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Putting Northwestern’s disappointing 2019 season into historical context

It certainly wasn’t great, but was it the worst?

Northwestern Wildcats Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images

Northwestern made the wrong type of history in 2019.

For the first time, Pat Fitzgerald won just three games in a season. The year was undoubtedly the worst in Fitz’s tenure. Statistically speaking, this season is not close to the worst in NU history, but after winning a Big Ten West title in 2018, Northwestern’s high expectations entering 2019 made the outcome significantly worse.

Since Northwestern football’s founding in 1892, Northwestern has won three or less games 57 times. Of course, in many of the early seasons, there were only 5-7 games played per year. Still, to put this number in perspective, once the final AP poll is released this season, Alabama will have finished its season in the top 25 a total of 57 times.

Regardless, in the modern era of Northwestern football, 2019 is unprecedented. Northwestern finished its last season with three wins in 2002. What was happening in 2002?

Well, Eminem released “Lose Yourself,” Jimmy Carter met with Fidel Castro, and Ohio State, led by Craig Krenzel and Michael Jenkins, defeated Willis McGahee and the Miami Hurricanes in the National Championship (though the game was played in 2003).

For Northwestern, the team was in its fourth season of the Randy Walker era, previously coming off of a 4-7 season in 2001. The team’s three wins consisted of Duke, Navy, and Indiana: the trio combined for seven wins that season (IU was the only to win three games).

Paul Johnson, in his first season at Navy, finished the season with two wins, while Gerry DiNardo, also in his first season at IU, finished with three wins. NU was led by Brett Basanez at QB. For a three win team, NU had a surprising amount of talent. Seven players on the roster were drafted to the NFL. Trai Essex, Austin King, Zach Strief, Luis Castillo, Barry Cofield and Tim McGarigle (the current NU linebackers coach) were all members of the team. Pat Fitzgerald was an assistant with the program.

Looking back, there is one season in Northwestern’s FB history as disappointing as 2019: 1957.

In 1956, Ara Parseghian took the reigns from Lou Saban (a distant cousin of Nick Saban who finished his lone season at NU winless) and became Northwestern’s head coach. In Parseghian’s first season at NU, Northwestern finished at 4-4-1, a drastic improvement from a winless campaign just one year before. It was the start of a promising era for a legendary football coach in Parseghian.

With such a major improvement, it would have made sense for Northwestern to build upon it in 1957. Unfortunately, Northwestern finished that year winless. Similar to the 2019 season, Northwestern struggled to provide much productivity on offense. The team averaged just over 6 points a game in 1957 and its top offensive performance came in a 34-14 loss at #18 Michigan.

Interestingly, one member on Michigan’s football roster on the 1957 team holds interesting ties to NU: George Genyk, the father of current special teams coach Jeff Genyk and grandfather of punter Jake Genyk.

In hindsight, 1957 was so disappointing knowing how special of a coach Parseghian became. Given the momentum he built for the program in 1956 and NU only being limited to eight years of Parseghian, 1957 was a valuable year that was lost in his short tenure.

Fortunately, the legendary coach led Northwestern to a 5-4 record in the following year, including wins over #19 Michigan and #5 Ohio State.

In 2020, Northwestern’s toughest game appears to be against Penn State and Wisconsin. Will the Wildcats be able to bounce back from one of their worst seasons in modern history? The answer remains to be seen.

For fans that have followed Northwestern longer than us, where do you think this 2019 campaign ranks compared to the lowly seasons of the 20th century? Let us know in the comment section!