Friday, February 24, 2017

Deadlines

For the past week, the Bulls have sat on a detonator as the potential catalysts for a blockbuster trade that could have blown a dent in the inevitable LeBron James romp to the NBA Finals.  They could have sent Jimmy Butler to Boston for a mix of players and draft picks that everyone decided to start referring to as "assets" awhile back when basketball executives all became spreadsheet-monger MBAs that speak in TED Talk dialects instead of grizzled scouts and former players who based personnel decisions on phrenology.

The Celtics could have used Butler to join scoring dynamo Isaiah Thomas and an armada of interchangeable Glue Guy wing players to try to finally stop a hobbled Cavs team.  The Bulls would then begin to rebuild, fortified by at least one of the Brooklyn Nets draft picks ceded to the Celtics for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett after a vomiting Nate Robinson had heroically vanquished them from the playoffs.  The trade did not take place.  The Bulls were not satisfied with the offer, and Butler will remain a Bull, heroically attempting to drag the carcass of this shambling basketball wreck to the playoffs.

In the end, the Bulls made a trade.  They sent stalwart Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and their 2018 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffrey Lauvergne. 

I don't know anything about Taj Gibson even though he had been on the Bulls longer than anyone on the team.  Gibson came in off the bench for most of his career, played excellent defense, sank some baseline jumpers, and stayed upright through the endless maelstrom of Bulls bullshit; he was there when John Paxson allegedly throttled Vinny Del Negro, when Rose blew out his knee and then kept returning as a faded, ghoulish specter of himself, when the front office waged an insane war against Tom Thibodeau of such beguiling complexity that it climaxed in accusations of office bugging, when the entire team turned against each other in an elaborate Instagram-fueled civil war, when the Bulls went from an exciting contender to a bizarre wasteland of bricked shots where everyone yells at each other all of the time.  Gibson remained a staid, steady presence, only occasionally breaking out to dunk someone into a coffin and then unhinge his jaw and bellow into the United Center rafters to the approval of a roaring crowd and a roaring Carlos Boozer who spent five years on the Bulls screaming more or less continuously.

This Gibson dunk on Wade from 2011 was 
so vicious that Wade plotted to leave the Heat 
under acrimonious circumstances five years 
later, inexplicably join the Bulls, and begin a 
devious sabotage campaign that only looks 
like a hall-of-famer marooned on a mediocre, 
dysfunctional team coached by a Dairy Queen 
night manager

The trade marks the end of the Doug McDermott Era of Chicago Bulls basketball.  The Bulls gave up an absurd haul of picks to move up and select him even though he had some red flags: poor combine numbers, the inability to play basketball without a t-shirt.   McDermott never justified the price, and played at times like a fringe rotation player; nevertheless he was the Bulls' most important player as Gar Forman seemed to want to remake the team in his image.  They cast McDermott as the solution to their offensive woes under Tom Thibodeau, where the Bulls attempted to move the ball on the air currents generated by Thibodeau's horase hollering.  They fired Thibodeau and brought in Fred Hoiberg to run an Iowa Offense. Everything McDermott did was at least interesting, whether it was inexplicably catching fire to continue the Bulls' hilarious winning streak against the Raptors or defending by chasing opposing shooters down like Clint Eastwood attempting to stop his partner from being shot in a haunting flashback.  We will miss McDermott, who will flourish standing in a corner while four opponents swarm Russell Westbrook while futilely calling for the ball.

The centerpiece of the Bulls-Thunder trade is Cameron Payne.  Payne is only 22, but coming off a broken foot and one of the statistically worst seasons of any NBA player this season. The acquisition of Payne, who joins a bloated backcourt of identically flawed young guards remains a mystery; the Bulls now exist as a mystical, ten-armed guard that cannot shoot with any of them.  Perhaps Payne, a former lottery pick, can flourish outside of the shadow of Russell Westbrook.  Perhaps they favored him because his former college coach Steve Prohm happens to be the man who took Fred Hoiberg's old job at Iowa State, which seems like a dumb theory until you remember that Iowa State now exists as a shadowy Pynchonian institution in the minds of a certain species of internet Bulls fans that keeps popping up in everything surrounding the team until a conspiracy either reveals itself or drives them to madness.

After several letters to Iowa State returned unopened, Stan 
from Glen Ellyn came home to a ransacked apartment. 
The giant, red bird sat on his stained recliner, feet-claws 
propped on the ottoman, smoking a pipe from a tiny hole 
bored into the middle of its fabric teeth. He handed me a 
card. It said "Dr. Splad Halfnelson, Iowa State Department 
of Basketball Conspiracy." "The first thing you need to know 
is that this whole thing is because of the perversity. The 
freaks," he said.

Both Morrow and Lauvergne are expiring contracts and likely have no future with the Bulls or American organized basketball.  Morrow's three point shooting has fallen below 30%, which makes him as effective as a kickboxer coming off a leg amputation.  Lauvergne, a sweet-shooting French big man, has the rebounding and shotblocking prowess of a muzzled Tyrannosaurus.

The trade raises more questions that it answers.  The Bulls currently exist as Jimmy Butler and a scaffolding of declining veterans and young players that seem headed to the Adriatic League without some sort of holy revelation about jumpshooting.  They may eventually decide to deal Butler this summer, sell off any player with some value, and plunge the team into the inevitable morass of basketball misery in hopes of landing another star in the draft. But this trade, and the multifarious draft misses, inept trades, and constant atmosphere of intrigue that surrounds the front office leaves little hope for the future no matter what path they take.

POSSESSED

Russian literature is filled with madmen, half-understood outbursts at receptions, and enigmatic grudges, and that is just the academic literature conventions.  That impression comes from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman's celebration of Russian writers coupled with a memoir of travel to Moscow and Uzbekistan interwoven with digressions on ice palaces and Tolstoy murder conspiracy.    
The largest chunk of the book involves a summer spent in an intense Uzbek-language course in Samarkand.  She has two instructors: a philosophy graduate student who teaches from a Soviet textbook "exclusively through the lens of cotton production: a valuable lesson in monomania" and an Old Uzbek literature professor who disseminated poems, fables, and history.  "Shaking her head sorrowfully, she told me that Genghis Khan did not only ride a bull, but he didn't wear any pants.  She said that God should forgive her for mentioning such things to me, 'but he didn't wear any pants.'"

In another chapter, Batuman travels to Moscow to write an article on the reconstruction of the House of Ice as part of a St. Petersburg's White Days.  Empress Ioannova had ordered the construction of the ice palace in 1740 as part of a festival that would culminate with the forced wedding of two jesters in her court.  Armed guards compelled the couple to spend the night in the frozen palace, dancing and running around in order to stay warm.  The House of Ice featured functioning ice cannons, ice furniture, ice logs in an ice fireplace, and a water-spouting ice elephant, a dedication to ice so elaborate that even Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze character would suggest that they maybe cool it with the ice before sadly realizing that the ice puns had so colonized his thoughts that he had no choice but to surrender to his greatest enemy, room temperature.

