Expectations are an antagonizing friend of failure. What’s worse than failing? Failing amid a reasoned hope for success.
Yes, 40 years ago, Northwestern lost 34 straight games in what still holds as the worst stretch in Division I football. It was bad. But that skid lasted from 1979 to 1982. Nearly three full seasons of losing.
When NU finally picked up a win against Northern Illinois, it was a welcome surprise. After all, the team had lost every game that season up until that point. And they’d lost every game the season prior. And every matchup from the season before that. Oh, and all but one of its competitions from a year earlier. Look back to 1976, and the team had tallied three wins, 62 losses and a tie. Losing was expected, so that lovely September win in ‘82 was all the sweeter.
Flash forward a few decades, and the ‘Cats are just two seasons removed from finishing as a top-ten squad in the AP Top 25, a team that went on to smack Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. In 2017 and 2018, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats were consistent residents of the AP Poll and neutral stadiums, in which they won two bowl games. Coaches, players, students and the school’s administration haven’t fostered an expectation for losing yet.
That’s why a 1-11 campaign, highlighted only by a win against Nebraska in Ireland, is so deflating to a recently optimistic fanbase. Yes, it wasn’t as bad of a showing compared to the ‘Cats of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but that doesn’t mean the pain accompanying each loss was any less crushing.
So what does a truly “bad” season look like? Is it purely about the digits in the win-loss column, or is there more nuance in how outsiders thought the team would perform?
Granted, I might be informed by recency bias — seeing as though I’m fresh off watching Northwestern go 0-for-America — but there has to be some incorporation of preseason expectations when examining the year as a whole.
How naive myself and the rest of the Inside NU staff were in our record predictions. The consensus seemed to hover around an assumption that NU would notch anywhere from four to six Ws in 2022. Only one writer, John Olsen, was pessimistic enough to forecast a one-win season. To disregard the semblances of hope people like us had for the team heading into Week Zero would be irresponsible in making a proper conclusion.
Sure, we might’ve been slightly disillusioned, living no more than a 15-minute drive from Ryan Field and sitting next to players in our classes. But when the wisdom of the crowds is proven so wrong, the notice is not just on the crowd’s methodology, but also the subject of its forecast. Expectations matter.
This is all to get at my overarching thesis: the Wildcats’ 2022 debacle ranks just as high as any of the totally defeated seasons the program experienced decades ago. Faith in a Northwestern win in 1981 was lunacy. Faith in a win, at least to an FCS school, in 2022 was far from presumptuous — before it was proven to be.
Northwestern currently stands alongside UMass as the worst program in the FBS, both having gone 1-17 in the last year and a half. Fitzgerald’s program is in a realm so isolated from the rest of college football that his only company is that of a team who has failed to win more than one game in each of its last four seasons. Two things separate UMass’ season from Northwestern’s: the Minutemen were able to win a home game, and they succeeded in beating their one FCS opponent, Stony Brook.
This column isn’t meant to be a rant, but it’s hard to frame a season as dismal as this one in any brighter context.
In an effort to illuminate the silver lining of this campaign, it’s important to look at the implications of prior catastrophic seasons. When the ‘Cats were on their aforementioned epic losing spell back in the late ‘70s, they cycled through three coaches: John Pont, Rick Venturi and Dennis Green. From 1976 to 1982, the team sent seven players to the NFL.
Northwestern returned to its utterly defeated ways in 1989 under coach Francis Peay, going 0-11. No one on that roster was drafted the following spring. Peay left NU two years later and never assumed the helm of a team after.
In 1998 and 2002, the Wildcats went 3-9. Four players were picked up by NFL teams in the following draft before Fitzgerald was ushered in as the new head coach in 2006.
Evidently, losing is not a new phenomenon for Northwestern. It’s happened before, and there’s reasonable suspicion that it’ll happen again. Coaches have been fired, and few to no players were taken in the proceeding NFL drafts as a consequence of terrible records.
At least the team will produce some pro-ready prospects this spring, likely in Peter Skoronski and Evan Hull. As for Fitz’s status, the future remains hazy. A clearing of house, at least among his staff, is not out of the question in the coming weeks.
And in an age of high-stakes recruiting and the glamorized transfer portal, the 2022 season might have more long-term impacts than those past losing years. Expect high school juniors and seniors to flip their commitments and a wave of already-rostered athletes to enter the portal in the next few days. It’ll be hard to keep afloat an already flailing program as excitement about it fizzles.
Aside from the hopeful NFL players to emerge from this team, there isn’t much to look back upon fondly. Coaching changes are inevitable, player retention will prove to be a challenge and enthusiasm amongst fans is near all-time lows. All in all, this year will shelf itself as another volume in the Library of Losing, where Northwestern owns multiple aisles.