Sunday, March 31, 2019

Review/Preview


It is impossible to write anything more evocative on Northwestern's tortured, miserable, last-place basketball season than this gif of Chris Collins on all fours slapping the floor, his eyes glazed with a sheen of madness.  This might be my favorite basketball gif of all time.  Collins is no longer coaching.  He is not drawing a play.  He is not giving an inspirational speech about rebounding.  He is watching his team hang tough with the number two ranked team in the country, he has seen a foul called, and he is reacting as if he is Charlton Heston and the University of Michigan has erected a Statue of Liberty in the student section.

One of the funniest things about sports, and college sports in particular, is the dichotomy between the figure of the coach as stern disciplinarian, here to shape athletes into better people under his or her gruff tutelage and the fact that we allow them to spend games in a maniacal reverie that would be otherwise baffling and unacceptable in any other context.  Successful coaches are allowed to parlay their fame into getting paid to go into a grain silo accessories sales executive convention and talking about Leadership and Discipline and Being A Winner Who Wins Like A Winner and then getting onto a field or a court to scream at an official while their heads flash red like an airplane wing light and their faces swell and bulge into an impression of the world's least subtle mime acting out a dogbite on the groin scenario and this is apparently fine.

There's a reason to draw a thread between Chris Collins's on-court histrionics and Northwestern's rough season because Wildcat fans are searching for a reason for a slew of early departures that have ravaged the team since Collins took over.  If there is one common theme for the Chris Collins era other than the triumphant 2017 tournament berth, it has been departure.  Several of Collins's recruits have transferred to make way for other players; one player alleges in a lawsuit that he was essentially thrown off the team and encouraged to give up an athletic scholarship via methods that included being barred from practice, remanded to landscaping duties, and getting accused of shirking through time cards that look like they had been forged and doctored because the person filling them out could not successfully spell his name.

This week, three graduated players with eligibility remaining have decided to leave as graduate transfers.  Barrett Benson, a presumed starter at center, graduated in three years in order to hasten his departure.  It is, I suppose, not fair to speculate on why players are leaving the program-- they may all have their own reasons, and the timing could be a coincidence-- but I do not think it is unfair to at least ask some questions about the guy above who looks like he's taking a foul call less well than the villainous cartoon character Skeletor.

The swirling mass of transfers has created an air of crisis around Northwestern basketball beyond its usual crisis of being Northwestern basketball.  The 'Cats had already graduated two all-time great players in Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, both of whom had been instrumental in getting the Wildcats to the tournament for the first time; Pardon's last-second layup to beat Michigan and clinch the tourney berth is the greatest Northwestern basketball play that did not take place in the 1930s and did not involve someone building a catapult to launch the ball towards the basket under the rules of the time. 


Two years ago, Collins stood in front of a jubilant Welsh-Ryan crowd talking about beginnings.  Now, he will spend an offseason scrambling to find enough players to fill out a roster.  It's not all doom and gloom; there are several good young players who will have an opportunity to find their footing in the Big Ten and, like his last team, learn how to play together to get back to the tournament or the NIT or one of those weird tournaments where there are no rules and are played in torchlight and the hoops are hollowed out cattle skulls.

A REVIEW OF NORTHWESTERN'S FANCY ARENA

Of course Welsh-Ryan is far nicer now.  They have seats now instead of bleachers.  There are new videoscreens.  The whole building is slick and new and covered in purple like the an arena on an alien spaceship.  It glistens.  There are somehow luxury boxes, even though the person who wants to watch Northwestern basketball but in a luxury box is impossible for me to fathom.  The thing it does most effectively and depressingly is to finally destroy the quaint illusion of Northwestern basketball and put it right in line with the bizarre and inexplicable spectacle of big-time college sports.

Opposing fans always loved to grumble that Welsh-Ryan was a glorified high school arena.  That's not necessarily fair-- it was bigger than a high school arena and also sometimes had halftime entertainment like live The Simon Says Guy-- but it was certainly stripped down in comparison to sleek Big Ten buildings.  The first basketball game I ever saw at Welsh-Ryan was a high school game, and Welsh-Ryan seemed just like a natural extension of what you'd expect to see-- bleachers, but more of them; a dot scoreboard, but one that could display cartoon ads.  I didn't watch college sports when I was younger so the idea of a college team playing in an arena that was basically the gym except without a bunch of side baskets made sense.
 
Old Welsh-Ryan arena just before tip-off for a Big Ten game

Northwestern basketball is big time college sports collecting the same insane checks as every other Big Ten team, but it was easy to pretend that it wasn't.  Welsh-Ryan was a creaky old barn where you could literally bump into Chainsaw Nick Smith on the way to the bathroom.  And for a long time, Northwestern was not very good at basketball.  Opposing fans would take over the arena, loudly complain about it, watch their players dunk for a couple hours and go home.  Even in the years when Northwestern was decent under Bill Carmody, they seemed to be playing a different sport filled with gangly goofballls doing slow motion backcuts and undulating zone defenses.

Of course, that is illusion: college sports are the same insane, exploitative spectacle even if the team plays in a dumpy arena that's biggest selling point was minimum distance from Gene Keady and even if the team was historically bad tournament-missers.  And yet, the spectacle of college sports, especially the NCAA Tournament which was built to allow people to get fully invested in obscure teams featuring guys named like Benton Wrench somehow beating NBA players, is absolutely incredible.  That is the dichotomy of the Tournament: a delightful show plowing along as it always, and if a few minutes' scrutiny makes it impossible that it can continue for another minute before collapsing under its own contradictions that feels like just about everything right now.