Reproduction of the House of Ice in St. Petersburg in 2006.  
Why did the Russian government decide to pay tribute to 
a former monarch's insanely elaborate lark to freeze her 
subjects?  According to Batuman, "[Valery] Gromov, a 
former army management official, and [Svetlana] 
Mikheyeyeva, a former doctor and healthcare manager, 
had conceived of this dream during an international 
management training program in Tokyo in 1999, where 
they ended up stuck in a broken elevator with the chairman 
of the Association of Russian Snow, Ice, and Sand Sculptors."

The Possessed on its surface is a hard sell: come for the exploration of Girardian memetic theory in Dostoevksy and stay for negotiations about artifact captions at an academic Isaac Babel conference, but it all works because Batuman is a wonderful writer and brilliantly funny.  Batuman depicts the academic world of literature as absurd and even grotesque while never dampening her own underlying argument about the resonance and vitality of the books and authors she loves.

DEADLINE TO SELECTION

Northwestern followed a panicky home win against Rutgers with a demoralizing loss to Illinois. The Chicago Tribune consulted some Certified Bracketologists who tell us that they are still ok, that one more win should finally put them in the dang Tournament, that the State Farm Center ceiling has not caved in and brought ruin to the season, but my default setting remains tournament-related panic. Still, there is nothing to do but hope they can beat a reeling Hoosier squad, that all the other bubble teams shamefully collapse on their home courts in front of wailing fans, and that the Wildcats won't be exiled to the NIT or an exotic alternative tournament in an ice palace.        

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Golden Age of Sports Gimmickry

Welsh-Ryan Arena is an ear-splitting thunderdome filled with 8,000 Icaruses flying headlong into the sun.  The Northwestern Wildcats are poised to make the NCAA Tournament and end the streak that follows their every dribble and appears in the night sky over Evanston after "The Northwestern Wildcats Have Never Made The NCAA Tournament" had been carved into the moon on the final Apollo mission.

Northwestern's quest to achieve its finest hour in men's basketball by qualifying for a 68-team tournament appeared to end at the hands of blood-rivals Illinois. The Illini, driven to hatless misery in football, had decided to exact their revenge on Northwestern by taking their historically great basketball program and driving it to the unfathomable depths of being markedly worse than Northwestern and then waiting for the Wildcats' star guard to become ill, beating them in Evanston, and sending them flying back into the bubble and prophesies of basketball doom.

Northwestern's Tournament hopes faded after the Illinois game

Instead, Northwestern rallied to its greatest victory in the modern era, an upset of Wisconsin, without Scottie Lindsey, in the Badgers' impregnable basketball fortress.  The Wildcats' big men neutralized Wisconsin's star Ethan Happ by enmeshing him in double teams, and Bryant McIntosh went off for 25 points.  The game even had a Meaningless Dunk Controversy, with Greg Gard appearing furious because Sanjay Lumpkin went for a cathartic breakaway dunk instead of dribbling out the clock. This type of thing only happens in college sports, which have evolved a late-game etiquette as complex as the rules governing the Court at Versailles and devolve into duels where angry coaches meet with their seconds in deserted fields and do disrespectful handshakes to each other at fifteen paces.

It is possible that Gard was less upset about the dunk than Chris Collins's 
psychotic Rambo Scream calisthenics

The win against Wisconsin erased the creeping desperation that kicked in after the Illinois loss. They got the Signature Win that the selection committee demands like an overbearing wizard in a text-based adventure game.  The bracketmancers and tournament gurus seem to indicate that they've still got an excellent shot to make it, even after a tough home loss to Maryland.  From what I understand, they still need a few more wins to secure their bid. They await the return of Scottie Lindsey and a visit from the a Rutgers team whose main offensive play appears to pouring quicksand onto the court and sinking into it.  The only thing stopping Northwestern from escaping The Drought is to avoid a ludicrous, Northwestern-like collapse.  

NORTHWESTERN'S AGE OF SPORTS GIMMICKS

Northwestern's greatest successes earlier this century relied on any attempt to find a strategic edge. Randy Walker's 2000 football team became one of the first in the Big Ten to embrace the spread offense, and they used to to win a Big Ten championship.  Football analyst Chris Brown called Northwestern's 54-51 victory over Michigan the "most important game in the history of the spread offense" that presaged a revolution of shotgun snaps and zone reads, and flinty quarterbacks darting around all over the place and hucking the ball through the Football Brand schools and their elite guard of hulking linebackers. 

The Wildcats still run a spread offense, but its novelty has been diluted as even the most lumbering midwestern football traditionalists have adopted it.  Still, the 'Cats managed to break their endless streak of bowl losses in part with a satisfyingly gimmicky two quarterback system designed to break the brains of defensive coordinators forced to figure out if Northwestern would run with the passing quarterback while the offense held up placards featuring pictures of a cat-stroking Ernest Blofeld, Professor Moriarty, and one of those comic book villains with a giant head that shows they're good at thinking of diabolical plots, that's why they have a bulbous, pulsing head.

He is the Napoleon of offense. He is a genius, a 
philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain 
of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider 
in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand 
radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each 
of them and that is why he had Trevor Siemian 
slowly clomp over towards the sideline because he 
is the "passing quarterback" and no one will ever see 
it coming

The recent vintages of the football team have reversed course from insane video game offenses desperately attempting to outscore the other team to smashmouth defenses trying to score a point and then run time off the clock.  The ten-win 2015 team clobbered opposing offenses and then spent offensive possessions building an elaborate subterranean network of tunnels and trenches until the game ended.    

At the same time, Northwestern basketball had its own unique system. Bill Carmody brought over the Princeton Offense and a 1-3-1 zone defense.  The Princeton offense was based on patiently probing the perimeter, waiting for a backcut, and taking all 35 seconds of the shot clock while everyone in the arena inched closer to death.  The 2004 team beat Purdue 40-39, and no international agency intervened. Carmody's teams were bizarre and mismatched, and he pulled players from all corners of the globe.  Jitim Young, a do-it-all 6'2" All Big Ten guard, led the team in rebounding.  There was always a 6'8" guy who could shoot. They arrived, as a collection of spindly limbs and plastic facemasks and undersized players at every position with their rumpled coach who looked at all times like he had been sentenced to coach basketball and they won enough games to qualify for the NIT four years in a row and come within about 20 combined seconds of making the Tournament.

Bill Carmody always seemed about three 
seconds away from lighting up a cigarette

The central appeal of these teams was not only that they won, but that they also appeared to be getting away with something.  Carmody and Walker won games partially by bamboozling other staid coaches in the most staid athletic conference. The Big Ten, especially in the early 2000s, was known both in basketball and football for bruising, punishing physicality.  Northwestern didn't merely beat a highly-ranked Michigan team, they used a then-novel offense to beat Lloyd Carr, the gold standard of Big Ten stodgery.  They nearly made the NCAA Tournament behind a jumpshot so ludicrous that it appears to have been designed by Jim Henson.  

