For new Northwestern students and fans, a view of the program might not extend much further than cheering on the team during Pat Fitzgerald's tenure as coach. Older fans might even remember before Coaches Barnett and Walker's teams earned Big Ten championships, back to the program's low point in the late 1970s and '80s. The history of the program, however, is far richer-- and crazier-- than its recent past might indicate. Here are four aspects of NU football history that many fans don't, but should, know.
1. Northwestern football is among the oldest programs in the nation
Which school was the first in the Midwest to play in a verifiable game of American football? Many Big Ten fans would point to our friends in Ann Arbor, and said fans would be wrong. The Wolverines first learned the game in 1879. But Northwestern played a game in Evanston in February 1876, against an amateur team from Chicago.
The Chicago Football Club began playing football in the style of Harvard in 1875, and issued a challenge to NU to play during the 1876 Washington's Birthday holiday. NU accepted, and lost the game, three goals to none. Until that point, only five other major colleges in the country had played football against a team from outside their school: Princeton, Rutgers, Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. NU became major school #6 and the first in the Midwest.
2. The 'Cats have been a part of a lot of college football "firsts"
NU has broken new ground a surprising number of times during its history. Here is just a sample of firsts that have involved NU football:
First indoor football game in the Midwest (vs. Chicago in Chicago, 1893)
First African-American player at a Big Ten school (George Jewett, who played for Michigan 1890-1892. Jewett also played for NU 1893-1894), and the first African-American Big Ten player (Alton Washington played for NU 1898-1901, after the conference's 1895 founding)
First off-campus preseason training in the Big Ten (not Camp Kenosha. This was training in southern Wisconsin in 1903)
First major football game at Soldier Field (vs. Notre Dame, 1924)
First experimental televising of football games (1931, station W9XAO, using mechanical television at Dyche Stadium)
First Big Ten night game (vs. Purdue at Dyche Stadium, 1935)
First plastic football helmets (vs. Syracuse, 1940)
First African-American head coach of a Division I-A program (Dennis Green, 1981 - 1985)
...And we can't forget the bizarre "first major college football game to be played in only one direction" (vs. Illinois at Wrigley Field, 2010)!
3. The history of the 'Cats is a roller coaster of wild highs-- and lows
The history of this team has been far from boring.
When the team earned its first Big Ten title in 1903, the crowds of NU fans were so large that the school's football venue at the time (Sheppard Field) could not accommodate the fans, and the team played the second half of its home schedule at the White Sox's home park. The team's success during the 1920s and '30s was occasionally accompanied by riots in Chicago and Evanston, including wild students and fans setting fires in downtown Evanston. Even Chicago mobster Al Capone jumped on Northwestern's bandwagon, coming to watch the 'Cats play Nebraska at Dyche Stadium in 1931 (he was eventually booed out of the stadium by other fans). By 1936 NU had won four Big Ten titles. That year, the inaugural year of the Associated Press college football poll, NU ranked No. 1 in the nation for three weeks.
During World War II, Northwestern star halfback Otto Graham electrified Evanston by shattering nearly every existing Big Ten passing record, leading NU to a top-ten finish in 1943. The 'Cats' victory over Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl remains one of the greatest games in Rose Bowl history. Ara Parseghian's term as head coach (1956 - 1963) featured regular crowds of over 50,000 at Dyche Stadium-- a phenomenal feat for a school with less than 8,000 undergraduates. Parseghian's Wildcat teams took on rival Notre Dame four times during his tenure, and beat the Irish every time. Unfortunately, Parseghian would continue to notch victories in the Northwestern - Notre Dame series after 1963, but as Notre Dame's coach.
The school administration's support for its football program had dried up by the early 1970s, and Northwestern entered a two-decade period that was marked by mediocrity at best and downright terrifyingly bad football at its worst. The program, which had enjoyed national fame through the '30s and '40s, sadly regained the spotlight in 1981 when it set the major college losing streak, losing its 29th straight game in a 61 to 14 rout against Michigan State. After the game, students chanted "We are the worst!" pulled down one of the goal posts, and tossed it into Lake Michigan.
By the early 1990s the program was an afterthought, having suffered 23 straight losing seasons. However, a new Northwestern administration began to reinvigorate the program, and head coach Gary Barnett's now-legendary turnaround took a moribund team and made them back-to-back Big Ten champions. Coach Walker's efforts continued the team's success, adding another Big Ten title. But the highs of the "Expect Victory" era of the 1990s and early 2000s were marred by a string of untimely deaths connected with NU athletics, beginning with former NU star Matt Hartl in 1999 and culminating in the unexpected death of Coach Walker in 2006. With the passing of Walker, Northwestern took former Wildcat star and assistant coach Pat Fitzgerald and made him the youngest head coach in the FBS. It took Fitz just seven years to become the winningest coach in Northwestern history.
4. There might be no team in the nation easier to support
Win or lose, defending champs or heralded underdog, Northwestern has always tried to play the game the right way. This was exemplified in 1920 when Northwestern hosted Notre Dame and its superstar, George Gipp. The game marked Gipp's final appearance on the field. Gipp had been injured the week before and was becoming seriously ill; he was not on the roster for the game. Late in the game both Notre Dame and NU fans began chanting for Gipp. Though very ill and unable to run, Gipp managed one play: a 55-yard completed pass. As Gipp threw the ball, the Northwestern defenders, refusing to tackle the clearly-ailing star, instead carried him slowly to the turf, then off the field.
The team has come under scrutiny this year for being labeled "university employees" first and-- arguably-- students second. But the truth is that only a handful of other major college programs come as close to having players who are "students first." Northwestern currently has the best graduation rate among major college teams in the nation and the second-highest Academic Progress Rate in the country. The Wildcats have scrapped and fought through their long and rocky history while carrying similar academic burdens as the students in the stands who continue to cheer them on each Saturday.