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On Northwestern, Akron and being something

After another disastrous loss, Northwestern cannot claim the only important thing in college football: relevance

NCAA Football: Akron at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

An essay about Northwestern/Akron, running and being in America.

I. The Game

I can hear the PA announcer loud and clear from almost exactly a mile away. In Ryan Field, despite a sparse crowd and plenty of neighbors who make noise complaints, the sound system is, as they say, “jacked up to 11” and can be heard loud and clear in a rather impressive blast radius. I’m not at the game because I wake up at 4 a.m. the next morning.

“FINAL SCORE: Akron 39, Northwestern 34” the PA announcer says. The screech rings through the deserted streets near Northwestern’s pristine campus. Architects and school administrators want buildings to tell stories. Sadly for them, buildings say nothing. Humans make up the narratives and apply them to every object under the sun.

And as much as we want the $260 million facility to revel in the absurdity of its creation as the sound of Northwestern’s crushing defeat echoes into Lake Michigan, smirking at the donors who ponied up all that cash (although they actually haven’t paid up yet), in truth the smirking and the back-patting only exists in the Akron Zips’ sideline, which will settle for the $1.1 million check Northwestern issued in hopes of a straightforward win. There might not be too much back-patting because Akron played like garbage for 2.75 quarters (140 penalty yards!) and won thanks to three ill-timed return touchdowns. And yet, all these buildings remain helpless as their stories are rapidly turned into mockery due to the narrative of a football team it cannot perceive.

But can anyone truly perceive Northwestern football at this juncture? At times, the fans, the students, and even Northwestern’s precious media figures seem as devoid of narrative agency as the giant slabs of glass on the lakeshore. What are we going to do, not show up? If no Northwestern fans showed up for the Michigan game out of protest, would anybody even care? If Northwestern had a game and no actual Northwestern fans showed up for it, would the school even lose money? If an angry Northwestern fan posts “Fire McCall” on Twitter and nothing happens, did the tweet ever really exist? Truthfully, Northwestern is a private institution with a small fanbase in a college football eddy on the North Shore of Chicago. There will be no crowds in the street demanding change like at Tennessee. The team doesn’t have the ability to attract the year-in, year-out talent to create a program-defining narrative, something that Pat Fitzgerald realizes and has tried to alleviate.

And sports fans are insatiable. Northwestern fans really shouldn’t forget that nine-game win streak so readily. Northwestern fans should expect regression to the mean and struggles. But what the program doesn’t understand is that its inability to create any sort of real identity or consistency, other than winning close games that it shouldn’t have won and losing close games it should not have lost, the program itself ceases to mean anything. That’s especially the case when its a team that is basically trying to forge its own identity in the last 25 years or so. Maybe building to something is expecting far too much from kids (it is), but that’s just how college football works.

So we watch second half collapses like we did against Akron. We watch losses to Illinois State and blowout defeats to Duke and Penn State. We watch triple-overtime wins and near-disastrous endgame decision-making. We let the waves crash over us, never once feeling our support or hard-earned dollars actually mean anything, in the long-term. We watch former players make fun of their team’s inconsistency:

We all complain a lot. That sucks the life out of a fanbase and a coach’s tenure, slowly but surely, no matter how much marketing or new stuff you can invest to keep it going. But why do we do it? Last year, I wrote about how much it sucks to have to write these pieces. Now, after what occurred this weekend, I want to know why we do this. I want to know why Les Miles got run out of LSU. The man won a National Championship and became a state hero. By the end, he was reviled and suffered a humiliating midseason firing.

You need to build something, show something, be something to stay alive out there. If you fail, you become Oregon State. You can go a long way by simply being something in college football. Jim Harbaugh is something, even if it doesn’t seem to be entirely effective or remotely likable! This is, of course, complete sports fan insanity — football games are inherently random and if a tipped ball goes the other way in this game, maybe we’re not having this conversation. In the end, all college football fans are passengers; Northwestern football just does a particularly bad job of hiding the bitter truth. Or maybe its fans are too good at seeing through the lie. Either way, it’s bad.

Which brings us back to Northwestern and Akron. Those are the kinds of losses that usually get people fired. Second half collapses are always infinitely worse than first half implosions. Having a lead and then losing it is, perhaps unfairly, seen as a greater sign of weakness than if you get completely destroyed in the early going. Psychologically, the second half collapse is more devastating. It robs us of more emotional investment. It makes people angry.

II. The Race

“At least you didn’t collapse as badly as Northwestern did last night!” a friend jokes.