This was before Shurna's moved to Spain to play in the 
Licanthropic Basketball League (Liga de Baloncesto 
Licantr├│pico)

Northwestern fans would take this recent run of relative sports success any way they can-- perhaps the most shocking novelty is that Northwestern teams are winning bowl games and getting to postseason tournaments whether it turns out to be the Elusive NCAA Tournament, the NIT, or the College Basketball Tournament/Underground Splinter Group Chess Boxing Championship that the Athletic Department has refused to participate in despite invitations sent by sparrow in dead of night. But if this marks the end of the teams winning through exotic zone defense or taking powder out of their shorts and blowing it into opponents' eyes, it's worth remembering Northwestern's run as a laboratory of desperate, effective Rube Goldberg strategies.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Historical Gas Prices

Here they come.  The reporters with their feature stories, the announcers with their anecdotes, the Lunardis and the KenPoms and the retinues of seeders and bracketmancers, all bivouacked in Evanston because the Northwestern Wildcats inch ever closer to the NCAA Tournament. 

Before, the fresh-faced, short-straw reporters for ESPNRequiredByContract covering a Northwestern basketball game would wait until up to several seconds of game clock had expired to mention the Wildcats' woeful tourey drought.  Now, they all live in the Chicagoland Metropolitan Area and spring from elevated train platforms and Italian beef wholesalers to proclaim to passersby that Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament.
 
Did you know Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament

The Wildcats are 17-4 and rising through a delightfully mediocre Big Ten.  This could be the best Northwestern team in modern history, albeit a history of opponents metaphorically dunking on Northwestern for decades at a time, even in decades where the scandalous dunk shot was banned from college basketball and opposing players had to subject them to vicious layups followed by strongly-worded letters to the college newspaper.  

Northwestern's historical basketball futility means that every single time they do something, the broadcasters need to break out their historical gas prices.  Their latest feat involved downing Ohio State in Columbus for the first time since 1977, as announcers gleefully changed into their disco pants and haircuts.  Ohio State plans to change the historical sign from the site of their Big Ear telescope that previously noted that in 1977, scientists discovered a potential extraterrestrial signal with an unknown origin and also the Buckeyes lost to Northwestern in basketball.

BRACKETOLOGY

Northwestern's unending Sisyphean attempts to qualify for the NCAA tournament always bring to the fore the experts in seeding and strength of schedule and all of the statistical models and bracket hokum that usually serve the purpose of telling us that the Wildcats will not make the tournament. While some teams that always make the tournament seem to cruise through losses to non-conference Washington Generals and tournament-tainting RPI infections like Northwestern most years, they seem unaffected, materializing as a seven seed in a far-flung regional.  On the rare occasions when Northwestern seems poised to qualify, any loss to any team seems to knock them off the bubble, consigned to the dustbin of the NIT.  People who pay attention to and understand NCAA Tournament seeding have logical, iron-clad, and data-supported reasons why this happens, but as a person who wastes enough of my own life immersing myself in dumb sports arcana, I cannot bring myself to learn about this process and get angry over seeding; I prefer to give myself over to the numbers sorcerers and the Selection Committee and watch every Wildcat game in a preventive flinch.

The creation of the latest Mock Bracket

The annual desperate charge towards the NCAA Tournament remains the all-consuming goal for Northwestern basketball despite its meaninglessness.  A recent ESPN article compared the tourney drought to the Cubs' historical win in November, but while the Cubs threw off more than a century of thwarted attempts to become the champions of the entire sport, Northwestern desperately hopes to qualify for a tournament that continually expands to more and more rounds to the point where you or I may actually be in the NCAA Tournament right now and not even know it.  It's not even a conference championship; at best, it represents a Certificate of Basketball Competence, and a way to end the sole defining feature of the program in January and February where the name of the school for all intents and purposes becomes Northwesternwhichhasnevermadethetournament.  

A streak like the Cubs' championship drought tortures Cubs fans but also accumulates folklore and fanciful legends and generational yearning.  Northwestern has accumulated droughts in athletic feats so prosaic that they have no meaning at all to anyone.  They nurtured a bowl loss streak for more than sixty years, even as the number of bowls proliferated to the point where teams can declare bowl eligibility by filling out a notarized form.  Bowl wins have become devalued and instantly forgotten and yet the Wildcats' inability to win one of the crappy bowls they qualified for became an unbearable albatross that inspired nothing other than a plush monkey purchase by Pat Fitzgerald.  Their inability to qualify for the NCAA Tournament even as it keeps doubling in size remains an achievement in and of itself.  Northwestern's loftiest sports goals of winning crappy bowl games and getting to the NCAA Tournament often serve as fireable offenses at other schools.

These modest goals represent the larger goal for Northwestern's programs, which is to exist in the Big Ten as sports teams and not a traveling museum of historical athletic catastrophe. See the team that once lost a bunch of football games and threw the goalposts in a Great Lake.  See the team that has never made the NCAA Tournament.  See the stadium so filled with opposing fans that they have to go to a silent snap count or endure free throw taunts echoing from the rafters of their basketball barn, which the opposing fans taunting Northwestern players find inadequate. There are few things in sports more fun than a historically downtrodden team making its run.  Let's hope we have a reason to watch the first Selection Sunday I would ever care about.

THANK GOODNESS THE BULLS ARE IN THE THROES OF A COMPLETE MELTDOWN

The Per Synergy Sports basketblogging set have argued that the worst place for an NBA team is on a treadmill of mediocrity, where teams have no chance to compete nor have they been shitty enough to be rewarded with a high lottery pick that could blossom into a superstar.  They are wrong.  The best thing an non-contending team could do is to throw off the yoke of basketball decorum and descend into a shit-flinging soap opera of madness. 

Virtually everyone who pays the slightest attention to the National Basketball Association looked at the Bulls adding an aging Dwyane Wade and combustible brick artist Rajon Rondo to a front office that hires an organist to follow Gar Forman and John Paxson around to play foreboding diminished chords and a head coach who looks like he spends the off-season getting swindled in carnival games had the look of a disaster.  Even me, a dullard who knows next to nothing about basketball, described the crowning of the Three Alphas as a nickname that hilariously summed up the exact way that the team was destined to fall apart.

Wednesday night, after the Bulls blew their 400th consecutive loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the entire thing exploded in a glorious cacophony of recriminations.  Wade complained to reporters that his teammates suck.  Jimmy Butler, the Bulls' All-Star who made a miraculous transformation from a role-playing defensive specialist to one of the best players in basketball, agreed with Wade that his teammates suck.  Wade invoked Michelle Obama to complain that his teammates suck.

Rondo, already disgruntled about his descent from major free agent acquisition to a space on Fred Hoiberg's point guard minutes roulette wheel, could not sit on the sidelines without wading in.  That's Rondo's nature.  He appears to have a reputation so toxic that NBA GMs seem to be only interested in acquiring him to put in a sealed train and send to rivals like how Germany sent Lenin to St. Petersburg.  Rondo's innovation in the art of the destructive meltdown involved chastising Wade and Butler through a free verse poem called "My Vets."

