A lot can change in 30 years. Ryan Field was called Dyche Stadium 30 years ago. The following piece seeks to predict what Northwestern football will look like 30 years from now. Below is the best-case scenario. We’ll have basketball for you tomorrow. This is completely fictional.
“Like Coach Carr always says, we’re just trying to go 1-0 every week. This week was no different,” Justin Thorson blithely said to the crowd of reporters in Indianapolis.
On the field, Northwestern had just won its first outright Big Ten Championship in 52 years. When the confetti cleared at Tesla Stadium, Northwestern knew a College Football Playoff appearance loomed.
It had been a long time coming.
The rebuilding process had begun 41 years earlier — the day Pat Fitzgerald was announced as head coach. Fitzgerald’s die-hard commitment to his alma mater, his 40-year pitch and hard-nosed football guy mantra helped keep the ‘Cats in bowl contention year after year, something that had previously always eluded the program.
Fitz had come close to getting over the Big Ten title hump several times, but could never close the deal. There was 2017, when Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson made a run at the Big Ten West, but an early-season loss to Wisconsin doomed those aspirations. A weak division had given Wildcat fans a season unlike they had seen in a while, but there still wasn’t a feeling that NU was actually ready to compete with the big boys.
Then there was were 2025, when one of Fitz’s three sons — Ryan — owned Ryan Field like it was named after him, leading Northwestern all the way to the conference championship game as an All-American middle linebacker. At this point, Northwestern had posted a run of eleven consecutive bowl appearances, reaping the benefits of a beautiful, state-of-the-art lakeside facility that helped push the program into a higher recruiting tier.
The program rose steadily, but hadn’t yet cracked into the blue-blood echelon that Michigan and Ohio State still dominated. Northwestern was in a murky middle area, one that was tough to ascend out of, especially because the Big Ten West was quickly gaining momentum and surpassing the East as the premier division in the conference. Penn State took a major hit when James Franklin left for the NFL, and Maryland’s program never took off. Michigan State stayed relevant, but had trouble finding consistency in the conference while Fitz and P.J. Fleck made big recruiting gains in the West. A pesky Fleck had Minnesota as an annual dark horse, and Iowa was always competitive if not plain good. Kirk Ferentz was given another 30-year extension. Along with perennial contender Wisconsin, those three teams were part of a foursome that began to outperform the best four in the East year after year.
But those two runs were the best Fitzgerald had. After winning the Amazon Prime Bowl — which was actually played in the Amazon in Manaus — in 2030, Fitz called it a career after 25 years. At 55, his retirement came as a surprise to many, but he elected to step away from the game before any health issues arose. He felt comfortable with the decision, in part, because he had been grooming his coach in waiting for several years: Austin Carr.
After a nine-year NFL career in which he won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, including one Super Bowl MVP after hauling in the game-winning touchdown from Jimmy Garoppolo to beat Josh Rosen’s L.A. Chargers, Carr took a position with Northwestern as wide receivers coach. After two years coaching receivers, Carr took over as Offensive Coordinator when Mick McCall retired. The story “Austin Carr succeeds Mick McCall at offensive coordinator” actually caused the virtual reality website InsideNU to go down for an entire day because of the traffic it generated.
In his two-year stint as OC, Carr quickly became one of the most well-respected play callers in the conference. At 36 years old, one former All-American took over for another when Carr replaced the retired Fitzgerald.
Program-wise, not a whole lot changed when Carr took over. The traditions and characteristics of Fitz-era NU mostly stuck with AC at the helm. A more subdued personality than Fitzgerald, Carr brought a softer voice to the team, but not necessarily a completely different one.
Carr was fairly successful early on, reaching upper-tier bowl games in his first six seasons. Northwestern was a far cry from the program it was when at the start of the millennium, but it hadn’t yet had captured an outright conference title since 1996. Steady growth had made the Wildcats good, but that wasn’t going to take them to great. It was going to take something big. And that’s what happened.
Anticipating a precipitous drop in the NFL’s popularity after legendary quarterback Tom Brady came out and said that he had gotten concussions from football, ESPN and CBS declined to bid for the NFL’s TV rights in 2036, sending shockwaves throughout the nation. Football had become something of a niche sport. The talent pool had shrunk, leaving Northwestern to be Northwestern by former players’ children. The NFL still existed, with big money, but its popularity was now in question — FS1 and NBC bought the rights, but for far less than what ESPN and TNT had paid for NBA rights a few years earlier.
With less money in pro football, Carr’s ‘40-year commitment’ message suddenly proved much more appealing to recruits. With a significant chance that concussions could doom the NFL, the value of a Northwestern degree shot up for the best football players in the country. Medill grads became even more insufferable across the national media landscape.
Things weren’t easy for Carr & Co., though. Northwestern was now on an equal playing field with Ohio State and Michigan in recruiting, but hadn’t yet learned how to deal with big-time expectations and enormous national pressure. So for the ensuing 10 seasons, NU made three Big Ten Championship games, but couldn’t find a way to win any of them. After the third loss, in which the Wildcats blew a 38-21 lead in the fourth quarter to East powerhouse Rutgers, questions began to swirl as to whether Carr was the best man for the job. He had no recruiting excuse. Winning was now something fans NU felt entitled to.
But 2047 was different. With blue-chip freshman Justin Thorson, the son of former NU and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Clayton Thorson, at QB, Northwestern ran through the regular season with just one blemish, an overtime loss on the road at USC in Week 1. After winning their next 11 games to close the regular season, the Cats had gotten back to the Big Ten Championship Game, this time with a freshman phenom and Heisman candidate at the helm.
With a chance at redemption against Michigan, the team that had beaten it in two Big Ten titles earlier in the decade, Northwestern came up larger than ever, getting the monkey off its back with a 34-31 win over the Wolverines. The epic win was spearheaded by a four-touchdown performance from Thorson and a three sack night from Deonte Odenigbo off the edge.
Thorson sprinted to the stands after taking a knee on the game’s final play, embracing his dad with a hug as heavy as 51 years of looking up in the Big Ten. Standing at the top of the conference, Northwestern could finally look down.