When John Pont resigned at the end of last season as football coach at Northwestern University, the reaction on the pretty, elm-shaded campus in Evanston, Ill. was muted. Northwestern had suffered through six straight losing seasons, five of them under Pont, who was also the Wildcats' athletic director. After the team hit bottom with identical 1-10 records the past two seasons, athletic director Pont decided it was time to fire coach Pont. More or less typical was the response of a student who was hunched over a book in the library when a reporter for The Daily Northwestern asked whether a new football coach might help.
The student grew thoughtful. "That's no job for a human being," he finally replied.
So far Northwestern's new coach, Rick Venturi, has fared no better than Pont. The 32-year-old Venturi was a Wildcat defensive back in the late 1960s and stuck around for a while as an assistant coach before serving on the football staffs at Purdue and Illinois. He was named head coach at his alma mater a couple of weeks after Pont's resignation. Intimating that he bled Wildcat purple the way Tom Lasorda bleeds Dodger blue, the upbeat Venturi introduced a multiple offense and a flashy passing attack, explaining, "We feel we can create problems for the other team." And as Venturi's first season neared, bumper stickers promising EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED! flowered in Evanston.
Unfortunately something then happened that Venturi simply couldn't avoid—the 1978 season began. In his coaching debut the Wildcats struggled to a 0-0 tie with lowly Illinois, but after that things went downhill. Northwestern suffered Big Ten losses to Iowa (20-3) and Wisconsin (28-7) and then took non-conference shellackings from Colorado (55-7) and Arizona State (56-14). Back in the Big Ten, the Wildcats lost to Indiana (38-10) before last Saturday's 38-14 defeat by Minnesota, giving it an 0-6-1 record. Northwestern's new multiple offense may have created problems, but opponents seemed to be solving them without noticeable difficulty.
October 30, 1978
Like Venturi, I am a Northwestern Old Grad and while I can't say I bleed Wildcat purple, I share his affection for the school. A private coeducational university of high academic and social standing, our alma mater has a strong faculty, a robust $260-million endowment and an agreeable setting in Evanston, an affluent Chicago suburb of 77,000. Flanked on one side by busy Sheridan Road, the campus overlooks the restful beaches and gentle surf of Lake Michigan on the other. To the south stretches Chicago, whose shimmering skyline looms down the lakefront. To the north lie leafy bedroom communities such as Kenilworth and Wilmette. Squirrels scamper across Northwestern's lawns and purple crocuses bloom on campus in the spring. All considered, a singularly favored place.
But Northwestern's aura of well-being does not extend to the gridiron, and with Venturi still seeking his first victory, the feeling grows that, indeed, his job really isn't suitable for homo sapiens. Even though it was a founding member of the Big Ten, Northwestern has always had trouble holding its own in the conference. It won its last Big Ten football title—and its only undisputed one—in 1936. The Big Ten used to be the strongest football conference in the country but, with the possible exceptions of Michigan and Ohio State, its football fortunes have declined in recent years, and Northwestern's have sunk lowest of all. Having won only two of its last 35 games—losing many by five touchdowns or more—Northwestern is lucky these days if it entices 20,000 fans into 48,500-seat Dyche Stadium. That would be a gratifying turnout for a Mid-American Conference scrap between Toledo and Ball State. But the Big Ten?
Nor has Northwestern done much better in other sports. It has been 47 years since the school won its only outright Big Ten basketball championship and it has never won a conference title in track and field, wrestling or gymnastics. Northwestern's last Big Ten championship in anything came in cross-country in 1965. It fields teams in 10 men's sports, and last year half of them finished in the Big Ten cellar. These included the golfers, whose coach, Mickey Louis, had big ideas about upsetting Michigan State for ninth place. But a couple of his players faltered, and on the second day of the three-day tournament Louis conceded, "We had two chances, slim and none, and slim just went home."
When Northwestern's baseball team won its first five conference games, a banner headline in the athletic department newsletter trumpeted WILDCATS LEAD BIG TEN IN BASEBALL. Northwestern then lost 10 of its next 11 conference games and finished eighth. NU's wrestlers placed sixth in the conference, and unless you try to make something out of a fifth-place finish in fencing—which is difficult to do, because only five teams competed—those were the strongest performances of any Wildcat men's team.
