floor was perhaps Pat Fitzgerald’s most significant accomplishment prior to the 2012 season. Through a combination of increased talent, better coaching, and scheduling, Northwestern began a still-active streak of six or more wins in Fitzgerald’s second season as head coach. They have been going to bowl games in every season since 2008.

The rise of parity and a handful of coaching changes have done some odd things to the floors of “traditional” football programs. UCLA went 4-8 just a few years ago. Iowa did the same last year. Auburn went from 14-0 and a national championship in 2010 to 3-9 in just two years. Meanwhile, Northwestern has been a hallmark of consistency. As was highlighted last week by Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune, Fitzgerald and the athletic department have put great emphasis on ensuring that assistant coaches stay in Evanston. The players don’t have to learn a new system over the offseason. Instead, they focus on improving their understanding of the current system, all while upgrading talent each year. It has done wonders for keeping that floor intact.

The six win floor has had a huge impact in recruiting, fundraising, and building a fan base from the ground up. But it isn’t flashy. Northwestern fans are no longer content with going to a low level bowl game. And that’s good. With just the third 10 win season in program history (second if you exclude 1903, when they went 10-1-3 with wins over schools such as N. Division HS, Englewood HS, and Chicago Dental), we’re finally looking up to the potential and not down at the worst case scenario.

We are beginning the age of the ceiling. It’s a terrible phrase, but it’s true. We are no longer counting down the wins until bowl eligibility. Our focus has shifted to figuring out what this program’s ceiling can be this year and in the near future. Are we looking at Alabama-level domination? Of course not. But is Stanford realistic? What will their down years look like? Could we be on the level of Michigan State, pushing for an occasional BCS bid while falling to 6-6 during rebuilding years?

The media is putting many Northwestern fans in an awkward position. We’re entering the season ranked for the first time since 2001 after being so used to relishing underdog status. One LA Times and syndicated Tribune writer even ranked us at #10 in his top 25 preview. We’ll see how the team reacts to these new external expectations, but I’m also intrigued by how the fan base will react.

We can debate whether this team, especially with this schedule, can compete for a division and Big Ten championship. Regardless of whether you think that’s possible this year, whether you are a “Dark Ages” fan or an incoming freshman, it’s clear that we, as a fan base, are ready to shift our focus away from the worst case scenario to the best. It’s a new, scary feeling, but we’ve been waiting for this. It’s like we’re a legitimate fan base now.

Well, legitimacy only happens when we start calling into sports radio shows and constantly tweeting at bloggers about how we never get any respect. We’re close to that.