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MAILBAG: Getting set for the athletic season after a turbulent summer

Many are saying that Northwestern will not lose a game in any sport this fall.

Northwestern Athletics

The 2023-24 athletic year has already begun for Northwestern, with no Wildcat team having dropped a game thus far (sincerely hoping this isn’t a jinx). Following what is likely the wildest and most controversial summer in school history, and with NU football returning in only eight days, here are our answers to your fall-themed questions.

“Which @NUFHCats matchup are you most excited for and why?” -@_kaylacohen

Iggy: Thursday, the 26th of October. Save the date. Start off your Halloweekend by heading over to Lakeside Field at 3 p.m. to watch the nation’s preseason No. 2 and No. 3 teams — Northwestern and Maryland — face off in their final regular season games. Not only is this a rematch of the national semifinal, conference tournament seeding could also very well be on the line. Given that the Big Ten might be more stacked in field hockey than the SEC is in football (FIVE of the nation’s top seven schools come from the B1G), any chance at securing a bye and avoiding an extra match is a golden opportunity. If that’s at stake in two months, this one should feel like a playoff atmosphere.

All three matches between the Terps and the ‘Cats were decided by a goal in 2022, and the regular season clash should be no different. There should be intriguing matchups all over the pitch; one that stands out to me is how an Alia Marshall-led defense will try to shut down All-American forward Hope Rose and a lethal Maryland attack that ranked third in the NCAA in goals per game last year. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great games on Northwestern’s schedule — look no further than tomorrow’s opener — but I don’t think it gets any better than this when it comes to regular season action.

Bradley: Iggy stole what would have been my answer, so I’ll go with NU’s game against Iowa on Oct. 6. Last year, the Wildcats and Hawkeyes played two phenomenal contests. In the first matchup, Northwestern lost 2-0, but the ‘Cats had 16 shots to Iowa’s three (yes, you read that right). A terrific outing by GK Grace McGuire led the visitors to an improbable win. Then, the teams squared off in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, which proved to be a true thriller. Northwestern prevailed 2-1, edging Iowa 4-3 in a penalty shootout after two overtimes. Expect more fireworks between the preseason No. 2 and No. 7 squads, who both figure to be in contention for the Big Ten title in 2023 despite losing some key members.

“How is everyone feeling about covering the team? Fully support the team as it currently exists? Conflicted? Not supporting the team, just keeping it professional and covering them? (Limiting it to football, but expand as you see fit)” -@Cyan220

Bradley: Conflicted would be a good way to describe it for me. As a Northwestern student, I want to see my peers (and David Braun) do well, and for the school and the surrounding community to experience a successful, enjoyable season — especially after the ‘Cats went 4-20 in 2021-22. Heck, it’s beneficial if the team does well for even those of us covering it, with more energy and optimism, unique storylines and even high-stakes games to attend.

At the same time, it’s impossible for me to view the upcoming season from purely a football lens with all that’s been revealed — with lots of questions lingering about coaches, team culture, players’ involvement and what we still don’t know. Those emotions might start to dissipate a bit as we move into October and November, but this scandal will permeate for several years. It’s natural for people at Northwestern or in the Wildcats’ fanbase to be unsure of how to react, and likely will be the case until more healing can be done.

Iggy: Having never been through anything like this before, I’d be lying if I said I could give you a definitive answer about how I feel right now. What puts this into perspective for me is that there are members of the program who got to Northwestern after January. They dealt with an administration and investigation for a team they weren’t part of. I can’t speak for them, of course, but I’d bet they in particular have been through much more than we have these past few weeks.

Even though you asked more about the coverage side rather than the fandom side, I think it’s important to stress that INU is a mix of both, to an extent. I’m going to root for this team, and I want it to succeed. But, as Bradley said, there’s so much that hasn’t been uncovered, and it won’t be unless the public gets access to the full report. There are a couple of things, especially the characterization of this scandal as mere “adversity” that can be put into the past with on-field play and team unity alone, that I feel uneasy about. Ultimately, though, our job isn’t supposed to be easy. This is a team that is a fundamental part of the Northwestern sports community that this site’s audience belongs to, and it’s our responsibility to cover it.