As Northwestern struggles along, all sorts of explanations are offered for its poor showings. It is noted that North-western is the only private school in the Big Ten and that it is the smallest, with 6,500 undergraduates compared to 14,100 at next-smallest Iowa on up to 35,000-plus at Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota. And that its tuition is $5,025, more than double the tab at any other Big Ten school. And that its alumni are relatively few and widely scattered. Yet none of this necessarily explains anything. After all, Notre Dame and USC are also private schools with small enrollments.
What does help account for Northwestern's disheartening performances is its determination to have it both ways in college sport. In one breath its boosters relish the "prestige"—a curious word, given its sorry won-lost records—that comes with involvement in big-time Big Ten athletics, and in the next, Northwestern people espouse what is close to an Ivy League philosophy. Although it awards athletic scholarships, which Ivy schools eschew. Northwestern imposes on its athletes the Big Ten's toughest admission requirements and course loads. Its officials express genuine disapproval of such practices as altering transcripts and withdrawing scholarships from those whose jump shots might have gone awry. They also take pains to make sure their athletes graduate—and during the past five years, 93% of them have.
Northwestern's athletic policies were established for the most part by previous administrations but are interpreted, defended and agonized over by the school's president, Robert Strotz. Strotz is sometimes accused of being less than dynamic, probably in part because he has a slightly rumpled demeanor instead of the tailored. Cary Grant look they're showing in university presidents this year. On the subject of athletics, though. Strotz is forceful enough. He tirelessly inveighs against overemphasis on profit and victory in collegiate sport, and he deplores the direction Michigan and Ohio State, the conference heavies, have taken.
"People ask me what's wrong with Northwestern, but I feel they should be directing their criticism toward the schools at the top of the conference," Strotz says. "They regard sport as big business, and they're under tremendous pressure to win. We like being in the Big Ten and consider it a classy group of schools. And we like to feel we can become competitive. But we view sports as a wholesome aspect of our total university and not as a big business. We don't think the idea of college athletics is to make a profit. If we did, we wouldn't be in it."
Highminded as all this may be, the fact remains that Northwestern is not competitive and hasn't been for some time. And the burden of defeat hangs heavy in the Evanston air. Northwestern football games still have some of the traditional trappings, including pompon girls and a marching band, but pep rallies are held only at homecoming, and their organizers have to hold them outside the stadium shortly before kickoff to attract a crowd. Intercepted as they arrive, students reward cheerleaders with a few dispirited yells and dutifully sing, Go U Northwestern. But everybody, even the brave soul dressed as Willie the Wildcat, knows that Northwestern isn't going anywhere. Michael Spound, a senior who has served as master of ceremonies at homecoming pep rallies the past couple of years, plaintively asks, "Ever try getting people excited about a 1-10 record?"
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that not everybody buys Northwestern's have-it-both-ways approach. Some partisans think Northwestern should go whole hog in the Big Ten by becoming more "flexible" in its academic standards for athletes. Others feel the school should carry its Ivy League impulses to their logical conclusion and drop out of the Big Ten. There is hardly anything new about this. Demands that Northwestern quit the conference—and rumors that it might—have been heard in Evanston for at least a quarter of a century.
But most Northwesterners either approve of, or at least acquiesce in, their university's approach to sport. They see it as proof that the school is unique, special and different. They would like to win but aren't going to get pushy about it. "Northwestern people aren't fanatical about football," says Payson Wild, the university's retired provost. "They're proud of their school's academic standards and would merely like the football team to be respectable." Dean of Administration Laurence Nobles, the school's Big Ten faculty representative, says, "Most of our fans want us to shoot for the middle of the pack. That way we might get to the top as a kind of random event."
Meanwhile, in the absence of football respectability, Northwesterners are proving that it is possible to survive on a diet of steady defeat, a little-known fact that partisans of schools like Alabama and Penn State might find incredible. In spite of everything, many Northwestern students do attend games, often buoyed by the sort of brave good humor demonstrated by Brad Hall, a senior from Santa Barbara, Calif., who says he finds going to NU games beneficial to his ego. "I played high school football and wasn't very good," he says, "but when I watch Northwestern's football team. I think to myself, 'Hey, maybe I could play in the Big Ten.' "
Some Northwestern alums grumble about the football team but for the most part they are forbearing. Cornered by alumni on the sorry subject of football, Strotz is reputed to have said, "Well, somebody's got to lose." They actually let him get away with it, too. Some NU Old Grads accept defeat, others simply ignore it. In New York one day I ran into a woman who had been in Evanston at the same time I was. "I'm doing a story on football at Northwestern," I told her.