I’m not necessarily sure that’s true. I mean, there’s no real way of comparing a blown 21-3 halftime lead to the Akron Zips and cramping up in the second half of a marathon while you were trying to qualify for Boston. I ran 26 minutes slower in the second half of the marathon than the first. In fact, you can pinpoint the implosion to an exact second, right around the time I stopped for Gatorade and exited the shade to find the sun directly overhead and my hopes and dreams rapidly exiting stage left. When this precise moment of “Oh s***, this is not going to end well” occurred in the Akron/Northwestern game (this was the strip-sack, fumble recovery touchdown), I think I laughed out of pity. How cruel and stupid of me. Here, in the midst of the collapse, I just wanted it to be over. It looked like Northwestern football just wanted it to be over at times in that second half too.

That failure does not compare to England in the World Cup this year or the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. You cannot compare any of these things quantitatively or probabilistically. You can say someone had an X percent chance of winning the game from that point, but that’s just a number. You cannot compare the processes that lead to total meltdown in different sports because there is too much going on. But you can compare the mental processes and the human emotions that strangle us when the second half collapse happens. That might just be universal.

In long-distance races, staying at the same pace is a critical part of the game. While I was waking up at 4 a.m. and driving to the Fox Valley Marathon, Eliud Kipchoge won the Berlin Marathon and set a world record time of 2:01:39, smashing the previous record by over a minute. As one would expect from the greatest marathoner in human history, his pacing was pretty darn good: every one of his 1 km splits was between 2:43 and 2:59. Most of them were in a narrower band between 2:50 and 2:55. For 18 miles, I had held at my goal pace of 6 minutes and 50 seconds per mile. Then, everything fell apart. My legs cramped up twice, I limped into the finish line, and my overall time ended up being 50 seconds slower per mile than previously, which is an astonishingly bad second half collapse.

In fact, if I were a college football team, you could even laugh because this had happened before. In my first marathon, I cramped at around the 15-mile mark and was basically forced to walk to the finish line. Ha ha ha, classic Tristan Jung marathoning, going out at a pace and completely failing to seal the deal. Hilarious. Except it really wasn’t hilarious because I was in an incredible amount of pain.

In many ways, this collapse was worse than Northwestern’s. The Wildcats have nine more games to redeem themselves. This was the last possible weekend to qualify for the Boston Marathon for 2019. That’s it. This was the championship round. I remember crossing the 18-mile mark knowing that I needed to cover the final 8.2 miles in one hour. Even if I ran each of the eight miles 30 seconds slower than I’d done the previous 18, I’d be fine. But that didn’t happen. I ran each mile a full 50 seconds slower than the previous 18, and that meant I was finished.

For the long distance runners of America who don’t run in a competitive scholastic setting or are professionals, running a marathon, however stupid and macabre the process becomes, temporarily, the reason your running career exists.

“They’re the only thing that make me feel like I’m doing anything substantial,” a friend said to me afterward.

And the Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of them all, is the pinnacle of this need to make distance running mean something, to have a reason for being out there pounding out miles in the pouring rain or the dead of winter. Just as college football programs depend on narrative to sate its fans, runners require times or huge races to create a reason for being. There aren’t many runners who run because the sport is inherently enjoyable. Anyway, these are also likely fleeting thoughts in the American desire for total entertainment forever. There aren’t any other countries with massively ingrained distance running cultures and college football, after all.

And maybe it’s because my running career and especially my “long race” career has been a series of terrifyingly inconsistent and arbitrary results that seem to be heading in an endless spiral of stagnancy, but as my friend remarks that it couldn’t have been as bad as Northwestern’s loss to Akron, I remind myself I couldn’t have been in a position that dissimilar to Northwestern football as I trudged along mile 24.

I’ve lost to quad/hamstring/calf/FCS cramps for the second time in three years despite showing considerable progress and self-affirmation in half marathons and beating all the teams and people I’ve needed to beat. Yet while you’re in the storm of the second half collapse it feels like nothing is ever changing nor ever will, and this lack of change has actually become somewhat addicting and self-sustaining as a method of constantly demanding more resources and time for yourself even if the results and the faces become more and more fractured as the pavement slides away from you. And you made sure you didn’t even attend that game so you could get a full night’s sleep, but you only slept five hours because you needed to post about it. And you weren’t sure whether you needed to go for it on fourth down up 21-10, but what else were you going to do? You needed to do something. The full night’s sleep didn’t even matter but it’s a sign of your inability to fully understand what you are trying to accomplish, as if you have your own set of assistant coaches and bad habits that you will never, ever relinquish...and now it’s all irrelevant because you missed the time you wanted by 17 minutes. Seventeen!