THE CHICAGO CUBS ARE AN ABSOLUTE BUMMER NOW

The Chicago Cubs have been in three of the last four National League Championship series.  They won 95 games last season.  A Cub was runner up in the MVP vote, a different player from the Cub who won MVP just two years earlier.  They are only three seasons removed from the greatest in team history, culminating in a championship that generations had been waiting for.  Also they appear to be in complete crisis and everyone is angry with them.

Part of this comes from the Cubs completely punting on the offseason.  They gleefully joined nearly the entirety of baseball in deciding that baseball players were too expensive and sitting out the Bryce Harper and Machado sweepstakes.  Beyond that, though, the Cubs did nothing else.  They fired a bunch of coaches and brought in a utility infielder and a couple of relievers as the Cardinals, Brewers, and even the basement-dwelling Reds improved.

While the Cubs could certainly bounce back into form with the return of a healthy Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish, there seems to be a sense of treading water.  The PECOTA projections picked the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central.  Hilariously, Joe Maddon is using this as bulletin board material without stopping to think that PECOTA is literally a math formula and there is no one to gloat over if the Cubs win more than its projected 79 games unless he is secretly funding a project to implant the PECOTA formula into a host body to assume corporeal form and then invite the shambling monster to the Cubs dugout to get humiliated by disco music and crotch-thrusting dance moves after the Cubs win their 80th game.  It appears the Cubs seem poised to fire Joe Maddon, their most successful manager since Frank Chance, because everyone is just sick of his shit.

But the more dispiriting Cubs stuff has been a parade of scandal and an accretion of generalized rich people mania thrust into public display.  If there's been a single thing the Cubs have committed to in the offseason it is disingenuous apologies-- those from Addison Russell, who remains on the team for some reason, those from the Ricketts family after the publication of Joe Ricketts's bigoted emails.  The Cubs will be donating money and working with groups and raising awareness this season. 

The most recent spate of Cubs e-mails published by Deadspin are less inflammatory.  In this case, they delve into the various shady accounting practices the Ricketts family used to purchase the Cubs, but they also include various embarrassing levels of vaguely Habsburg-level family intrigue where they all sent e-mails to each other instead of threatening to invade the Low Countries.  While Tom Ricketts complained that there was no money left to sign free agents, fans can rest assured that the family was all buying up local railroads to they could all try to destroy each other while sending long email chains where they are all dressed in nineteenth-century sidewhiskers.
 
"How am I supposed to tell my children that it is not 
their uncle alone who owns the Detroit, Toledo, and 
Ironton railroad, but the entire family has banded together 
to crush the operators, buy out their stock, and divert their 
cargo of precious pig iron to our own depots?" reads one email

And yet, the Cubs still have Javy Baez doing Javy Baez things, a healthy Kris Bryant, and a first game that was just a general annihilation of a tanking Rangers team featuring pitchers named "Kyle Dowdy."  It has been a long, impossibly cold, and miserable winter.  Baseball is an incredibly dumb sport that makes no sense and it one of the best wastes of time ever invented.  Let's hope the Cubs and the odious, bumbling family that owns them don't continue to find reasons to make us forget that.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Do Androids Dream of Electric Soccer Men

S.S. Milazzo have weathered heartbreak in the fourth division of Italian soccer.  Their quest to leave the mud-soaked pitches and empty bleachers in this soccer Siberia for the Holy Land of third-division soccer with slightly drier pitches, slightly larger stands, and maybe even their own van had been derailed by two heartbreaking extra-time collapses: one knocked them out of second place and automatic promotion; a second eliminated them from the playoff and doomed them to another season dodging elbows from part-time gym teachers and performance shorts salesmen.  They press on close to financial ruin.  The club is weighed down by hefty contracts paid to star players because the manager is sentimental and cannot part with those legends who have so nearly brought the team to glory. None of them exist.

Football Manager exists on a bizarre halfway realm between reality and fantasy.  There is an S.S. Milazzo in real life; the game features hundreds of real soccer teams across the planet from the flea-bitten amateur ranks of Britain's seventh division all the way to the juggernaut glamor teams where you can actually attempt to purchase a Digital Ronaldo or get angry at some unholy rendering of Chris Wondolowski.  But for me, the most satisfying way to play is with a tiny regional team and have the program invent all of the players, not only because the algorithm was designed by a genius to spit out names like Paolo Pasta, but because it creates bizarre parallel universe where the world's best player is an Austrian named Dolph Tobaggen. 
 
The legend

And it is always fun that, with gameplay that remains pretty much the same whether you're playing as AFC Headbuttston or Real Madrid, you can now find out that the titanic promotion battle that you are fighting in the sixth division while fending off the barbs of a rival manager and other teams trying to grab your top players is all taking place for teams whose real life setup resembles a storage shed with a meat pie concession.