She asked cheerfully, "Oh, is Northwestern good in football now?" She was serious, too.
It is a sign either of their gentleness or of their despair that NU alums never cried for John Pont's scalp, although they might well have. Hired as football coach in 1973 (he added the athletic directorship the next year), he tried to grind it out Big Ten style, only to get ground down, hamburger style. The dignified, white-haired Pont belongs to a Great Books club, and on the afternoon I visited him in his office in the shadow of Dyche Stadium he was fretting about the fact that he had not finished reading Graham Greene's The Human Factor in time for that evening's meeting. It had apparently been a similar twinge of conscience that prompted Pont to quit as coach, because he insists he was under no pressure to do so.
"There was a sense of alumni frustration, of course," allowed Pont, "but I doubt that I received 10 complaining letters in all those years. And there were probably only two really mad ones."
In accepting Pont's resignation, Strotz was very much in character. With a splendid, if gratuitous, dig at certain other coaches, the Northwestern president said. "John Pont has never embarrassed the university. He has never knocked over yard markers or hit a player, and he has never smashed a camera."
The moral note Strotz keeps striking in dealing with sport would certainly have pleased the God-fearing Methodists who founded Northwestern in 1851. These good men banned cursing and cardplaying and saw to it that the demon rum was kept out of the emerging village of Evanston. Evanston remained dry clear up until 1972, when the sale of liquor was finally legalized in hotels and restaurants, greatly vexing the Women's Christian Temperance Union, whose headquarters is a gabled, white frame house a block south of the campus. In an even more startling change, an influx of younger families has recently given long-Republican Evanston a Democratic majority. One enduring part of the Evanston scene is its ubiquitous matrons, who still dwell in lakefront mansions and conduct brisk infantrylike sweeps through the local millinery shops. Except that now milady may enjoy a brandy Alexander with her lunch.
A mixing of old and new has also taken place on the NU campus. The original campus is adorned with slightly stodgy Romanesque and Gothic buildings. But Northwestern, yearning for Lebensraum, began dumping earth into Lake Michigan in the early 1960s and wound up with some 84 acres of new land, nearly doubling its size. Graced with a space-age library and other buildings, this "lake-fill campus" sits cheek by jowl with the old campus, attesting to the university's institutional clout when it comes to getting things done.
As its Methodist influence waned—the last ties with the church were severed in 1972—Northwestern had trouble squaring its growing pretensions to academic excellence with its budding reputation for being a country-club school. Let students at other Big Ten schools go on their hayrides or paint their silos or do whatever they did for kicks; North-westerners hopped in their convertibles and drove off to quaff beer on Howard Street just across the Chicago line or to catch Odetta down at the Gate of Horn.
Unique, special and different Northwestern is now also serious Northwestern. Gone are the notorious, if unacknowledged, admission quotas that limited the number of blacks, Jews and Catholics. Today Northwestern's WASPs are close to becoming a minority; it is a point of pride that there is as high a proportion of blacks in the student body at large (14%) as there is on the football team. And NU students study, which may have something to do with the fact that 62% of them receive financial aid.
"Sometimes I think today's students are too serious," worries Jack O'Dowd, Northwestern's director of university relations. "This generation refuses to do anything for the sheer, damn, fun-loving hell of it. Before you could get college students today to swallow a goldfish, you'd have to convince them it was a health food."
But perhaps life at Northwestern is not all that much of a grind, either. Shunning Evanston's new drinking spots, many undergrads still hit the old hangouts on Howard Street, where the suds flow as always and the jukeboxes blare. They also party it up in their fraternity and sorority houses. As on other campuses, Northwestern's strong fraternity system declined during the protest turbulence of the '60s but has lately enjoyed a revival. Its coeds also nicely uphold Northwestern tradition. Over the years Northwestern women enjoyed a reputation for being pretty and so well-born that they easily could have afforded to wear dimes in their penny loafers had they so chosen. In the studied opinion of Scott Yelvington, a Northwestern split end who graduated in 1977 and is NU's director of student-alumni relations, Northwestern's women are still knockouts, largely because they include "a lot of foxy ladies out of the East."