(Borat Voice) My Vets

Bulls hero Nate Robinson has been closely monitoring the situation and has put out his own social media postings of angry Wade and Butler quotes with a plea to rejoin the Bulls, where he is only four years removed from his vomit-strewn takedown of the Brooklyn Nets.  I think that the Bulls should bring him in and should conduct all personnel business via Instagram.

So it begins.  Wade and Butler are marching down Madison Street.  Rondo is massing his forces from the East, preparing to siege the Advocare Center.  The rest of the Bulls' crappy players are hiding in Hoffman Estates.  Paxson has retired to his goblet-hurling arena while Fred Hoiberg wanders the country looking for a Blockbuster Video so he can find some inspirational movies to splice into his game film of the Bulls advancing upon each other in testudo formation.  Doug McDermott is having extreme plastic surgery to disguise himself as Creighton's Maurice Watson and claim he has miraculously returned from injury. 

Doug McDermott undergoes a Recreightioning Procedure

Thank goodness the Bulls are rotting, dysfunctional mess.  They enter the doldrums of the NBA season as an unwatchable mediocrity that relies almost entirely on two players to make contested jumpshots.  They will either fade into the late lottery or cling by their fingernails to an eight seed in the putrid east where they will be more or less instantaneously annihilated in the first round.  Fortunately, they have decided not to quietly limp to the finish in a parade of missed 75-foot Mirotic jumpers but to implode into a ridiculous black hole of infighting and social media sniping that has filled the void of spending these months wondering if Derrick Rose is Back.

BASKETBALL IS HAPPENING

Northwestern's glorious run hits its most precarious stretch as it faces Big Ten powers Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin.  They could continue to hang on or they can make a convincing case for themselves with a major upset.  This team has come back, it has hung with some excellent teams on the road, and it has closed out games at the line and with defense.  The players say they are focusing on one game at a time as required by law, but fans know that every dribble, pass, and shot is weighted with tournament implications.  It's nerve-wracking in the service of a modest achievement, but the best basketball in the Chicago area is happening at Welsh-Ryan while the Bulls destroy themselves through poisoned letters and sword duels.  Maybe this is the year we don't need to bask in the reflected funhouse glory of Bill Carmody.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

UNDEFEATED IN ALL HAT-RELATED CONTESTS

Kudos to whatever maniac dreamed up the Pinstripe Bowl, a football game played in a baseball stadium in a city that on a late December afternoon could be overrun by snow, ice, polar winds, and complex societies of hibernating bleacher creatures who spend the winter deep in the bowels of the stadium while composing new clap clap clapclapclap cheers for the springtime and occasionally clashing over whether or not A-Rod is a true Yankee and marching to battle in their souvenir sundae batting helmets.  The game drew a healthy contingent of blanket-swaddled fans and surely a massive television audience of people at gyms, muted bar televisions, and people stuck at work forced to stream the game into their cubicle joined by their ergonomic back pillows and a staple remover with googly eyes named "Bite Golic."

ESPN went all out and scrambled all available Golics

Northwestern came into the Pinstripe Bowl as underdogs against a confident Pitt team disappointed to be slumming it with Northwestern in a low-status bowl within the incomprehensible Great Hierarchy of Bowls. Pitt's turbocharged offense managed to march down the field repeatedly but had trouble crossing the goalline.  Anthony Walker ripped star running back James Conner from a one-yard score and Godwin Iguibuike came up with an endzone interception.  On the other side, Justin Jackson slithered, danced, juked, and stiff-armed his way to 224 yards, three touchdowns, and a slew of prone Pittsburgh defenders laid to rest in an armtackle graveyard.

Justin Jackson temporary stops the rotation of the Earth on its axis for his second touchdown

Pat Fitzgerald coached like he had nothing to lose.  An earlier post discussed Fitzgerald's more aggressive playcalling this season on fourth down.  The ESPN commentators made it seem like this was part of the Fitzgerald package, as he recklessly calls for fourth down conversions like a child emperor demanding that courtiers get kicked by exotic animals for his amusement because they haven't seen the thousands of times that the Wildcats have tried to kneel down for entire quarters, or sent out the punt unit in situations that even Kirk Ferentz would find excessive, and asked Northwestern's kickers to kick into howling squalls where the only way to get a ball through the uprights would be to speak some sort of ancient phrase in a dead language.  Fitzgerald trusted his offense and they converted all four times on fourth down after watching similar attempts falter this season by cruel inches.

Pat Fitzgerald goes all in on fourth downs

Northwestern drew inspiration from some ESPN personality who picked Northwestern to lose the Pinstripe Bowl on television to the point that Fitzgerald called him out twice: immediately after the game and at the postgame press conference.  Fitzgerald made sure the clip of an ESPN blowhard was the last thing that Northwestern players saw before taking the baseball field and this is easily the second funniest aspect of the Pinstripe Bowl except for the existence of the Pinstripe Bowl.  One can only imagine how far the Wildcats could go if someone informed Stephen A. Smith of their existence.

If it were me, I would not have kicked it to Jeremy Maclin. I would 
have said I'm gonna drill a hole in the dome and I want you to punt 
into the real Alamo which is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE but a 
MOTIVATIONAL EFFECT. I would have put everyone on the endzone 
against RON KELLOGG the THIRD and the FIRST and SECOND for 
GOOD MEASURE. I would have called a PLAY against MICHIGAN 
where it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE for Siemian to fall on his butt. 
I would have REMOVED HIS BUTT. I would not have lost 34 consecutive 

football games. I would not become embroiled in a basketball 
point-shaving scandal instead I would say y'all aren't shaving a TENTH
of a POINT until we at least make the NCAA TOURNAMENT

The Pinstripe Bowl provided a solid bowl experience.  It featured wild lead changes, huge plays, a swashbuckling coach who kept going for it on fourth down, controversial unflagged hits that knocked out Pitts' quarterback and inspirational superstar running back, Joe Girardi, a low number of hamfisted baseball references which is good but also slightly disappointing like Al Pacino's performance in Insomnia which was excellent but I spent the entire time waiting for a sleep-deprived Pacino to bug out his eyes and scream at someone like an unhinged maniac which is like the first thing you'd expect to see in a movie about a Pacino character who hasn't slept in days but he's barely even irate, and an upset for an incredibly rare Northwestern bowl victory.

THE REPORTS ARE IN AND THE BIG TEN IS BAD AGAIN

One of the most enjoyable things about bowl season is that the college football discourse, already a roiling pot of text-spittle, becomes given over to its favorite topic: whether a conference is bad.  Any rational person knows that a small series of one-off games often decided by a few plays tells us relatively nothing about the entire conference; it is hard to imagine a rational person sitting through more than 35 seconds of discussion about college football which consists of either a person screaming at Paul Finebaum while wearing a single-strap unitard or a person who sprays um actuallys around the internet like a sprinkler hooked up to a sewage line.