“Rank the following WR’s by where you expect them to finish the year in yards receiving: Johnson, Kirtz, Henning, Fleurima, Covey, Gray, Gill. Bradley “Inside Sources” Locker didn’t have Fleurima listed anywhere in his WR heirarchy tweets which is a concern.” -@Bklynmarketer

Bradley: For one, I appreciate the cheeky nickname “Inside Sources” (probably one of my favorite negative things said so far, to be honest), but my only real exposure to the team’s practice sessions was via a 45-minute drills period during one day. Rather, based on what I project for this receiver room and what Northwestern football has shared on social media, there hasn’t been much discussion or footage of Fleurima working with the starters. He was a highly touted recruit for a reason, but played only 16 snaps last season. I would say he’s definitively behind at least Johnson, Henning, Kirtz and Gill, if not Covey, but there’s certainly a chance he could break onto the scene in a WR corps that doesn’t have solidified depth.

In terms of my prediction for receiving yards, I’d lean Johnson, then Henning, Kirtz, Gill, Covey, Gray and Fleurima. I would have put Henning first, but my guess is that Northwestern will try to give him considerable touches on sweeps and other run plays, which might diminish his receiving total. Also, it seems that the team is decently high on Covey, so he’s a sleeper to watch.

Iggy: Henning, Johnson, Kirtz, Gill, Gray, Covey, Fleurima. I think it’s key to note how heavily Mike Bajakian and his QB room worked the slot last year. Everyone knew that Malik Washington would headline the 2022 room before the season started, but I don’t know if anyone predicted that Washington would nearly triple Donny Navarro III’s output. That’s why I feel like Henning will be the leader, with Johnson and Kirtz following closely behind. I’ll slot Gill fourth since he was the biggest deep threat last year of the remaining receivers, with Gray, Covey and Fleurima being a toss-up depending on who sees the most playing time down the stretch.

“What are some fun ideas of non-NUFB things to do on fall Saturdays in Evanston/Chicago?” -@BenChasen_ via Instagram

Iggy: The obvious (and best) answer is going to the Evanston Farmers’ Market, which runs on Saturday mornings until the beginning of November. I really enjoy the local farmers’ market in my hometown, which is how I found out about Evanston’s in freshman year, but I would go so far as saying Maple Avenue’s market blows the other one out of the water. Other cool things:

  • Go for a run somewhere on the lakefront (Grant Park especially), or just walk/jog up to Gillson Park in Wilmette and check out the foliage.
  • The Cubs are in a playoff race and play two Saturday games at Wrigley in September. As someone who does not root for a competitive baseball team, this seems really cool to go watch.
  • Go to Bennison’s early in the morning and walk around the Lakefill while it’s still quiet, or get brunch at any of the 5-10 restaurants that have quality breakfast in Evanston.
  • Walk around Navy Pier, or go to the Art Institute.
  • I somehow haven’t been to Christkindlmarket yet, but that’s a must in late November.
  • Watch UChicago football, which hasn’t had a losing record since 2016 (I’m so sorry)

Bradley: To add on to Iggy’s great list, checking out some of Chicago’s notable museums is always a great time, especially the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry and even Chicago Sports Museum. Also, walking around campus and admiring the changing colors of the leaves (especially in Shakespeare Garden) wouldn’t disappoint. There should be some fun concerts, too, like 50 Cent, Bob Dylan and more. Personally, my answer is usually to bask in other college football — we need to savor PAC-12 After Dark while we can, and my Student Media Poll top-25 rankings won’t create themselves.

“After back-to-back 1-11 seasons and the unmitigated disaster that was this summer, Northwestern football has clearly destroyed any sort of momentum their program had built up in the solid 2015-20 stretch. Does this program have a path back to relevance? If so, what does that even look like?” -JWoodNU

Bradley: The 2023 season might very well be another bleak one, but I’d point to November as to what could be a pivotal point in returning to stability and success. At the end of the year, the Wildcats will begin evaluating what they want to do at head coach. If David Braun doesn’t steer the ‘Cats to at least four or five wins, I’d expect Derrick Gragg (or whoever the athletic director is at the time) and the school’s administration to seek a long-term, high-profile candidate to begin to rebuild the team and its values.

