It was fitting, perhaps, that the only philosophy major on the Northwestern football team, junior Kicker Rick Salvino, should inaugurate the Wildcats' successful bid for sole possession of "The Streak," the longest losing record in the history of major college football. Salvino's opening kickoff last Saturday in Evanston, Ill. made the rest possible: a 61-14 thrashing at the hands of Michigan State, an 0-29 record dating back to the third game of the 1979 season and a resurgence of speculation over Northwestern's future in big-time athletics.
Certainly the game wasn't pretty to watch. Michigan State scored on all seven of its possessions in the first half and led 41-0 before the Wildcats got on the board midway through the third quarter. Media reps, who had come from far and wide to witness the carnage, tried to remember details of the 0-28 strings of Kansas State and Virginia, co-owners of The Streak before Northwestern. And though it was a sparkling fall day and N.U. students—most of whom have never seen their team win—tore down the goalposts at the final gun while chanting, "We're the worst! We're the worst!" there wasn't much real levity in the air.
After the game, Michigan State Coach Muddy Waters said the win had been "no fun at all." Northwestern Coach Dennis Green said, "I don't know what we've been doing around here for a long time, but we haven't been paying our dues."
In the N.U. locker room Salvino was asked if he found solace in a particular school of philosophical thought. "I guess the Sophists," he said. And their message? "That only I myself exist, and everything I see is an illusion." But the record is real, and the question is, why?
November 16, 1981
The answer is complex, but it begins with Northwestern's status as the smallest (enrollment 7,000) and most selective school in the Big Ten. University promoters have long called N.U. "the Harvard of the Midwest," and students sometimes wear T shirts that read, HARVARD, THE NORTHWESTERN OF THE EAST. Though stiffer entrance standards and a certain Ivy elitism may separate Northwestern from its huge state-supported conference opponents, those factors alone don't explain the demise of the school's football team. It's becoming increasingly clear that in recent years N.U. has been paying modest attention not only to football but to its entire athletic program as well. As Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham says, "They're on the bottom in just about everything."
But N.U.'s football team hasn't always been so sorry. Four times the Wildcats have gone into the final game of the year undefeated (only to lose), and three times they have ended up ranked in the Top 10. Ara Parseghian coached Northwestern to six .500-or-better seasons from 1956 to 1963. Alex Agase (1964-1972) guided N.U. to a 6-1 Big Ten record in 1970 and a 6-3 conference mark the next season.
The slide began when John Pont, who had been fired at Indiana, became coach in 1973. In five seasons under Pont the Wildcats won 12 games and lost 43. From 1978 to 1980, with Pont as athletic director and Rick Venturi as coach, N.U. went 1-31-1. Venturi's only win, a 27-22 victory over Wyoming, is the distant marker by which The Streak is measured.
University President Robert H. Strotz blames the football team's failings on the lower academic standards at other schools, adding that N.U. doesn't offer a major in physical education or any courses of study in which jocks can "hide." "In a subtle way we may be proving the problems inherent in maintaining high academic standards," says Strotz.
Some observers believe Strotz doesn't even particularly like football, that by acting as apologist for Pont, who, according to one Big Ten A.D., preferred golf with alumni to building a team, he confirmed his disdain for sporting matters. And such comments as the one Strotz made last week—that even when Northwestern loses, "if we have a party at our house we have fun"—have only further upset Green, a fiery young man who took over Venturi's job when alumni pressured Strotz to fire Pont and Venturi last fall.
Says N.U. grad Todd Sheets, a wide receiver and captain of the 1980 team, "After my last year I began to wonder if the university cared about the athletic department at all."
Defensive Tackle Jerald Wolff, from St. Louis, and Running Back Marc Hujik, from Kenosha, Wis., both freshmen, were two of the Wildcats' brightest hopes until they tore ligaments in their left knees several weeks ago. They now are recovering from surgery and sit, crutches at hand, in Dyche Stadium as their teammates get humiliated.
Wolff and Hujik are the kind of players Northwestern needs. Each is talented—Wolff made Blue Chip magazine's list of the 300 best high school players in America; Hujik was the 1980 Wisconsin Player of the Year—and smart. Wolff is an industrial engineering major; Hujik was valedictorian of a high school class of 804 and is majoring in computer science. Both are well aware of N.U.'s limitations but still believe the football program can come back.
"Northwestern doesn't have classes in underwater fire prevention," says Hujik, "but there are smart athletes around. If this freshman class sticks together and doesn't get beaten down, and we get a couple more good classes, I know we can do it."
"We believe in Coach Green," says Wolff.
It's touching to watch these two as they cheer Northwestern's every act of competence. They are, after all, newcomers to defeat. Indeed, Hujik never played in a losing football game until he got to college. Wolff played on a powerhouse high school team.
The options for Northwestern—it has ruled out dropping the football team to a lower NCAA class—are either to build to Big Ten standards or to give up the sport entirely. The alumni seem to be pressuring the school to pursue the first course, rebuilding. Money has already been spent—for new uniforms, new locker and training rooms—and more is said to be earmarked for recruiting. Although the football program loses money every year, Strotz says Green and new Athletic Director Doug Single, both of whom came from Stanford, have four or five years to make things work. It's possible that's how long Strotz has to do the same thing.
Villanova, another private school with fine academics, dropped football last year. But unlike Northwestern, Villanova's only concern was economic. With a 17,000-seat stadium, the school could never hope to break even on the sport. (Dyche Stadium holds 49,256.) The loss hasn't been taken easily at Villanova. "On fall Saturdays, playing Boston College, Parents' Day on campus—there was nothing like that," says Athletic Director Ted Aceto. "Sometimes when you have something, you don't appreciate it until it's gone."
For players like Wolff and Hujik, who have already given a part of themselves for their football team, it's not a problem of knowing what they have. It's a problem of possibly losing it all. The road back isn't going to be easy. "It's going to be the hardest thing I've ever done," says Green. And lest anyone forget, The Streak meter is still running. Next week Northwestern travels to Columbus to play Ohio State.