The home ground of Redditch United, a team that I took over after it 
was promoted from league so low that that you are not allowed to play 
into the seventh tier and got it to the the second-tier Championship.  
Because I play an old version of the game, the league that S.S. Milazzo 
is in literally no longer exists  

The genius of Football Manager is that it somehow balances a diabolically complex system of controls where anyone monomaniacal enough can assign unique training schedules to all of hundreds of players in a youth system or futz with dozens of obscure sliders that spell out each players' specific role with randomness and utter chaos.  Other sports games allow a human to control at least one player in the field and therefore take over the game; a skilled player or one at least savvy enough to figure out that the NCAA video games have no idea how to stop a cornerback under center who can run very fast can ride those exploits to victory.  Football Manager leaves the game results up to a program that leaves the player to the whimsical vagaries of chance.  The most determined player who has studied hundreds of pages of the various guides that players have put on the internet to form a sort of Football Manager folklore can still watch a Ballon D'Or-caliber superstar make an idiotic glory-tackle in the box in a crucial Champions League tie or players commit errors so egregious that they are either the result of a computer glitch or an uncannily perfect simulation of an oafish bartender stumbling around in the fifth division.

It is in fact that inability to directly control the players that makes it so gratifying or infuriating.  When a person, for example, takes a team to a championship in an NBA game, it is because he or she has taken control of them directly and run the same pick and roll that the game has no idea how to stop over and over again; these digital Darkos and Luthers Head have no apparent agency in this process.  When a Football Manger player named Antonio Crescendo hits a crucial away goal to advance to the next preliminary round of a cup, or someone named Walter Poplar-Stodge flails ineffective to stop a breakaway, it happens passively onscreen in a way almost directly parallel to how we already watch sports.

And Football Manager also puts in shadowy forces above the player as well.  Each team is controlled by a board that operates according to its own whims.  The manager can do nothing without the board-- it sets budgets, must be appealed to in order to improve facilities or even prevent the pitch from gradually turning into a treacherous dirt pit, it can unilaterally cancel player transactions or sell top players out from under you with no warning.  And in the end the board can fire you.  There is no game over as far as I can tell in Football Manager.  Once you get fired from a team, you can try to take over other teams by sending out job applications; I once got fired from two bottom-division teams in close succession (I am not good at this game) and started simulating to see who would hire me next.  I kept fruitlessly applying to be the manager in any league that would take me while years flew by because I was curious whether at some point the game would force me to retire or go into real estate or die.

---------------------------

Football Manager's baroque interface, intimidating options, and repetitive gameplay would make an impossible and awful game if it did not manage to tap into the insane and frightening ability for human beings to inject pathos and emotional stakes into anything that can be vaguely related to human endeavor.  The lack of control in the Football Manager universe turns players into goal-blasting heroes or disappointing losers that are randomly-generated parts of some code.  I spent several seasons in the game in legitimate fear of a computer-generated player named "Ian Sidebottom" who regularly tortured my team in the dregs of the semi-pro Conference National.

Football Manager brilliantly abets this by encouraging users to emotionally engage.  A crucial part of the game involves finding which types of pep talks certain players respond to.  The game also simulates player disgruntlement-- players argue about playing time, demand transfers to larger clubs, and generally irritate you.  It encourages you to argue with other managers through the fictional media.  These interactions on my old version (2012) get boring and rote quickly, but I'm floored that there's an option to add your own text to interactions-- this does absolutely nothing in the game other than give you the satisfaction of calling a string of code that presents as Liam Tradgough, Manager of Brundleswain-Upon-Pants a bloviating pig fucker to absolutely no one.

Sports video games that have no outside plot other than winning the game count on players to instinctively engage with them the same way they do with sports.  I've put my team in financial jeopardy by having a hard time selling old players because they've become club legends.  I've worried briefly about what recruiting a superior point guard on a college basketball team will do to the old stalwart on the roster even though the game has no mechanism to simulate this and a player will start, sit on the bench, or get cut and sent to a digital afterlife of swirling ones and zeroes presided over by the whims of a game genies with no effect whatsoever.  This phenomenon even spills over to games with real-life players; who has not had some sort of lingering affection for some otherwise obscure player that had somehow starred for you in a video game and otherwise has been consigned to the dustbin of Remembered Guys?

On the one hand, it is a little strange and even disturbing how easy it is to reproduce the feeling of rooting for a sports team that has real buildings and people and eleven dollar beers with a digital edifice that, no matter how complicated, is essentially face painted on a volleyball.  On the other hand, it's also gratifying that sports games allow anyone inclined to graft all of the emotions and ludicrous habits of watching sports onto what is essentially a nest of interlocking spreadsheets.  There is a way of playing Football Manager bloodlessly, of accepting the fundamental fact that its soccer universe is a cardboard diorama and it's just a matter of figuring out what buttons to press to make the numbers go up, but to put hours into the game doing that without becoming attached to players or angrily and short-shortsightedly selling a player that has done something annoying or even, with full control of one's faculties, writing to a rival manager that he should live as long as it takes for humans to master cloning and shrinking so that he can finally climb up his own ass even though this insult is going to an entity that does not exist, is more insane.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Holiday

It is not supposed to be chilly and rainy in San Diego.  Football teams are supposed to win games that they lead 20-3.  Northwestern is not supposed to score 28 points in a quarter, and Utah players are supposed to have played a football game in wet weather before instead of performing as if the game had been relocated to a functioning hog rendering plant.  The Wildcats are supposed to melt down in bowl games at the hands of a superior opponent or a ludicrous hail of onside kick return touchdowns that I didn't even know were legal.

For an entire season, Northwestern was supposed to finally lose and conform with conventional wisdom, the advanced numbers, and the aura of losing that pervades the team even though it's been nearly a quarter century since the Wildcats were in the throes of their notorious streak of football abominations and have since been more or less ok.  Instead, they continued winning after a heinous loss to Akron came to define their season as they became Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Akron, a name that became funnier and more absurd as their feats became more impressive-- Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Arkon Hangs Tough With Michigan was one level; Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Akron Advances to Big Ten Championship Game was most bizarre football sentence that could be constructed.