One reason Northwestern attracts foxy ladies—from wherever—is its superb theater department, a longtime mecca for the stagestruck. As with the earlier partygoing, this may seem at odds with the school's churchly origins, but NU's alumni rolls are filled with the names of show-biz successes: Oscar winners Charlton Heston, Jennifer Jones, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman. And Tony Randall, Paul Lynde, Carol Lawrence and the late Edgar Bergen. And McLean Stevenson, Tony Roberts, Warren Beatty and Karen Black. And Dick Benjamin and Paula Prentiss. And Ann-Margret.
The size of the theater department and the kind of talent it has attracted and developed make Northwestern a switched-on place. Everywhere on campus you see them, comely gals and well-scrubbed guys with an unmistakable here-I-come-world gleam in their eyes. In past years sorority girls gathered around pianos and belted out show tunes like so many Judy Garlands (she did not go to Northwestern) while fraternity boys rented hotel ballrooms for parties that featured lavish parodies of Broadway musicals. The would-be Barrymores took classes in which they pretended to be wallpaper or celery stalks, and they plotted their impending careers over coffee in the Hut, an off-campus delicatessen so scruffy that a number of sororities declared it off limits. That alone would have assured its popularity, but it helped that Hank and Irv, who somehow ran the place as partners for 15 years without speaking to each other, offered credit.
The budding singers and dancers in this crowd also starred in the student revue called the Waa-Mu show. Started in 1929 by the Women's Athletic Association and the Men's Union, Waa-Mu was a pastiche of knock-'em-dead production numbers, harmless comedy sketches and bouncy little tunes. There was a song called Wigwam Wooing of Wigawama that a pudgy Warren Beatty sang in the 1956 show clad in full Indian-chief regalia. There was also a number that Tony Roberts sang in 1961 by way of protesting that there was only one water fountain in all of Cahn Auditorium. As Roberts finished the song, entitled One Stinking Drinking Fountain, he leaped from the stage and raced out to the lobby for a drink of water at the fountain. The Waa-Mu show still runs for 10 sellout performances every spring, and NU's theater department recently broke ground for a new $6.7-million building.
In a curious way, Northwestern's rich theatrical tradition seems of a piece with the school's show-must-go-on attitude toward big-time college athletics. It is as though Dyche Stadium were standing there, like some enormous stage set, merely to lend authenticity to what college life is supposed to be all about. There may be no better explanation for the more or less contented way Northwestern has limped along athletically since it joined the University of Chicago and five state institutions in 1896 to found what later became the Big Ten. NU teams sometimes did well in earlier years, especially in the country-club sports. Around World War I, the Fighting Methodists, as the school's teams were then known, dominated Big Ten swimming, and in the 1940s Northwestern was a ranking power in tennis. NU even won a national team title in 1941, the first NCAA fencing championship. That victory was tarnished, however, by the fact that NYU, Columbia and other Eastern powers then dominating the sport had skipped the meet.
There are a few moments to cherish in football, too. Northwestern's teams shared four Big Ten titles in earlier years and would have done better save for repeated late-season pratfalls; NU often had solid frontline performers but just as often lacked the depth so essential as the season wears on. In four years—1916, 1930, 1931 and 1936—Northwestern went into the final game undefeated, only to lose. As a result, the school has never had a perfect season. But even in lean times, NU teams were, often as not, entertaining. The Wildcats snapped losing streaks with timely upsets and tended to be daring on offense. In the 1940s Northwestern even had its own alltime gridiron great, Otto Graham, whose passing and running kept NU fans happy though their team lost more games than it won during his three seasons. There was also Northwestern's 20-14 win over California in the 1949 Rose Bowl. Few cared that the Wildcats, the Big Ten runner-up, had made the trip to Pasadena only because a conference rule prevented Big Ten champion Michigan from going to Pasadena for a second year in a row.
These relatively modest achievements were enough for Northwesterners. Or they were until the mid-'50s, when the Wildcats won only one Big Ten game in three years and were not even remotely entertaining. The 1955 team went 0-8-1 and was outscored 241-66. A new, big-bucks era was dawning in college sport, and it was the football mills, not the schools with Northwestern's exacting academic standards, that were attracting athletes. While some Wildcat fans urged that those standards be eased, The Daily Northwestern was demanding that the school quit the Big Ten as Chicago had done in 1946 (Michigan State took Chicago's place in 1949 to bring the Big Ten back to strength). Northwestern President J. Roscoe Miller rejected both courses of action, elevating the have-it-both-ways philosophy to official doctrine. But he also presided over a very unNorthwesternly athletic purge. In 11 months the athletic director and two head football coaches were sacked (or resigned) as well as an assistant football coach who would later do some hiring and firing of his own: George Steinbrenner.
