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An ode to the 1976-81 Northwestern Wildcats — the ultimate underdogs

If only we had access to these betting lines.

In the words of Inside NU commenter TomNU’83’s legendary byline, this is the program that survived 34 straight moral victories. An accomplishment so infamous, that after breaking fellow purple-lover Kansas State’s record for consecutive defeats with their 29th straight loss — a 61-14 drubbing at the hands of Michigan State — the Northwestern students chanted “We’re the worst! We’re the worst!” as they sprinted onto Dyche Stadium and tossed the goalposts into Lake Michigan.

According to former Wildcat turned legendary sports writer Rick Telander in his 1995 Sports Illustrated piece, Northwestern historians refer to the 3-62-1 stretch of football in Evanston from 1976-81 as the Tranquil Period, a time that’s better forgotten than remembered.

It seems as though the University’s archival and social media offices got the message, as only two games from this era are available on YouTube, the first being a 27-22 comeback victory over Wyoming in 1979, which was the last victory preceding the 34-game drought and the lone mark in the W column during Rick Venturi’s tenure. But for some reason, the University page has also uploaded the previously mentioned record-breaking failure against the Spartans in 1981. Not just highlights, mind you, but a full 40 minutes of game tape in which the ‘Cats get steamrolled like a Lovie Smith coached team trying to stop the read option.

(Because I’m either insane, stupid or both, I watched all four clips in their entirety. I’m giving you the opportunity to endure the same torture)

The proceedings of this game were embarrassing enough before one realizes that Michigan St. was no powerhouse, entering the game a paltry 3-5. Furthermore, NU scoring 14 points was considered a miraculous feat — its third-highest scoring output of the season, and the first points the ‘Cats had put on the board in nearly a month. Northwestern managed 23 points in a loss to Minnesota on October 7, then promptly lost to Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined score of 125-0, failing to do anything significant on the field until November 7.

The 52-0 beating administered by the Badgers was so bad that in a New York Times piece titled “Losing is No Joke at Northwestern”, backup fullback Jim Browne said the Wildcats were, “Not just beat, but creamed. It was like we were run over by a Mack truck.”

That entire ‘81 season deserves a Dorktown video courtesy of Jon Bois. No matter what Northwestern did, things only got worse. That three-game scoreless streak was a part of a six-game stretch in which the ‘Cats were shutout five times en route to a season scoring average of 7.5 points per game.

“What’s been really discouraging is that we seem to have good practices,” Browne said in the article. “We’ve got our spirit up, and we really feel we’re going to win the next game. And then we go out and get beat.”

The lore of 1981 Northwestern’s ineptitude goes on to the point that a Rutgers-centric post used them as a point of ridicule this past season, but they were merely the result of this monstrosity, not the cause.

Five seasons’ worth of recruiting from the previous head coaches Venturi (1978-80) and John Pont (1973-77) left the roster in such disarray that in his first year at the helm in 1981, Dennis Green was quoted as saying that his players were about 40 pounds lighter on average than their counterparts at other Big Ten schools.


The 1980 ‘Cats were another 0-11 train wreck that actually had the best offense of any Northwestern team during this stretch, averaging a stellar-by-comparison 13.7 points per game while the defense surrendered 40.4 points per game. Yet, they never came as close as the ‘81 team to securing that elusive victory. NU fell to Indiana 21-20 in the 1981 season opener, whereas the ‘80 squad’s smallest margin of defeat was a 17-10 game against No. 11 Michigan.

The ‘79 Wildcats (1-10) sported the stingiest defense of any Venturi squad, allowing “only” 35.1 points per game and ceding more than 50 points only twice. Venturi’s first team in ‘78 (0-10-1) was his worst offensively. Its offense netted 8.4 points per game, and the defense gave up an even 40 most of the time. Add it all up, and in three years the Venturi-led ‘Cats were outscored 1,270 to 358 over the course of 33 games.

John Pont was at least able to put together back-to-back one win seasons in the Tranquil Period, toppling Michigan State 42-21 in ‘76 and claiming the now-HAT in ‘77 by defeating Illinois 21-7.

But don’t confuse these teams with competence. One of the few proofs of their existence alive on the internet is a single play against Michigan in ‘77, when they made a tight end who finished with two career touchdowns look like the the first coming of George Kittle.

Of course, NU didn’t continue to wallow in morbid despair (at least to the extent that they were before). After his turbulent start, Dennis Green built the program up to a steady pace of 2-3 wins per year, and save an outlier 0-11 season in 1989, Francis Peay continued that trend after succeeding Green. From there, the trio of Gary Barnett, Randy Walker and Pat Fitzgerald have done such a job that a whole generation of fans knows Northwestern to be tough, gritty overachievers that find a way to piece together a respectable winning season.

So yes, for those who know and love Northwestern football, this story does have a happy ending. But what’s in it for those players who suffered through the six years of losing, through the 34 straight moral victories?

Where is the redemption for part-kicker, part-wide receiver Jay Anderson who would for an hour stare at his apartment walls after losses as a way to cope?

I think Kevin Trahan, one of the founding members of Inside NU, put it best in his final post on the site. Northwestern sports makes no sense.

It doesn’t make sense for a private, academics-first school to take on some of the most storied programs in collegiate football history year after year.

It doesn’t make sense that this era somehow produced Chris Hinton, a seven-time Pro Bowler and key piece in one of the most important trades in NFL history, and Dennis Green, who did not finish the first nine years of his professional career with a losing season.

It doesn’t make sense that the program recovered and eventually grew into something that’s expected to produce here in the 21st century.

Against the world at large, sports is an underdog. Sports is the escape from the struggles of the real world to appreciate the extraordinary silliness of a created one. Sure, a lot of people on the planet love sports and the superstars that populate the professional ranks, but that sympathy doesn't extend to super fans and stat nerds that are willing to delve into the unspectacular teams. The outside world sees them as outcasts and nobody’s who should try to commit their mind and memory to something else.

That sentiment can be intimidating. Why follow sports when you weren’t gifted enough to be a collegiate or professional athlete?

Because part of us likes being the underdog. There’s a small amount of pride that Northwestern fans hold in the recesses of their minds that they’re the school with the 34-game losing streak. It gives them an edge and motivation to try and prove others wrong even though their still just fans at the end of the day.

The 1976-81 Northwestern Wildcats were quite possibly the worst major conference football teams in collegiate history. They were the ultimate underdogs, and most especially, they show us why we love this crazy, stupid sport.