My favorite part of this wild season was the Wildcats' emergence as the numbers-noids of the Big Ten, racking up victory after victory even as advanced metrics kept spitting out spreadsheets saying that they were terrible.  Northwestern, a 9-5 team with a division championship and bowl victory finished the season as the S&P+ metric's 79th best team in the country (the Associated Press ranked them 22; the coach's poll, which is filled out from what I understand, by a coach wadding it up and throwing it out of a truck window while crossing state lines to buy illegally caffeinated Monster Energy drinks and then sending a graduate assistant to spend several hours looking for it by crawling through storm drains in the hope that someone had filled it out had them at 19).
 
The Wildcats finish the season the traditional Treble: 
The Big Ten Western Division, Holiday Bowl, and Hat

The numbers seemed to catch up to Northwestern when Utah (S&P+ rank 16) came out and obliterated them in the first half.  The Wildcat defense, depleted by injury, and configured in the generous zone defense designed to smother the run and dare some truck suspension Big Ten West quarterback to throw a pass directly at Montre Hartage, got sliced up by Utah's passing game.  The Utes flummoxed Northwestern's run game and swarmed Thorson.  Top receivers Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek left the game injured.

And then whatever unholy force it was that propelled Northwestern all season kicked in and set off the greatest single quarter of football I have ever watched.  An interception thrown directly to Blake Gallagher.  A couple of monster blocks springing Chiaokhiao-Bowman to set up a touchdown.  A Gaziano strip has Jared McGee flying down the sideline.  An offensive lineman catches a pass and somehow trips for 12 yards before belly-flopping into the endzone.  A confused Utah team that keeps falling down and flinging the ball at Northwestern players.  In the end, Northwestern put up 28 points in one quarter and that was it for the day save for a couple more hideous Utah turnovers and Pat Fitzgerald's decision to kneel out the clock so much that they literally turned the ball over because Pat Fitzgerald would like nothing more than to score a touchdown and then kneel so hard that he burrows into the core of the Earth.


NUMBERS

To anyone who somehow managed to follow this blog website for the entire season, Northwestern's success this season in the face of some advanced metrics became a running theme.  I appreciate the epistemological project to bring some scientific order to college football rankings, which are now based on branding, recency bias, shadowy cabals of bureaucrats, and ineffectual screaming at the radio.  On the other hand, football, and college football in particular, is subject to many bizarre vagaries and bounces that it remains nearly impossible to predict, and to have the team I like continuing to frustrate math was funny and also weirdly inspiring.

Fifteen years ago, anyone attempting to follow sports on the internet subjected him or herself to a profoundly moronic culture war between the statheads and the rumpled newspaper columnists and flinty-eyed coaches on television wearing the absolute largest sports coats that could be fashioned by human hands.  This phenomenon, in its original baseball origins, weighed so heavily for the argument that fairly basic stats like on-base percentage were better than weird nineteenth-century stats in the face of counterarguments that consisted of "shut up" and "you live in a basement" that the statheads became sympathetic protagonists. 

More than a decade later, the statheads have easily triumphed.  The empirical case became nearly impossible to argue against in sports as teams that leaned heavily on numbers won.  As front offices began to adopt analytics wholesale, the media shifted to hire people who could write about them; the annihilation of the newspaper sports columnist as a job in the face of buyouts, layoffs, and ill-fated pivots to video took out most of the holdouts.

And yet, as a person who enjoys reading about sports on the internet, it is difficult to see the triumph of the advanced analytics movement as an altogether positive thing.  The grouchy, cigar-chomping columnist performatively photographed with a typewriter in 2004 has given way to the lanyard-clad Sloan Analytics Guy who is here to talk about Assets.  Advances in stats and use of new kinds of data from player tracking cameras has unveiled a lot of novel and interesting wrinkles in sports.  And yet, while knowing how fucking hard Javy Baez drilled a home run or how many miles Jimmy Butler runs during a basketball game is enjoyable, advanced analytics are not really for the fans, but for the front offices, and now more than ever the discourse in sportswriting revolves almost entirely around value and efficiency.

Here are some of the things that have happened as a direct result of broad analytics movements in sports and sportswriting: convincing fans that watching a complete and utter garbage shit team do Wile E. Coyote plans for years at a time is not only the smart way to enjoy sports but any other way is for neanderthal dimbulbs who call into sports radio shows with names like Headbutt Stan; looking at the same trades where shitty basketball players move around because the NBA's salary cap is a miserable rube goldberg contraption as genius moves because now players and draft picks are called "assets"; podcasts where people basically list how much money everyone makes for hours each week.

The broad revolution in sports information that comes from analytics and the internet has had two deleterious effects on following sports.  One is to frame everything in terms of what front offices value, which is money.  Yes, it is important for a writer covering a sport to understand the ins and outs of salary caps and taxes in order to understand what front offices are likely to do but it is exhausting to constantly read about how players fit in and out of these dumb and artificial caps in leagues where the only penalty to signing whoever they want is for some third-generation yacht guy to spend slightly more money.