The next football coach was Ara Parseghian, who took over the Wildcats in the fall of 1956 just as I was arriving as a freshman. Bad as the team was that the 32-year-old Parseghian inherited, the spectacle of college football at Northwestern remained intact, especially during homecoming, when there was a variety show, a big parade through Evanston and extravagant house decorations. I remember a huge papier-m‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢chè cash register with a sign reading, with bravado, NORTHWESTERN RINGS UP THE BUCKEYES. There were also Friday-night pep rallies that students attended voluntarily and at which the dark-visaged Parseghian, a spellbinder of revival-tent dimensions, would whip everybody into something actually resembling a frenzy. "We're going to pull some surprises!" Ara would cry, eyes flashing. "Get behind us!"
Parseghian also applied his persuasive powers to recruiting. A believer in the importance of instilling confidence in his players, he was not about to let on that high entrance requirements might be anything but good for a football team. So he turned them into a virtue. "If you get a degree from Northwestern, it means something," he assured coveted prospects. And, "At Northwestern, you'll get to play a lot." And again, "You'll be in a small-school atmosphere, but you'll also be in the Big Ten." The young men who bought this pitch found no athletic dorms at Northwestern, and they actually were expected to study. Nonetheless, certain accommodations were made. Jocks were provided with tutors by the athletic department and loaded up on the intellectual offerings of Dr. William McGovern, a delightful political science professor who refused on principle to give grades lower than C in courses fondly known as McGoos.
Northwestern soared to a .500 record in Parseghian's first season, but in 1957 the injury-riddled Wildcats went winless. Still, Ara was gathering around him a few good football players. Among them was a fleet halfback named Ron Burton, who serenely read the Bible in bed while others in his dormitory staged pillow fights and played bongo drums outside his door. And Irv Cross, slender, gentlemanly and good at catching passes. And Fred Williamson, startlingly handsome but with a contrary nature; in the basement of McCulloch Hall I once saw Williamson slap somebody's face for being slow to obey his order to change a TV channel.
In 1958, my junior year, Parseghian's men began pulling some of the surprises he had promised. A suddenly explosive Wildcat team featuring Burton and Quarterback Dick Thornton won five of its first six games, drawing ever-bigger crowds into Dyche. When the news was flashed to other stadiums around the country that Northwestern was leading Michigan 43-0 at halftime, gasps of disbelief filled the autumn air all over the U.S. Believe it: Northwestern coasted to victory on that giddy day in Evanston, 55-24 (SI, Oct. 27, 1958). And later, before a homecoming throng of 51,102—at the time the second-biggest crowd ever at Dyche—Northwestern did ring up Ohio State's Buckeyes, the Wildcats scoring a stunning 21-0 victory that snapped the Ohioans' Big Ten-record 15-game win streak. Caught up in the euphoria of one of the biggest upsets in conference history, members of the "Block N" section flipped their flip cards onto banks of spectators sitting in front of them. The flying cards injured some fans, and the Block N section was disbanded the following week.
A lack of reserve strength, that old Northwestern curse, took its toll and the Wildcats lost their last three games, although not before Burton ran his scoring total to 76 points, still the school record. In my senior year, Burton was All-America and the campus was thinking Rose Bowl as Parseghian's team won six straight, climbing briefly to No. 2 in the national polls. The victims included Oklahoma, a dozen of whose players suffered food poisoning on arrival in Evanston. The mystery of the food poisoning was never solved, and Northwestern beat Oklahoma 45-13 (SI, Oct. 5, 1959). But the Wildcats again lost their last three games (just as, a few years later, Parseghian's 1962 team, led by the exceptional passing combination of Tom Myers-to-Paul Flatley, would self-destruct after a 6-0 start and a No. 1 national ranking). Nonetheless, they drew 492,667 fans home and away in 1959, still a school record.