III. The Play

I was lucky enough to see Hamilton for the first time on this jam-packed weekend. It was great. I’ve never seen anything like it before. I was not in the class of Northwestern students that watched a performance for free, nor am I in the subset of Americans that love musical theater fervently. However, I do like history and good music, which meant I enjoyed the show greatly.

In addition to the central themes of historical memory, revolution, the creative process, and hip-hop, the show is obsessed with the idea of being something in America. In its retelling to the first people who ever tried to be anything in the United States, it reveals certain lessons about what to do and what not to do. The first two songs of the musical are about what Alexander Hamilton was and what he tried to be. Miranda sees something about the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) of America, the raw desire to be something, to create a story about oneself that lasts by any means necessary, that he sees as central to the American identity.

“What’s your name?”
“What comes next?”
“Who will tell your story?”

These central questions are repeated throughout the show because they are the fundamental ideas of how to be something in America, something which is so very important. This interpretation is also pretty damn obvious and so 2016, but it also strikes at a simple truth of narrative that haunts everything we do. Americans must be something and craft self-narrative because narratives are paramount. The musical subverts this idea by focusing on how the person telling the narrative changes the nature of everything. Northwestern football and my marathoning subvert this idea by not supplying any coherent plot whatsoever.

This might be fine for me trying to improve and find motivations to stay physically active on an individual basis. But on a corporate level, we find this lack of narrative to be fundamentally wrong. Is that why Fitz is throwing out insane Communist RPO comments? Is he trying to build something, anything out of his football team? Probably not, but there’s no doubt someone at Northwestern is trying to build some new future for the entire athletic department (who else could be commissioning all of those facility profiles?), but right now it doesn’t look like its working. As Ben Goren wrote yesterday:

“That’s a lot of money that Northwestern spent to get its mouth placed on a Central Street curb and then get the back of its head stomped on repeatedly by the Akron Zips...Northwestern likes talking about winning championships, and being a serious team that is serious about success, and also apparently likes losing to Akron. What they are not interested in is getting better...”

Maybe the most tragic lesson from Hamilton (for the sake of argument, not including the truly astonishing second-half collapse of the life and career of Alexander Hamilton, a collapse far greater and more stupid than every bad sports-related loss combined) is that failing to stand for something and failing to find a coherent platform to entertain, inspire and assist people makes you a villainous loser in the eyes of history. That’s how it went for Aaron Burr (sir), after all. And no matter how much the musical does to de-villainize Burr and make him a truly sympathetic character, in the end he winds up as one of history’s great villains.

History will not take kindly to these Northwestern teams. I mean, I hope someone remembers them, but I’m not sure Northwestern’s own fanbase can remember them properly, something that we covered when Justin Jackson left last year and how maybe 20 students showed up for Senior Day last year. After Northwestern escaped from being the worst power conference team in the country, no one really knows what happened next. I’m not sure it’s even justified or possible to want more from this team, but in the eyes of the general public and its own expectations, we’re never going to get respect or be satisfied with what’s happening on the field right now, even when the successes inevitably come back. And we know what Northwestern’s like when something truly special is happening. Plenty of fans remember 1995. The whole country remembers the 2016 NCAA Tournament run. It’s possible. These things can happen. That feeling of wonder when Northwestern walks onto a huge stage for the first time—it’s tantalizing.

But for now, it’s a better version of the Indiana Football Effect, just over a shorter period of time and with one coach. As long as Northwestern never builds a decent offensive line and never sniffs a championship game, we’re just going to keep on doing this indefinitely. But other people who know more about football can give you the solutions. What I’m saying is that in a sport and a society where stagnancy and indecision are seen as pure negatives, Northwestern football will simply not be good enough. Northwestern football’s telling me to wait for it. Aaron Burr’s telling me to wait for it, repeatedly, he’s screaming it at me. I’m telling myself to wait for it. But what am I even waiting for? A loss to Akron? A full 17 minutes slower than my goal? Disgrace and getting prosecuted for fraud? Wait for what?

If you are going to make an entertainment product, it must be compelling. If you are going to be treated like a college football powerhouse or a political entity, you need to take a side. If I am going to qualify for Boston, I need to find something within myself and improve to get over the line.

If not, you’re going to keep losing to Akron.