Second, the analytics movement identifies more efficient ways to build teams and play that quickly become correct.  This is true in baseball, where the three true outcomes have triumphed and in the NBA, where teams increasingly gravitate towards the threes-and-layups offenses.  In many cases, these strategies proliferate because they are effective-- the extra point available on three pointers has made it an unassailable strategy not to jack them as often as possible-- but they flatten and homogenize the game in a way that can be less pleasing, aesthetically.  These strategies have also emerged in team building, where the owners' overwhelming concern with maintaining low salaries have made it all but impossible to consider building a winner that doesn't rely on underpaid young players in every sport. 

It was absolutely good that the stat nerds won their culture war because the people on the other side were ridiculous oafs.  At the same time, the analytics movement has loosed a torrent of irritating spreadsheet-mongers and payroll calculators on sports that have warped the discourse in other bizarre ways.  There will probably never be ways to analyze sports that aren't inherently stupid because the amounts of money and attention paid to these games remain unfathomable and ludicrous.  Sports have become too lucrative to risk on weirdos and suboptimal strategies.  

And while I welcome any attempt to bring some sort of empirical debate to college sports, I also can enjoy a hitch in the system when the team I personally root for flummoxes the ratings and continues to win under an undulating crew cut maniac fist pumping the numbers straight into a garbage can.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Bowl

Alabama and Clemson will face off yet again in the national championship after effortlessly humiliating the supposed third- and fourth-best teams in college football, and it sure seems like there is once again little point to a college football season with two teams leagues above all others.  But actually caring about college football's championship is a sucker's game for the rubes who care about playoff positioning determined in smoking rooms full of athletic directors and war criminals; the essence of the appeal of the sport is the roiling chaos just beneath the lofty heights of the Playoff and playing out in delightfully pointless bowl games that are all called the "Big Boy" Chad's Regional Trash Compactor Bowl That Used To Be The Chugg Energy Drink Bowl and next year will be the PotMom.Com Legal Weed Bowl.
 
Amazon says that this 10th anniversary micronpc.com 
bowl program is available for $21.00 plus $6.00 shipping

The point of the Playoff, with its fancy embossed lettering and tacky crystal football is that those games matter, but the 345 other bowls all know that in the cosmic sense, all human endeavors are pointless and you might as well watch two teams throw interceptions at each other in the Cheez It Bowl because one day the sun will explode.

Northwestern has made it to the Holiday Bowl, somehow.  This is a consolation prize, a bizarro Rose Bowl between the two teams that lost in their respective Conference Championship Games, a reminder that somehow the Northwestern Wildcats Who Lost to Akron somehow played against Ohio State in Indianapolis in some insane fever dream.  Even announcer Gus Johnson could not believe they were there, calling John Moten's touchdown for Wisconsin even though he was wearing purple and wearing a shirt that said (and this is a direct quote) "Northwestern."
No, Northwestern did not beat big, bad Ohio State and win the most improbable Big Ten Championship of the divisional era.  They played well enough, but ultimately their tactic of shutting down the run and letting the quarterback beat them was less effective against Dwayne Haskins than the various oaf-quarterbacks of the Big Ten West, and the game got away from them in the fourth.

In Week Three, Northwestern lost to Akron and all seemed lost.  One could do the dismal bowl math and try to figure out where the other five wins would need to come from to even qualify for a bowl game held on a patch of disused mattresses in the middle of a field somewhere.  Instead, they went 8-1 against the Big Ten and won the conference even as every single Numbers Analyst kept insisting they were shitty in one of the most dumb and fun football seasons imaginable and now I own a Big Ten West Champions T-shirt.

HOLIDAY BOWL

Northwestern's season will end with a bowl game in San Diego against Utah that is for some wretched reason being played on New Year's Eve to a nationally televised audience of people having the least amount of fun on New Year's Eve possible.  Given the timeslot and the gray meat and lukewarm potato football played by both of these teams, it would be far more interesting to replace the game with an endless stream of people at terrible New Year's parties trying to feign enthusiasm for the "big game" because they don't want to go into the other room and continue having conversations about how much various things cost.

Northwestern has played Utah twice, both times in Evanston.  They won in 1927, presumably by dazzling the Utes with a halftime show featuring music from the recently-released Jazz Singer.  Then in 1981, they lost 42-0 because it was a 1981 Northwestern game.  Utah's football team is apparently an unstoppable bowl juggernaut that just wins bowls.
 
Here's a 1927 season poster from Northwestern's 
likely depressing History of Northwestern Football exhibit

I am not going to lie to you and pretend that I have watched a single minute of Utah football this year or any other year or am watching film on them to break down how Northwestern will can beat them because I already know: it will be by shutting down their running game, daring their quarterback to have a meltdown, not getting penalties while the other team's fans slowly have an emotional meltdown because of Uncalled Holding, Isaiah Bowser battering people, and Clayton Thorson somehow magicking the exact one play that will give Northwestern exactly enough points to win.

The Wildcats have won their last two bowl games.  Until recently, bowl games had been another vexing and improbable part of the Lore of Northwestern Sports Incompetence as they kept collapsing in increasingly impossible ways; to anyone who says there is no point to winning bowl games, I would suggest rooting for a team that failed to qualify for one for 47 years, waited until they became ubiquitous enough to qualify for them almost every year, and still keep losing and losing and losing until finally pulling one out and see if your coach does not theatrically destroy a plush toy monkey.

And yet, this bowl game may be the most inconsequential bowl game Northwestern has ever played.  They already played their thirteenth game in Indianapolis for the entire Big Ten Championship. Does it matter if they triumph here or, by wriggling out of a festering Big Ten West, have they already proven their point?  