If Northwestern lands either a well-respected veteran or a flashy up-and-comer, that could provide major dividends in recruiting. Just look at how schools with eye-catching new head coaches in the last few years (e.g., Nebraska, UCF) have flipped a switch and become destinations for premier talent. In terms of traits that new coach should possess, understanding how to utilize the modern framework of college football (namely NIL and the transfer portal), plus implementing a contemporary style of football (with specific focus on offensive creativity) are paramount. Pat Fitzgerald was not highly effective at either, and it’s a big reason why NU has been very poor in three of the last four years.

At the end of the day, the choice for the Wildcats’ next leader after this year will be the most important step in restoring the program and its hopes of contending for a Big Ten title, whether that’s Braun or an outsider. It’s not overly outlandish to think that Northwestern could become competitive again as soon as 2024 or 2025, because turnarounds can be swift in college football, but that’s largely predicated on hiring the right coach, constructing a good staff, landing top talent and maximizing existing players’ skills.

“The coaches that wore the #51 Cats’ Against The World shirt, will they never get a job in the future due to them publicly defending Fitz?” -@JacobBerger2022

Bradley: I wouldn’t say they’ll never get jobs, because many of them are still coaches that would be sought after if they left Evanston. In terms of their stances, their support of Fitzgerald is one that is probably not rare across the country and on different campuses. I would sincerely doubt that them wearing those shirts — despite the controversy it sparked and it forcing Gragg to call them “inappropriate” and “tone deaf” — would inhibit their future employment as coaches.

“Basketball season is still around 2 months away, but I haven’t seen anyone talking about it so I’ll speak up about the subject: Is Coach McKeown on the hot seat entering the 2023-24 season? He has been overall a pretty solid head coach at Northwestern, but last year was awful, and this year doesn’t look much better if I’m not mistaken.” -Purduefan2022

Bradley: McKeown is only under contract for two more seasons, including the one ahead. As you mentioned, he’s been successful in Evanston, and is a widely respected figure in the sport of basketball. I would have a hard time believing that Northwestern would fire McKeown — with one more extra year on his deal — if Gragg didn’t do so with Chris Collins after 2021-22, even if the Wildcats struggle again in 2023-24. The year ahead does look somewhat gloomy minus Sydney Wood and Courtney Shaw, but growth from players like Caroline Lau and Hailey Weaver — plus continued production from Caileigh Walsh and Paige Mott — means that NU should experience some upward trends.

Iggy: Coincidentally, the Big Ten is about as strong as it’s ever been right when Northwestern enters a multi-year rebuilding phase for the first time in about a decade. I agree with Bradley here; I think the ‘Cats would have to be worse than last year for Derrick Gragg to even consider letting go of McKeown before his contract ends. And it’s not like the recruiting pipeline has gone dry, either. He’s already gotten Butler College Prep point guard Xamiya Walton, ESPN’s No. 53 2024 recruit, to commit to Northwestern. This team is still young with a bunch of talented players, and it should be competitive again in 2024-25. If it isn’t, then I think it’s worth wondering if NU will renew his contract.

“What’s the best way to decarbonize the transportation sector?” -Tristan Jung via Instagram

Iggy: Limiting this to Northwestern (and Chicago, sort of), here’s the plan. My City Council campaign begins now:

VERY thankful I’m not enduring the disgusting heat wave in Evanston right now, but swimming/paddleboarding/sailing to class through the Lakefill in 100-degree weather would be incredible. If that $480 million for the new Ryan Field happens to go somewhere else, go get some sailboats. Better yet, let students sail down Lake Michigan from Evanston Campus to Chicago Campus. Even when this campus is frozen over as it tends to be six months a year, taking pictures like you’re George Washington crossing the Delaware River will be unforgettable. Carbon emissions from those weekend Ubers and Red Line rides won’t be the only footprint disappearing; that financial footprint will also shrink.

If this doesn’t scream “and is in my DNA,” I really don’t know what does. Not to mention that the new tuition bills would hit harder than a windmill — now that’s what I call decarbonization.

Bradley: I nominate Iggy to be the next Secretary of Transportation based on that answer alone.