The Big Ten lost a bunch of bowl games and now it is bad.  Ohio State, which grabbed a controversial playoff spot despite not playing in the Big Ten Championship, got annihilated by Clemson.  Penn State lost a ludicrous quarterback duel by a last-second field goal.  Michigan lost because of a delightfully insane series of invents involving an effectively flummoxed kick returner and an interception that featured a potential missed offsides call that has led to the endowment of the Barrett Chair in Drawing Arrows on Pictures of Football.  Only Big Ten West powers Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Unstoppable Wildcat of Northwestern managed to win their relatively lowly bowl games.

Michigan scientists analyze the interception in the brand-new Offside and Spot Center

The Big Ten's bowl season flop remains completely meaningless.  For one, it is incredibly satisfying to watch the bullies of the Big Ten beaten in bowl games.  Conference pride is incomprehensible; why should I root for the very teams that sweep into the stadium every year with their legions of fans and more often than not bludgeon Northwestern?  There are few things in college football more satisfying than watching Ohio State get towed out of the Glendale stadium like one of its detachable grass fields with the possible exception of watching Jim Harbaugh explode into a million Harbaugh particles, each of them spitefully calling a meaningless timeout in the dying seconds of the Orange Bowl.

Second, the Conference Argument Industry takes place in a bizarre, lofty space that has nothing to do with the experience of college football fans.  While the big teams and the arbitrary playoff committee or BCS or whatever rudimentary scapulimancies used to divine the national champion before then take up all the air in the room, the vast majority of college football teams are either scraping for a bowl in whatever pizza city may take them or having fans argue about firing their coaches on the internet, or doing both at the same time. There are approximately three teams in each conference that  determine whether the whole thing is good or bad, and Northwestern has absolutely nothing to do with any of it.  The only thing that matters are Hats and bowl games, and the bloviations of various windbags obsessed with which team will lose to Alabama remains as ancillary to most teams' experience of college football as the seeding in the strongman competition where the giant Scandinavians are forced to scuttle around while strapped into economy cars.

Mr. Bay, I'm here to audition for the transformer. Yes, I'm ready, here it 
goes: Reet rot roat. Shit let me try that again

BOWL CHAMPIONS

The last time Northwestern won a bowl game, the players participated in a horrifying ritual disembowelment of a plush monkey toy representing the Wildcats' bowl drought.  Now, they've won two.  Northwestern's bowl losing streak came down mainly to the relative paucity of bowl games and the team's historical football ineptitude.  Then, when the walls opened up and flooded these United States with a cornucopia of bowl spectacles, Northwestern ran into what appeared to be a universe determined to shut them out.  They played in all manner of bowls against big teams, against small teams, in Pasadena, in Detroit, and in every available venue in the state of Texas and they could not win their final game whether they were matched up against an SEC juggernaut or a cresting MAC team. They lost in overtime.  They lost on an overtime fake field goal.  They had NCAA officials stop games and invent novel overtimes and special teams scenarios for the Wildcats to falter.  

Brandon Breazell has spent the last 11 years returning Northwestern's 
onside kicks for touchdowns

The Pinstripe Victory was not as satisfying as that emotional, drought-wrecking Gator Bowl against Mississippi State.  That was a ranked Northwestern team in a New Year's Day bowl that had all the pomp you would exepct from a Mid Status Bowl Game: the sun-dappled Jacksonville coast, a guy in a knight suit threatening tax code with medieval weaponry, numerous cuts to an interview with a race car driver.  

No sports victory could possibly be more enjoyable than a long-awaited win after losing for decades and decades.  Those games, the ones that require the shredding of a stuffed animal monkey and brutal display of its plush carcass in post-game press conferences as a warning to FAO Schwartz, come once in a lifetime.  That does not diminish the Pinstripe Bowl, which featured a heavy underdog Northwestern team wearing officially licensed hats in triumph with their third winter victory in program history.  I hope there are many more crappy bowl game trophies to come. 

Until then, the only thing to do is sit and wait for the next great impossible victory: become one the 68 best basketball teams in the country.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

HEY I'M PLAYIN' FOOTBALL HERE

The Northwestern Wildcat Football Team shrugged off a hideous loss to an FCS bottom-feeder and managed to defeat Iowa and the fetid rump of the Big Ten West to qualify for this, a mid-afternoon weekday bowl game played in a frigid baseball stadium against a Power Five opponent that is so angry about playing Northwestern that its fans have been complaining about Bowl Tie Conspiracies. I could not possibly be happier.

A long and costly investigation by the hard-bitten journalists of the Pinstripe Bowl website 
who spent days sleeping in cars and meeting with informants in empty warehouses overlooking 
waterfronts and surviving threats that show that they were getting too close to the truth finally 
reveals that both teams are excited to play in this bowl game

The internet hosts a smattering of maniacs who somehow oppose the rabbit-like proliferation of bowl games over the past few decades because I guess it taints the august legacy of for-profit amateur exhibition football.  This is insane.  There should be more bowl games.  There should be a bowl game for every American, each sponsored by a preposterous company or branch of the United States military, played in a weird frozen stadium in front of 85 people at 10:00am on a weekday and if you go to them there should be Official Bowl Events for each fanbase that include all of the pretentious pomp of major sporting events even though it's for the Amalgamated Belt Buckle Corn Dog Bowl located in a disused rust belt buckle factory complete with some obscure 90s band trotted out for an elongated halftime and a national television crew and the President of Amalgamated Belt Buckle swaggering in for the Presentation of the Belt Buckle Trophy punctuated by streamers falling on the empty floor at what had once been the room where they custom embossed "BOSS HOSS" right onto the buckle except for the time they got an erroneous plate and had to recall all those BOSS HOSE belt buckles, but that was not the responsibility of this man, the President of Amalgamated Belt Buckle, under whose stewardship the company has recovered and is now prosperous enough to host a Bowl Game.

College football is too large and too unwieldy for a single championship to cover, and to write off shitty bowls because they don't count also means writing off the vast majority of college football games.  Northwestern football games face the same criticisms as those leveled at shitty bowl games: low attendance, prominence of tarps, the involvement of the Northwestern Wildcats, and none of that has any impact on my own enjoyment of it.  When you strip all of the glittering grandeur and television talking heads discussing the playoff picture with the same breathless tones as the terms of the Yalta Conference, the end result remains the same: an entertainment product that holds precisely as much meaning as we allow it. And much like Northwestern football, the primary focus of shitty bowl games is to give us a few hours to pass the time, yell at people in a socially acceptable way, and make Big Ten fans angry on the internet.

THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH

Once, Northwestern owned a devastating bowl loss streak that stretched decades because the United States suffered through a horrifying paucity of bowl games and robbed us of things like the Dapper Dan Looking Good, Sport Pomade Bowl and also the Wildcats lost the vast majority of football games they participated in.  That all changed with the 2013 Gator Bowl, Northwestern's sole postseason victory in the NATO era.  Now, the Wildcats enter their bowl game as substantial underdogs, desperate to prove the college football experts wrong and come home with the Pinstripe Bowl Trophy, a statue of former Northwestern coach and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner ordering people to trim their beards like a baseball Peter the Great.

Historical woodcut of George Steinbrenner demanding that 
Goose Gossage cut off his beard before being allowed to throw 
baseballs at people

Pitt boasts an 8-4 record, victories over Clemson and Big Ten Champion Penn State, and a supercharged offense that last scored 76 points against Syracuse.  That game saw a record 137 points scored as both teams attempted to defend using only rhetoric.  The Panthers' offensive juggernaut comes as a bit a surprise since they are coached by former Michigan State defensive mastermind Pat Narduzzi.  Narduzzi gives the game some emotional heft, as he doubtless seeks to avenge his mentor Mark Dantonio who watched these very same Wildcats rampage for an unprecedented 54 points in East Lansing against a Narduzziless Spartans team that went from Big Ten East contenders to a 3-8 squadron of Purdue impersonators.

Pat Narduzzi is on the prowl for the blood of the Wildcat in his operatic Bowl Game Revenge 
Narrative that I've just invented because we need something for this  bowl game rivalry these 
teams haven't played since 1973

Northwestern combines an unpredictable season with its tendency to turn its bowl games into a complete free fall into chaos where nearly every possible kind of football misfortune becomes possible.  Last year, the Outback Bowl descended into a miserable and boring blowout unbecoming of a Northwestern bowl loss.  The laws of Probability Science unambiguously declare that Northwestern is due for a bowl game that involves at least overtime, a game-deciding extra point return, a series of preposterous interceptions, and an incident where the entire crowd is distracted and then when they look down on the sidelines Pat Fitzgerald has been poisoned and a New York City detective must interrogate a stadium full of monocled professors all of whom hide a sinister secret.

BASEBALL STADIUM FOOTBALL

At last, the Northwestern Wildcats have returned to their natural home, a Stunt Baseball Stadium Experience.  The 'Cats played in a baseball stadium fairly recently, when they took on Illinois at Wrigley Field in 2010.  The game's most notable feature was its use of a single endzone after a meticulous Big Ten study of the field layout determined that it would be detrimental for football players to run face first into a brick wall.  The unidrectional play did not cause too many problems to the integrity of the game like it would have if they had taken away the hashmarks or the fifty yardline or the people dressed like anthropomorphic hot sauce bottles who are forced into brutal races for the twisted pleasure of braying fans.

Though the Illini only had one endzone, they were allowed to use all of their available Zooks

The game has shifted to Yankee Stadium in its second iteration.  Yankee Stadium remains haunted by the ghosts of great Yankees in the past like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, and a fictitious baseball player named "Mickey Mantle" invented by Bob Costas and Ken Burns as a massive prank on millions of American Baby Boomers who swear they saw him play when what they really saw were blurry photographs of dozens of actors in stirrups who could not even consistently remember to hit from the same side of the plate.  That stadium was demolished.  The Pinstripe Bowl will take place in the new Yankee Stadium which hosts legendary throngs of belligerent New Yorkers who are still screaming at Alex Rodriguez for some reason.

The Pinstripe Bowl's unique setting offers several amenities such as wind burn and the opportunity to see a sport played in a venue designed for another sport.  Imagine thinking to yourself, hey, that's where the mummified remains of Derek Jeter used to dive feebly at balls just out of his reach as you watch receivers dive feebly at balls just out of their reach.  I am sure the commentators have been working on their comparisons like these to inform the people trying to surreptitiously stream the game because it is on in the middle of a workday.  Imagine Jack Mitchell, unleashed in his natural baseball environment, winding up to split the uprights and hit the Scott Brosius statue in Monument Park as commentators Mike Golic and Mike Golic, Jr. (this is true, those maniacs) bellow that this one is for all the pinstripes.

Fans somehow figure out how to mock a guy for bobbling a ball in a football context and also 
repeatedly scream FUCK YOU at all and sundry

The Pinstripe Bowl, even by bowl standards that include a single bowl named after Beef O'Brady's and cryptocurrency, at least three bowls named for chicken restaurants as well as one named after a duck call so that you can shoot your own fowl to consume at your leisure, and unmitigated potato worship, is weird.  It's in an unconventional venue in a cold city where residents are spending the week bracing for an influx of people who are willing to stand outside for hours to be in the presence of Ryan Seacrest.  The setting is anomalous enough that it is ripe for the rarest of all bowl traditions: a Northwestern victory.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Week 14: Who Cares About the Playoff, They Got the Hat

High noon eastern time and the whole country is simultaneously tuned to Big Ten Country for the nation's greatest rivalry spectacle in college sports.  It has been impossible to find anyone with the remotest interest in college football who does not have an opinion on the titanic showdown between the Illinois Fighting Illini and their arch-nemesis Northwestern Wildcats with every snap watched by the selection committees for the Foster Farms, Pinstripe, and possibly Heart of Dallas bowls.

The bowl panels meet to decide the fate of Northwestern

I can't imagine a football game with more at stake: for Northwestern, a chance to secure bowl eligibility for real although they probably would be able to sneak in as a 5-7 team because there are now so many bowl games that teams will be forced to play themselves in brutal scrimmages while executives from Zaxby's bray for blood by waving chicken pieces at the players gang tackling their roommates.  For Illinois, all they had was the opportunity to diminish Northwestern's bowl chances and cackle as the Hat blotted out the sun and winds blew in from the Lake and shrouded Evanston in a year of hatless darkness.

In the end, the Wildcats triumphed.  Illinois, feeble against the run all season, had no answer for Justin Jackson and John Moten IV, who scored his first two touchdowns by flying past Illinois defenders.  The game was much closer than it appeared.  The Illini rallied from 21 down to within a touchdown thanks mainly to Wes Lunt's best game.  Lunt took advantage of Northwestern's soft coverage on the edges to complete the same eight-yard out route approximately 35 times.  The Illini also got a heroic performance from an injured Malik Turner who would come into the game, make some insane diving catch, roll around in agony, and then come back in to make another great play.

Illinois outplayed Northwestern for several stretches in the second and third quarters.  But every time they threatened, something went haywire.  The Illini fumbled the ball away three times, including one on the Northwestern eight yardline with a chance to tie and once on a punt return down only seven.  The most egregiously awful reversal of fortune involved an interception deep in Northwestern territory early in the game negated by a twelve men on the field penalty, an event whose cruelty was mollified only by the fact that it was extremely funny.

Bells rang out in celebration, ceremonial Hats were put onto every statue, and people poured into the streets to celebrate this incredible sporting event.  Lovie Smith and Pat Fitzgerald, old friends as Chicago Sports Icons, embraced on the fifty yard line while Smith waited. He'd have the opportunity to prise the Hat from the collective head of Wildcats next year in Champaign-Urbana, where he would now return and use the ceremonial key to the Illini's Hat Loss Brooding room with a full year to plan his revenge.

AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE WEARABILITY OF THE HAT TROPHY

If there is one thing you can take away from your visit to this web log, I hope it is the insane and arbitrary decision to mount the Hat trophy on a base instead of allowing it to be worn by victorious players in triumph.  A recent tweet by Northwestern's athletic department caused some confusion on this position:
How is this possible?  Has there been some sort of trap door allowing the base to be crudely worn in hat-like fashion?  Was I succumbing to Hat madness?

For hours, I poured over BYCTOM's detailed Hat Archive for any sort of schematics.  I interviewed top statuary haberdashers and scoured the most recent academic journals of hat science, including "(Base) Jumping to Conclusions" in Brims: The Journal of Hat Trophies and Hamburger Restaurant Advertisements and "That's All Pretty Convenient" in The Journal of Implausible Hat Conspiracies, but could not make any headway.

Eventually, with the help of digital photography from years of Hat Trophy photos, including several obscene ones involving Tim Beckman, I began to slowly chip away at the greatest Hat trophy mystery of our time.  You can see the shocking conclusion below:

Proprietary BYCTOM schematic

It appears the hat can, in a fashion, be worn by a player as long as his head is not so grotesquely bulbous that it envelops the entire hollow base area.  But that only raises a larger question and that is this: why?  Why create a trophy of a hat that requires some diabolical secret head chamber in order to fit on a standard-sized head so the only way it can be worn is approximately?  Was the base in mind initially to prevent players from corroding the trophy with their sweat-drenched noggins only to be foiled by the statue's only weakness, a base soaked in the head sweat of dozens of Illinois-based Big Ten football players?  Is there a heretofore unknown Lincoln habit of wearing a stovepipe hat attached to an unwieldy base, his spindly neck straining to keep the whole apparatus on his head while Stephen Douglas made rhetorical mincemeat of him?  I demand answers from government officials immediately on this matter.

Lincoln discovered in a rare photo wearing a gigantic wooden recessed box underneath his 
trademark stovepipe hat while guys with standard non-base hats look on sullenly, reaching 
into their pockets for a notebook so they can write down reminders to buy bulky wooden hat bases

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IS A LUDICROUS CIRCUS

While Illinois and Northwestern waged their titanic struggle in front of dozens of tarps at Ryan Field, a minor Big Ten squabble took place in Columbus.  There, Ohio State managed to prevail in an overtime game filled with controversy, the best possible result that throws the playoff rankings into chaos and has prompted a Million Michigan Man march on the Capitol where they will read their manifesto entitled "This Manifesto Uses The Phrase Dereliction of Officiating Duties" from You Sir, the News Letter of Michigan Football Harrumphsmanship.  

The playoff picture remains in disarray.  The Committee will have to figure out how to justify including an Ohio State team that did not even qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game over a Penn State team that has a chance to win the conference and already beat the Buckeyes head-to-head; an undefeated MAC team; and potentially a Big 12 champion with a loss that hinged completely on an erroneous referee decision and a minor miracle.

The task of naming a college football national champion remains the most delightfully arbitrary and absurd ritual in sports.  They have tried to do so through polls run by disparate media organizations which means that a large amount of college football history involves a process of claiming championships and defending them through postmodern deconstructionism.  They have tried to do so with computers, which is a sound attack on the narrative-driven insanity of college football.  And now, they try to fit exactly four teams into a playoff, but do so with an unaccountable committee that meets with the solemnity of a papal conclave.  
White smoke by the Playoff Committee signals a triumphant De-emphasis 
of Conference Championships

All this week, people have been attempting to make logical arguments to fill the three non-Alabama playoff spots.  Conference championship upsets this weekend can occlude the picture even further. But logical arguments and opponent defeat flowcharts have no place in this process.  The Playoff is set by the Committee that has its own gonzo decision-making processes that have previously involved things like Body Clocks.  There is no way to know what they value or what sorts of formulae they use.  They could, for all we know, pick teams by throwing knives at walls or basing their selections entirely on the result of human hungry hippos while they hurl goblets of wine and hoot things like "you call that gobbling, you inadequate artiodactyl."

This twisted spectacle is how your college football playoff field is chosen, probably

College football sells itself as a mythological journey where teams rise up and meet challenges by upsetting high-ranked rivals or winning conference championships or even going undefeated in a minor conference and hope that their deeds prove them worthy of inclusion in the Playoff.  Instead, the only mythological elements are a class of powerful, capricious individuals with their own conflicts and agendas that can wipe all that out at a single stroke.  If you are lucky enough to follow a team good enough to aspire to playoff contention, all the college football season does it add increasing opportunities for you to get mad.  And, as fans of college football fans melting down on the internet, we could not have asked for a better system.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

Northwestern finds itself at the mercy of unaccountable committees when they meet to decide which bowl game they will be inflicted upon.  The two main possibilities are the San Francisco bowl, which has has turned over sponsors as often as a postwar Italian government and is now played at the Niners stadium located 2,000 miles outside San Francisco and the Yankee Stadium Hey I'm Playin' Football Here Bowl, which offers Northwestern fans the opportunity to see football played in a baseball stadium with more than one operational endzone.  

The game and the opponent do not matter.  The Wildcats clawed back from the portents of a miserable year to enter the postseason.  They boast the Big Ten leader in rushing yards, receiving yards, and sacks.  Austin Carr will have one more opportunity to bamboozle defensive backs. Northwestern has a chance to end the season with a winning record.  This will all be clearer when the bowl fatcats have emerged from their estates with their scrolls.  Until then, we can all luxuriate in the retention of the Hat in all of its mysterious, semi-wearable glory.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Week 13: Clean, Old-Fashioned Hat

There is one week left of Northwestern football and the Wildcats are out of time.  Either beat a putrid Illinois team and qualify for the Wattle Farms Chicken Gizzard Remainder Bowl or fall apart, a hatless husk of a team forced to try to shamefully sneak into the Harvester Combine Injury Bowl with a 5-7 record, only allowed into postseason play by dint of their Academic Progress Rate like Dolph Lundgren sneaking into the lead of a 1990s action movie called Viscount Cop only after Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal, Snipes, Willis, Gibson, and even Emilio Estevez have turned it down and it will only be released on special Bulgarian region DVD players.

What is the plot of my fictional Dolph Lundgren Viscount Cop move?  I'm 
glad you asked. Dolph Lundgren stars as a sheltered aristocrat brought up 
with courtly, nineteenth-century manners who joins the police to track down 
a tough, Habsburgh-themed motorcycle gang on the streets of New York City 
where only his knowledge of fencing and post-Metternich diplomacy can 
stop them while his wisecracking partner assimilates him in what the person
writing a Viscount Cop movie would imagine that hip, New York culture is

The 'Cats are reduced to this after a poor showing in Minnesota.  Clayton Thorson spent the entire game in a football version of the Running Man, as various Buzz Saws and Professors Sub-Zero sacked him in a house of bloodthirsty gopher worship.  Pat Fitzgerald decided to abandon his kneejerk football traditionalism and go for it on fourth down repeatedly.  These plays did not work, but we have possibly seen the emergence of a new Fitzgerald, one who goes for it on fourth down, one who occasionally takes it more than one game at a time, and one who joins with other Big Ten coaches in the Society of Slightly Less Punting and shows up with frosted buzzcut tips, BASE jumping anecdotes, and motorcycle jousting injuries.