I can make one guarantee: this year has featured the most Northwestern football ever unleashed on this nation, the United States.

BOWL GAMES

The best part of bowl games is the shameless grift by a mysterious coterie of Bowl Executives and marketing people who are all in charge of skimming millions of dollars from exhibition football games put on by athletes compensated with a Playstation and a digital watch.  The Washington Post has a wonderfully entertaining story about a man paid more than a million dollars a year whose only job is putting on the Outback Bowl that starts with this incredible, withering lede:
In the gated communities of waterfront mansions north of this city, not far from mansions belonging to the chief executive of the Tampa Bay Lightning and former NFL star turned broadcaster Ronde Barber, there’s one particularly impressive home, featuring a 600-bottle wine cellar, a wraparound shower with massage jets, and a sizeable pool with a waterfall and jacuzzi overlooking a lake. It belongs to Jim McVay, a sports executive who for the past 30 years has run the Outback Bowl, a second-tier college football postseason game featuring third-place teams.
But it's not a goofy make-work job for the man who invented the Bucs firing cannons after scoring touchdowns.  The man is working hard.  Every night, he has to hire James Brown's Cape Guy when he comes home from another backbreaking meeting in Rosemont.

 “It’s not a situation where he sits on his thumbs for three years,” [Outback Bowl board member Steve] Schember said. “He goes up to Chicago a lot [Big Ten headquarters] . . . he goes up the SEC offices . . . it’s an important job, maintaining those relationships.”

"People don’t understand the bowl world. It’s very unique,” [Outback Bowl spokesman Mike] Schulze said. “People are always going to say, ‘Gosh, I didn’t even know that was a job.’ But we all work hard. We’re here every single day.”
 
Here I would like to imagine the Outback Bowl Board and Outback Bowl staff sitting around a giant model of the Tampa football stadium with jewelers' eyes and then McVay says we're going to put the end zone here while everyone applauds and they all open up bottles of champaign and inhale powders made from the appendages of endangered animals.
 
My favorite waste of bowl money this year is the Maker's Wanted Bahama's Bowl.  This game, pitting Florida International against Toledo, was sponsored for $300,000 by Chicago suburb Elk Grove Village. I can't think of a funnier waste of taxpayer money than sponsoring a bowl game between FIU and Toldeo.  As a person who has been to a bowl game, the most horrifying and awkward part of the bowl game is when the Vice President of Bowl Sponsorship or whatever gets to give a little speech only this time it will be some Deputy Comptroller who hopefully has a honking Chicago accent representing an industrial park in the shadow of O'Hare talking about how much it means to the residents of the Village's Little Toledo neighborhood. 

Bowls fit into a bizarre entertainment landscape where unending television money props up weird spectacles that no one seems to want.  Television networks need football content so we have a proliferation of half-empty bowl games between listless teams pawing at each other or, occasionally, letting loose the sublime insanity that happens in college football.  These bowl games aren't stupid or pointless or unnecessary for the players or the fans, but their existence also seems on the same plane as a Nic Cage movie released exclusively on Hulu Plus for the benefit of someone who is either unaware of the quality of the Eastern European Nic Cage canon, actively seeking it out for some bizarre B-movie sense, or is on a startling combination of drugs.  

The lesser bowls, propped up by unpaid players, executive-level hamburgling, graft, chicanery, and wrapped in a chintzy layer of pomp that usually involves a halftime show involving the Original Bassist from 311 are not some bizarre college football sideshow-- in this way, more than the oxygen-sucking Playoff, they are the very embodiment of this , ridiculous sport.
https://twitter.com/BigTenNetwork/status/1069044507969110017
https://twitter.com/BigTenNetwork/status/1069044507969110017

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Wheel Has Turned and the Cycle Continues Anew: The Bulls Have Hired a Bald Asshole

For some reason the Bulls, an already crummy team ravaged by every single player tearing the same knee ligament, decided to fire gormless PTA Dad Fred Hoiberg.  Hoiberg had little going for him as a head coach.  At the same time, he faced bizarre circumstances where he was put in charge of a roiling, conspiracy-prone Three Alphas team that had little time for his pajama party bonding sessions because they were headed by veterans more concerned with invading Silesia.  The next year, they tanked; Hoiberg also had a player just completely and utterly destroy another player's face and the organization decided that the guy crumpled on the floor deserved it.  And then, just when Lauri Markkanen returned from injury and the team could be poised to Space and Pace as prophesied many moons ago from Ames, John Paxson and Gar Forman burst into his rumpus room and fired him out of nowhere because it was time for them to bring in a Bald Asshole.
 
An extremely normal image that comes up when you google Jim Boylen

The Bulls have a pattern for coaches that rotates between ineffective Hair Guys and Bald Assholes.  They brought in Scott Skiles to scream at everyone about playing defense for several seasons until they had to stop players from assassinating him after practice.  His replacement was Vinny Del Negro, a man with a glorious mane and a confused look on his face.  Then they brought in the ur-Bald Asshole in Tom Thibodeau, a bizarre basketball monomaniac who spent all of his time sitting around in the same black track suit watching film and just vibrating with anger that somewhere a basketball player was not boxing out.  Thibodeau, with his manic floor-bellowing, his complete inability to take a single play off even during a grinding 82-game season, and his Sipowicz-but-less-put-together aesthetic, fell into an unending conflagration with the front office that went as far as to involve rumors that coaches turned on fans because they feared their offices were bugged.  It turns out that Derrick Rose's knee ligaments were the only things holding the fractious Bulls together.