Parseghian departed for Notre Dame and far greater glory in 1964, but his achievements there were really no more impressive than what he had wrought in Evanston. Although he had no better than a 36-35-1 record to show for his eight seasons, he had lifted Northwestern out of the football doldrums. While Karen Black, Ann-Margret, Paula Prentiss and Dick Benjamin, all of whom were undergraduates during the Parseghian years, were pretending to be celery stalks, the boys at Dyche were giving a convincing portrayal of a football team. It seems somehow appropriate that Parseghian today is an ABC-TV color commentator; that Cross is deskman (with fellow NU alum Brent Musburger) on CBS' pro football scoreboard show; and that Fred Williamson, notorious in his pro football days with the Kansas City Chiefs as the Hammer, has gone Hollywood.
In 1971, under Parseghian's successor, Alex Agase, Northwestern edged Ohio State for the Big Ten runner-up spot behind Michigan, thereby becoming the improbable answer to the trivia question: Which is the only Big Ten school to break the 1-2 stranglehold that Michigan and Ohio State have had on the conference during the past 10 years? But 1971 was also Northwestern's last winning season. Since then, the Wildcats have gone on the skids in football and other sports as well, one result being that the athletic department has been running roughly $1 million a year in the red. At a time when at least some universities managed to make money on athletics, NU had to meet its deficits by using funds from the general budget that might have been put to academic purposes. For all its talk about de-emphasizing football and other sports, Northwestern finds itself subsidizing them in a big way.
School officials somewhat lamely argue that the cost of athletic scholarships should not be counted as an athletic department expense, a bookkeeping dodge that might actually enable the intercollegiate sports program to show a small profit. And they reiterate that in any event, they are not all that concerned with the bottom line. But this is mocked by the obvious care with which they scrimp on scholarships in sports besides football and basketball. For instance, while the NCAA allows up to 13 baseball scholarships, NU limits Coach George McKinnon to six free rides. And, instead of getting the new arena-complex they feel they need, NU's basketball, wrestling and track teams go on using McGaw Hall, a drafty old field house with a dirt floor and splintered seats. It is, obviously, a losing proposition for them: without fancy facilities to attract good athletes—or indeed, without sufficient scholarships—it is certainly going to be tough to build winning teams in those sports.
Caught in an obvious bind, Strotz somewhat wistfully suggests reforms to eliminate the evils he sees in college sport and, not incidentally, to put Northwestern on more competitive footing. The proposed changes are aimed at influential alumni by means of whose legislative clout state schools construct vast stadiums and then go to great lengths to create winning teams to fill them. To reduce alumni control and break this cycle, Strotz suggests that state legislatures increase funds for athletics at state schools, freeing them, in effect, to lose money and football games, too. He says that schools determined to go the big-business route—meaning Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten—should split off into a "superconference" and "let the rest of us keep college athletics as a college activity for the benefit of students."
But it is Northwestern that appears out of step. This became evident during a recent showdown over the Big Ten's longstanding 50-50 split of gate receipts between home and visiting teams. The 50-50 arrangement was distasteful to a school like Michigan, which didn't fancy playing before meager crowds of 30,000 or so in Evanston. It began urging Northwestern to play all future games in the rivalry at Ann Arbor in front of those 100,000-plus throngs the Wolverines can always count on drawing. Nothing doing; Strotz wouldn't let Northwestern become a "road show" and insisted on maintaining a home-and-away arrangement with Michigan. However, last spring the Big Ten adopted a rule that will require home teams to guarantee visitors a $100,000 minimum, a move that delighted Michigan's aggressive athletic director, Don Canham. Northwestern, which didn't come close to providing visiting teams with $100,000 in 1977, was the only school to vote against the proposal.
Unless attendance at Dyche improves in a hurry, the new regulation figures to add $85,000 a year to Northwestern's already substantial athletic deficit. Faculty representative Nobles is bitter. "All I hear from that————Canham is dollars, dollars, dollars," he says. "He seems to be doing everything he can to put us down."
After passage of the gate-receipts change, there was renewed speculation that Northwestern might get out of the Big Ten. When he hears such talk, John Pont reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out a copy of a newspaper clipping he keeps handy for such occasions. Dated 1969, the clipping declares flatly that Northwestern was making arrangements to get out of the Big Ten. "These stories are like a locust plague," Pont says in a tone of distaste. "We have no intention of getting out of the Big Ten."
That commitment may well be as firm as Pont makes it sound. If so, the usual reasons given—considerations of prestige and the like—are only part of the story. It also happens that NU officials feel, in a very real sense, trapped in the Big Ten. They have considered withdrawal more carefully than they sometimes let on and have concluded that switching to a less demanding schedule might only further deflate attendance and revenues—and maybe dry up some alumni contributions as well. Obviously, they sometimes think about dollars, too.