“I guess the subject I’d be curious to hear you discuss is what you ask staffers do to get up to speed on NU’s history in order to fully appreciate the context in which their reporting unfolds. I ask as a predicate to asking (with the assumption that you all had previous opinions on stories that pre-dated some or all of your time at Inside NU): Have the current summer’s athletic department scandals in any way changed your perspective on Northwestern’s role in the Rashidi Wheeler tragedy, the Kain Colter/CAPA story, the Johnny Vassar story, or the Hayden Richardson story?” -NU’06er

Iggy: This will be long, so please bear with me. Honestly, this is one of the best questions we’ve ever had. It’s a tough one. Regarding the first part, it really depends because everyone’s fan experiences prior to NU widely differ. On one hand, we’ve had multiple writers on staff (and even on our executive board currently) from Greater Chicago who weren’t just familiar with Northwestern football before college; they grew up with it. On the other hand, you have people like me. I’m from New York City, and I wasn’t at all passionate about Northwestern football, or really any other college team for that matter, going into NU.

Because of that, we’ve tended to have a pretty hands-off approach for staffers since I’ve been at INU when it comes to teaching them about the program’s history beyond, say, five years ago. If someone takes or pitches an article that requires them to incorporate historical knowledge, then we’ll expect them to do the research or ask for help, but they don’t typically have to encounter hard reporting from the jump (or even at all, if they don’t want to) that touches the sensitive stories like Colter’s, Wheeler’s or even ones like Randy Walker’s and Mike Polisky’s.

From my experience becoming a managing editor last spring, I remember just taking the initiative to read a bunch of stories (and even the comments) here and elsewhere. I distinctly remember reading through Henry Bushnell’s oral history on the 1995 team, which might be the best thing this site has ever published. It wasn’t even just so I could feel capable of covering the teams more deeply, it was more so because the conversations within exec were at a high enough level where I felt like I needed to do my homework to keep up with everyone else. Typically, because the staffers we promote to exec have demonstrated significant interest in NU sports and the site already, they’ll take the initiative to learn more themselves.

That being said, I’m not sure if anything would have prepared me for this summer. It’s worth noting that our executive board did all of the site’s reporting for everything that took place, which I think made it easier for everyone to grasp how monumental this was in considering the historical path of the football program.

Of the cases you mentioned, I was most familiar with Richardson’s and Wheeler’s before July (North by Northwestern’s 2016 story on Wheeler’s on-campus legacy is a terrific read). Both, to differing extents, involve administrative officials trying to quell the impact of two horrifying incidents that directly involved higher-ups. The Wheeler tragedy really stands out to me, because if you go back and read The Daily Northwestern’s 2003 story on Dr. Mark Gardner admitting he acted alone in burning the records from Wheeler’s physical, the Northwestern administrator’s quote tries to detach NU from the situation without showing any sympathy for Wheeler’s parents. The administrator did so even though the university had employed Gardner in 2001 when Wheeler died.

No matter what your perspective is on the hazing scandal, I think most can agree that Derrick Gragg, Michael Schill and the Northwestern administration as a whole have primarily aimed to soften the PR and legal blow for the school as much as possible. Whether the consensus has agreed with them or not — and more often than not, it hasn’t — that’s what has happened. Thus, this really solidified the view I already had: when it comes to situations involving the transparency of sensitive information, higher educational administrations need to be viewed with some skepticism at least initially because they’ve historically put their own self-interest ahead of the best interest of the student-athletes.

Bradley: I was a Northwestern fan before I was a student and an INU writer, so I felt pretty sound in my understanding of the school and its recent athletic history. But, we recommend for all of our new writers to at least be aware of how Wildcat teams have performed in the last five years, plus understand program greats and important contexts (e.g., that men’s basketball has only made the NCAA Tournament twice, the longstanding success of lacrosse/softball/field hockey or football’s Rose Bowl journey). There aren’t exactly specific articles that we make staffers read or games they have to re-watch (if I were to pick one, though, I’d probably go with the 2017 MBB win over Michigan), but we expect writers to have baseline knowledge.

The events of this summer have definitely opened my eyes to the questionable intentions of Northwestern’s athletic department, specifically to minimize the concerns of student-athletes despite large-scale, endemic issues. Along those lines, what has been uncovered about NU’s hazing incidents in football and volleyball, plus how Gragg handled the hiring (and “firing”) of Jim Foster, grants credence to the stories of Vassar and Richardson. It’s clear that the university does not have a scot-free past with investigating itself or living up to its deep-seated guidelines, which the details from early July onward reinforce. Hopefully, we’ll start to see positive change and more concrete support of student-athletes, particularly potential victims, moving forward — not just in Evanston, but everywhere.