Jim Boylen is a classic Bald Asshole. He wants to talk about Defense. And Fundamentals. They're going to do Suicides.  And he's going to scream at everyone until his throbbing skull glows red as a heating lamp over a 7-11 hotdog roller.  He has been the Bulls coach for less than a week and has nearly incited a mutiny.



It's not Jim Boylen's fault that he looks like a crooked prosecutor who "strongly denies" involvement in a boat license entrapment scheme, but he made no bones about his public image and immediately decided it would be the hardass vice principal from Back to the Future.

On Saturday, the hapless Bulls were utterly dismantled by the Celtics in their worst loss in the history of the team.  Boylen reacted with hockey substitutions and pulling starters presumably so he could scream at them in practice the next day.  The Bulls then started a group text about whether or not to even show up to practice because they did not want a pointy-headed doofus setting up dozens of desks so he could angrily clear everything off of them while yelling that they shouldn't have done the worst loss in the history of the team.  Now everyone is saying what they need to in order to prevent Boylen from looking like an even angrier, redder asshole than he already did.

What's next for Boylen? Will he stop a game in the middle and just leave?  Move into Jabari Parker's house so he can tell him to pick his knees up for godssake pick your GODDAMN KNEES UP?  Will he burst forth from Zach Lavine's chest while angrily tooting a whistle?

Is there a worse archetype in sports than the Bald Asshole coach, the guy who decides he's not gonna have any LOLLYGAGGING around here? Is there anything more absurd in the NBA, where multi-millionaire adults are really going to listen to some glistening sausage casing who looks like the alderman's brother-in-law who is somehow on the payroll?  And, this is a completely unrelated subject, but what are the odds that the Bulls have interim coaches named Jim Boylan and Jim Boylen and they are two different guys because honestly before Coach Tugboat came in there and started throwing things that simple fact broke my brain for several hours?

The answer to all of those questions is John Paxson.  Paxson loves this shit.  A guy who literally choked a coach and who has spent the past two decades in Chicago playing dumb macho headgames absolutely loves it when he opens the door and some guy who is already putting fist dents into a filing cabinet has prepared a rhyme about how every player is dogshit DOGSHIT.  Perhaps we can find a the biggest, baldest asshole humanly possible, just a smooth-headed maniac radiating spittle and sprouting auxiliary whistles, just a nine-foot colossus who is so angry that he must be wheeled around in a plexiglass box to prevent him from causing millions of dollars of property damage at all times to come in and yell at John Paxson two inches from his face while blasting on a whistle and punching the walls of his traveling prison-box and telling Paxson to stop running this basketball team like a goddamned opera.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Championship

Northwestern football has them all doing the one thing they don't want to be doing and that is talking about Northwestern football for an extra week.  The Wildcats did this by remaining standing atop a Big Ten West where every team poisoned itself, by playing a brand of ugly, unwatchable football, and scoring very close to the minimum number of points needed to do so.  They are 8-4, lost every single non-conference game including one to a four-win Akron team that had literally never beaten a Big Ten Opponent, and sported a losing record at home.  SBNation calls them the "lowest-rated power five team to ever win a division championship."  Pat Fizgerald has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year; they are sixty minutes away from winning the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl.
 
I had no idea the Big Ten West Champion got a trophy until this year

 Every advanced metric seems to cry out that the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats suck.  And yet, nobody wants to see their team play them.  This is partly because Northwestern plays aesthetically revolting football loved by punters and the punters who love punters.  Northwestern has a great punter who has also been kicking field goals because it is his turn to score some points and at Northwestern, the punter is king.

The Wildcats were bound to break through to Indianapolis at some point, and this is the platonic ideal of a Northwestern team to do so-- reviled, appearing seemingly by default, irritating the hell out of everyone especially Big Ten West teams whose own vile and inept outfits managed to fall short.  This is what Northwestern football looks like under Pat Fitzgerald-- not the Randy Walker squads that used the then-novel spread offense to try to beat teams 61-55, but a brutal, grinding, defense and punts machine that has sprung fully formed from the meaty forearms of a neckroll linebacker.  Northwestern hangs in against great teams and they rarely blow anyone out.  In the last five years of Fitzball in which Northwestern has had arguably its strongest run of the modern era including multiple ten-win seasons and heretofore unthinkable bowl victories, the 'Cats have made almost every clutch play they've needed-- they are probably a few dozen minutes from going like 3-9 every year.

For a long time, opposing teams would react to losing to Northwestern like frustrated cartoon supervillains, shaking their fists and perplexed that their plans had once again gone awry.  It was mildly infuriating that teams could lose again and again to the Wildcats and their fans would be incredulous because Northwestern had been really bad in the 1970s and 80s.  How could people not fathom that Northwestern is sort of good?  They put up a spirited fight in the Sun Bowl.  But not this year.  Everyone is infuriated they lost to Northwestern because Northwestern punted 75 times and then a wide receiver teleported into the endzone or they fumbled and the ball bounced into a roll and hit the pole, and knocked the ball in the rub-a-dub tub, which hit the man into the pan, the trap is set, Northwestern ball.
 