The other familiar option urged on Northwestern—that it bend a little on its academic requirements for athletes—is rejected out of hand. School officials say that admissions procedures are the same for athletes as for everybody else—and that they will stay that way. They also insist that today there are few, if any, McGoo-style courses. What is more, having long required phys-ed majors to take solid academic courses like biology and English—rather than rhetoric and beginning football, as at some schools—Northwestern is now phasing out phys ed as a major.
"They expect football players to do the work," says Frank Malec, a starting guard under Pont and a selection to last year's All-Big Ten academic team. "They don't postpone midterms for you, either. A lot of times I'd come back from an away game Saturday night and have to head straight for the library."
Northwestern may eventually have to swallow hard and agree to play, say, two out of every three years in Ann Arbor. At least that would help relieve its financial plight. And its coaches may have to heed Parseghian's example and sell the school to athletes capable of making the academic grade. That is the course followed by Stanford, an academically impeccable school that tries to have it both ways—and more often than not actually wins. It is also the course followed by NU's women's tennis team, which qualified last spring for the 24-team AIAW nationals. To hear Coach June Booth tell it, that kind of success doesn't seem out of reach of NU's men's teams.
"What bothered me when I came to Northwestern," says Booth, "was that some of the men's coaches seemed to expect to lose. We women came in with a positive attitude. We've gone after intelligent, career-oriented women who don't want to drown in a big school."
Perhaps the most striking thing about Northwestern's sports situation today is that the school's show-biz successes, which once seemed to inspire the football team, now cast a long shadow over it. It is not enough that Northwestern sends more people to Hollywood than to the NFL; nor that the school is getting a new theater building while its sports facilities creak and groan; nor even that a group of Waa-Mu performers attracted turnouts of 300-plus at alumni gatherings on the West Coast last spring while Pont never drew more than 100. No, on top of all that, there was Old Grad Paul Lynde's visit to campus last fall as grand marshal of the homecoming parade. While in Evanston, the comedian stopped at a local Burger King, where he allegedly made racist remarks to a black professor, earning the formal condemnation of Northwestern's student governing body. There was also the awkward moment before the game against Ohio State when Lynde entered what he thought was the visitors' locker room, sauntered up to some players and said, "Lose!" It was the Northwestern locker room.
And Northwestern lost, 35-15.
On the other hand, Rick Venturi, the new football coach, is cut in the mold of Parseghian, and not just because he arrived during rough times. Venturi also brims with Parseghian-style enthusiasm. This was apparent as he conducted practice in the rain one afternoon at Dyche Stadium last spring, sloshing here and there, slapping backsides and yelling encouragement. It was clear, too, when he retreated to his office, a purple-painted lair with inspirational inscriptions ("I will persist until I succeed") posted on the walls.
"I like to relate to the winning teams in Northwestern history," Venturi said, "some of the teams under Parseghian and Agase, for example. They emphasized passing and a lot of movement, and I think that's still the Northwestern way. We attract a sound student here who can handle a complicated offense. Besides, this is a happening place. I also think football is not just a war. It's a spectacle, too."
It is a sign of acceptance of sorts that Northwestern's gung-ho coach was lampooned in last spring's Waa-Mu show. In the skit, a character identified as Venturi told a group of thumbsucking, Dr. Denton-wearing Northwestern football players the tale of a valiant Wildcat quarterback menaced by big bad defensive linemen and cruel linebackers. Making his way downfield, the hero kept suffering misadventures, but new holes always magically opened for him. Finally, his perseverance and essential Northwestern goodness were rewarded.
"And what should appear," the coach cried triumphantly, "but the goal line!"
Blankly, his listeners chorused, "The what?"
In view of Venturi's typically Northwestern start this season, one should be wary of overripe expectations. There are, frankly, only two reasons to hope that he will eventually succeed. One is the Parseghian precedent, which shows that it can, indeed, be done. The other is that even Waa-Mu's admittedly homogenized brand of satire can sometimes get results. Consider what a thirsty Tony Roberts accomplished when he ran into the lobby for that drink of water nearly two decades ago. Workmen were called in soon afterward, and there have been four stinking drinking fountains in Cahn Auditorium ever since.