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Regardless of Outback Bowl outcome, Northwestern football is 'here to stay'

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

BETWEEN CHICAGO AND TAMPA -- Thirty thousand feet in the air, Dan Vitale, Sr. is asleep, dreaming, possibly, about the football game he will watch in just a couple short days. He made a similar trip three years ago, from the brutal Chicago winter to the warm Florida sunshine, for another Jan. 1 football game.

He travels to watch his sons. "I'm No. 40 and No. 31's dad," he tells me. I already knew that though. He wears his son Dan's t-shirt. Lisa, Dan and Tommy's mother, wears a sweatshirt with "40" stitched onto the sleeve.

The Vitale clan blends in on this early-morning flight to Tampa where cheers of "Go ‘Cats" ring out whenever a Northwestern supporter walks down the aisle. Scores of purple- and non-purple-clad Wildcat fans are making the pilgrimage to the Outback Bowl, where the No. 13 Wildcats (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten) will take on the No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers (8-3, 5-3 SEC). All of them, possibly, dreaming about what might be. Some of them, like Dan Sr., may have been in Jacksonville on New Year's Day 2013 when Northwestern won its first bowl game in 64 years. Maybe they're conjuring up memories of that historic afternoon.

Dan, family's first son, was at that game in Jacksonville. The then-freshman superback represents one of the few links from this current Northwestern team to the team that finally broke the program's futile streak of postseason losses three years ago. He and wide receiver Christian Jones started offensively with fellow pass-catcher Cameron Dickerson and offensive lineman Geoff Mogus contributing. Safety Traveon Henry, linebacker Drew Smith, and defensive linemen Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Max Chapman also saw the field that day. Cornerback Nick VanHoose, the lone defensive starter from that game still on the team, will miss his final game as a Wildcat with a finger injury.

Depending on how you look at it, that 34-20 Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State seems to have happened ages ago and also just yesterday. By now you know what has happened in the meantime. You know about the 2013 season that began with such high hopes before devolving into a 5-7 disappointment. You know how, after that season, Northwestern became the national proving ground for the student-athletes' labor rights movement, which, ultimately, was left unresolved. You know that in 2014, the Wildcats, littered with injuries, showed what could have been with a win at Penn State, an upset of a ranked Wisconsin team and a dramatic November victory over Notre Dame in South Bend before ultimately falling to its second-straight 5-7 year. The past few seasons featured some of the highest highs -- the win over the Fighting Irish, College GameDay's 2013 visit to Evanston -- and lowest lows -- the Hail Mary defeat at Nebraska, the home dismantling by Illinois in what was essentially a bowl play-in game -- for Northwestern. Most of all, though, the past two years were a pit of mediocrity on the field. Nothing, it seemed, had changed for Northwestern when finally, after nine-straight bowl losses, it pried that monkey off its back.

After that historic beatdown of Mississippi State, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald proclaimed that his program was "here to stay." He was wrong. Sure, the symbolism of the Gator Bowl was important for the program but mostly for alumni. Northwestern's president and athletic director didn't even want the stuffed monkey used to represent the losing streak to be brought to Florida, but Fitzgerald hid it with the equipment staff anyway. It meant something special to those who had been part of a long-suffering fan base and had been a direct part of the program's history.

While the Gator Bowl win signaled an end to a largely fruitless epoch of Northwestern football, the Outback Bowl looks to be both an ending and a beginning. The aforementioned seniors who played in Jacksonville are all playing their final games for Northwestern, having the chance to end their careers as the first senior class to graduate with two bowl wins.

But it's those players who were still in high school when Northwestern earned its first 10-win season since it went to the Rose Bowl in 1995, who are looking to create their own, greater legacy. It's those players, who, behind the scenes, the coaching staff quietly developed as Northwestern's program seemed to be going backwards. It's players like junior Matthew Harris, one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the country, and fellow defensive stars in sophomores Anthony Walker, Jr. and Godwin Igwebuike. Offensively, Clayton Thorson, a redshirt freshman signal-caller, will hand the ball off to All-Big Ten sophomore running back Justin Jackson as talented redshirt freshman Blake Hance blocks from his left tackle position.

Just as it did three years ago, this team has a chance to make history. But instead of the history centering on a victory in a single postseason game, the chance to earn Northwestern's first 11-win season in program history is much more of a body-of-work type of award. An 11-win season with this much young talent may really signal that Northwestern is indeed "here to stay," stepping up in the tiers of college football. No longer should Northwestern have to slog through consecutive losing seasons while younger, talented players develop only to see a wildly successful one appear once in a blue moon. Being "here to stay" means a program can win on Saturdays while also winning Monday through Thursday.

I may be young and naïve, sure. You might say I am too willing to ignore the athletic limitations of a school like Northwestern and the years upon years of history that seems to hold the program back. But I'm not wrong. With a $260-million state-of-the-art athletic facility in the works, the commitment from boosters is there. That pit of mediocrity is being filled in more rapidly than ever. Being competitive should no longer be the goal, but the norm. Whether or not Northwestern beats Tennessee has little to do with the notion of improvement and growth, it's happening regardless.

More on Northwestern-Tennessee

The Outback Bowl serves as a measuring stick, a single opportunity to beat an historic program. But, instead of looking at this game with a win being the top of the stick, try to take the long view. Try to see that the measuring stick extends far past a win over Tennessee.

Try to see that this bowl game won't determine whether Northwestern is "here to stay." Rather, it's what happens next year and the year after that will.

As turbulence over the Smoky Mountains jolts Dan Sr. awake up from his nap, his dream may have ended with visions of Dan walking off the field at Raymond James Stadium wearing purple and white for the final time. Or, he could have seen his younger son Tommy, a freshman, three years in the future, a member of what might turn out to be Northwestern's most successful class of all time.

Either way, Mr. Vitale is "here to stay."