Kirk Ferentz appears at a press conference to discuss going for it on fourth and two from Iowa's 
36 yardline.

Northwestern caps off a bizarre season.  After the loss to Western Michigan and the demoralizing collapse against Illinois State, the Wildcats seemed on target for a bleak, Purdue-esque tribute to football miserablism.  Instead, Northwestern rallied, developed a prolific and at times unstoppable offense centered on Austin Carr, and started winning games in the Big Ten/ They even managed to give probable division champions Ohio State and Wisconsin a hard time.  The Wildcats could be described as better than you think, although in the given "you" of college football fandom, the baseline seems to be successfully showing up to football games on time and calling at least one recognizable play.  Instead, the tough loss to Minnesota shattered that illusion and the Wildcats have returned to their traditional Thanksgiving position: desperately hoping to keep the Hat and qualify for Amalgamated Bleacher Tarp Bowl located in a floating island in the middle of the Great Lakes accessible only by garbage scow.  After the first two games, this represents a remarkable turnaround and a tribute to the team's resilience.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

The last time these two teams met in America's Greatest Sports Rivalry with bowl eligibility represented the apotheosis of the Northwestern-Illinois game.  Two 5-6 teams met with it all on the line: either a berth in a crappy bowl game against a Conference USA team or football oblivion with no bloated glut of bowl games and 5-7 APR bullshit to bail them out.  That maniac Tim Beck Man was still in charge of the Illini, and he took advantage of an injury to Northwestern's superstar NFL quarterback Trevor Siemian to lead Illinois to an unthinkable victory that still chills Chicago's Big Ten Bones.

(UPDATE: I forgot that last year's titanic Hat Contest involved a five-win Illinois team straining for bowl eligibility, although it is possible that the Illini could have rebranded the game the Victory Auto Wreckers Chicago's Big Ten Quasi-Bowl and then salvaged their season in the wilderness).

The Illini's first season under Lovie Smith has had growing pains.  Illinois's only Big Ten wins are Michigan State in full collapse and a Rutgers team that is offering the exact amount of resistance towards its conference foes as a henchman in the movie Commando.

This henchman meets one of the dozens of gruesome ends he and his comrades all played by 
the same stuntman will meet at the hand of John Matrix

Illinois currently nurses a quarterback controversy between Wes Lunt, who has been in Champaign-Urbana long enough to qualify for tenure, and Literally Jeff George Junior.  Northwestern is favored, at home, and will play in front of a sellout hat-thirsty crowd, many of whom will comes disguised as empty bleachers.  The status of Northwestern's superstar receiver (and Biletnikoff Award finalist) Austin Carr is up in the air; Carr left last week's came after a head-to-head shot ruled targeting and is listed as day to day with an upper-body injury, although Pat Fitzgerald would also describe the National Convention as voting to inflict an upper-body injury upon Louis XVI.

But throw out the record books.  It is Hat Week, it is Big Ten Network Regional Coverage, and nothing would give Lovie Smith and the probably two other Illinois players I can name off the top of my head a better Thanksgiving than to mercilessly yank the hat from the Wildcats' heads and drag it back to Champaign in a bus that Tim Beckman had specially designed to hold the Hat to transport it to and from Beckman family functions.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

It is a sad confession that the Hat Game has lost some its hat luster over the past couple of years.  This is the second consecutive year with a new Illini coach.  Lovie Smith has not had years to marinate in the spectacle of the Land of Lincoln Rivalry: the parades, the endless media attention, the jawing on the state-wide sports talk radio between fanbases whose trash-talking is based on the relative margin of defeat to Western Michigan. 
 
It is also the second year of the post-Beckman era, and if Illinois fans are not going to get on the internet and become as semi-ironically obsessed with the Hat as I am the least they can do is get rid of the frustratingly levelheaded Lovie Smith and hire another insane head coach who looks like he would never appear on television on Thanksgiving weekend unless he was a victim of a deep-fried turkey incident or giant inflatable pilgrim mishap with a pathological obsession with beating Northwestern.

Perhaps Lovie Smith, an icon of unflappable cool in his days with the Bears where he had to be transported around town in a Popemobile to prevent 300-pound mustache guys from screaming at him about Rex Grossman, will snap and become unhinged in the pressure of winning this great College Football Rivalry Game.  Maybe he will become the victim of an insane Face/Off incident where Beckman, now disguised as Smith, attempts to retake the Hat by force before escaping in a blimp while Smith has to feign ignorance of hamstring injuries in order to infiltrate Beckman's gang of rogue, fired football coaches.

Hat/Off

I hope that the rivalry has not already climaxed with a crappy bowl elimination game masterminded by the only coach on the face of the earth capable of caring enough about Northwestern to hate it. Maybe Lovie Smith will bring about an Illini football renaissance which, along with a Northwestern team that has remained semi-respectable in the Fitz era, will allow for a game with Big Ten West implications.  Failing that, the dream remains a game between the two teams when they are decent at the same time, which as far as I can tell has never happened.

Or maybe the Hat Rivalry just needs a bit more egregious dick kicking.

HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT HAT

It all comes down to this.  The pageantry, the rivalry, the all-engrossing spectacle enveloping Chicagoland as these two titans of the Big Ten clash for the 110th time at Ryan Field.  There's a bowl berth on the line for Northwestern.  There's an emergence of hope at stake for the Illini.  And most importantly, there's the Hat, carried off the field by the victorious team, with a giant metal tophat installed on the Art Institute lions and a mysterious light emanating from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library from a secret chamber that is said to be the source of the Hat's mysterious football powers that no one goes into for fear of resurrecting an angry Lincoln ghost that will rampage across the state, destroying all who tries to stop it with heretofore unknown rhetorical flourishes.

Northwestern and Illinois exist in a shared college football obscurity.  They are on national TV only when some Big Ten Football Brand school deigns to flatten them on the way to the Playoff or when they manage a rare upset.  It is safe to say that absolutely no one outside of these tiny, tarp-augmented fanbases cares about the Hat Game; the Big Ten Network could run last year's game at 11AM Saturday and have no one actually notice while changing only the graphics to say "Ryan Field" and dubbing over announcers saying "2015" in the same way that Bruce Willis miraculously discourses on melon farmers in network television airings of Die Hard movies.  But for Northwestern and Illinois fans, this dumb game and its ludicrous trophy that remains molded to a base instead of allowing the coach to wear it is ours.  It is my favorite sporting event of the year.  

-Hat-