Northwestern Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall draws up the 
"Win The Game" play

The metrics and pundits have no way to quantify exactly good enough, and the Wildcats in Big Ten play have made pretty much exactly every play they needed to at the right time.  Maybe it's luck, maybe it is a conference gerrymandered for Wisconsin watching as Wisconsin realizes only too late that Ryan Field is inexplicably a Badger Death Trap, and maybe it is because the Wildcats have some sort of bizarre intangible toughness that allows them to grind out games like this while causing the S&P+ computers to overheat and become sentient, eventually going on an endless wave of destruction.  All I know is that the Wildcats are in Indianapolis, the bumbling jabronis of the Big Ten West are not, and I would not write them off.
 
THE INCIDENTAL HAT

If hideous, unwatchable victories characterize this Northwestern season, then the 24-16 victory over a malingering Illinois team was their masterpiece.  The Wildcats bludgeoned the Illini with Isaiah Bowser; the Illini run defense seemed mainly to consist of reasoned argument.  But then, Fitzgerald took everyone out.  The 'Cats already played the game with no starting defensive backs, no top receiver, and without a key defensive playmaker.  Early in the third quarter, Fitz benched Bowser, and by the fourth had benched Clayton Thorson.  The offense basically decided to kneel for the rest of the game, and Illinois inched back with a great game from quarterback A.J. Bush.  Fitzgerald decided to win the Hat with one head tied behind his back.

And once again Mystical Northwestern Bullshit struck again.  Part of it came from Illinois just being a woeful and sorry football team that couldn't stop committing doofus penalties; the game ended on a first down granted from a personal foul.  Part of it came from Lovie Smith stoically electing to kick field goals instead of raining touchdown hellfire in order to try to salvage some dignity by seizing the Hat from the division champs.  Even me, a person who has written thousands of words about retaining the Hat, was screaming at Lovie for kicking a field goal inside the five, a luxury I could enjoy because the game had no bearing on Northwestern's conference championship position, and a loss would only give them a another truly hideous and embarrassing defeat to drag into Indianapolis and theoretically make them even more powerful.
 
Using archival photos of Lovie as the head coach of the 
Bears, this blog has expertly recreated what would happen 
if Lovie shaved his mustache and grew a Lincoln Beard, 
perhaps the most effective way for him to win his first Hat

I like Lovie Smith a lot.  He was a great Bears coach and always struck me as a beacon of calm in the manic football coaching world.  I have no idea why Illinois has played so poorly under him and, it pains me to say this, but Tim Beckman would have absolutely won that game.  He would have won that game, he would have gotten the Hat, and then he probably would have spontaneously combusted while screaming at his players all the way back to Champaign-Urbana only because he understood the power of the Hat and it drove him into madness.
 
FOOTBALL APOCALYPSE II

The last time Northwestern and Ohio State met on a stage this big, ESPN's College Football Gameday came to Evanston.  Northwestern was 4-0, coming off its first bowl win in the NATO era, and seemingly poised for a big run in the Legends Division that I still can't believe that multiple people saw that and said that was an acceptable name for a division, sure we'll put it on merchandise and trophies and everything.  Instead, Ohio State eked out the win and Northwestern fell into an unfathomable death spiral where they managed a single win the rest of the season.  This meeting is projected to be more bleak.
He got the First Down

This game has Playoff Implications.  Because the college football playoff is decided by an unaccountable committee that selects playoff participants from secret chambers with ghastly rites and unthinkable augurs, Ohio State may still qualify.  There is no objective way to determine whether, for example, it is better to have Oklahoma's defense where they try to tackle people and then fly back on wires like in kung fu movies or to have gotten annihilated from the face of the Earth by Purdue.  The Playoff Committee deals in conjecture, in ratings and money, and just plain old bullshit.  But Ohio State will only make the Playoff if they beat Northwestern, and they have every incentive to try to run it up as much as possible.  Unfortunately for them, Northwestern football this season is an inflatable clown that keeps popping up.

Conventional wisdom says that the Buckeyes will run away with this one.  But they do not fully understand the force they are dealing with.  Northwestern's 2018 football team was not designed to get blown out, clobbered, or run out of Lucas Oil Stadium.  It makes no sense.  It defies all logic, reason, and empirical ranking systems, and only exists to profoundly annoy and fuck up college football.  Ohio State has the best quarterback in the Big Ten and a high-powered offense.  Northwestern has the ability to show up to the Rose Bowl and get asked what the fuck are you doing here before a 25-minute phone conversation clears things up and the Tournament of Roses people react with Marc Maron levels of incredulity.  There can be nothing less likely or more ridiculous than Northwestern pulling this one out.  Tell the Buckeyes the Wildcats will see them in Indianapolis, they will see them in hell, and they will see them in Overtime.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Statistics

Pat Fitzgerald has a saying he likes to bleat out from time to time: "stats are for losers."  This sort of sentiment comes partly from Fitzgerald's frustration from feeling overlooked and underrated due in part to Northwestern's historical ineptitude, a bizarre and thin-skinned fascination with media figures (it will always remain a mystery to me why he spent so much time calling out some ESPN guy I've never heard of repeatedly for daring to pick Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl), and a sort of cheeky macho posturing where Pat Fitzgerald feels the need to act like the model of his look, a gritty, middle-aged Duke Nukem.

And yet one of the curious things about Fitzgerald's tenure as head coach has been a consistent gulf between Northwestern's rating by various advanced statistical metrics and the team's performance.  This comes from a bizarre pattern where the Wildcats struggle against a coterie of profoundly non-threatening foes like the Central Eastern Corner of Illinois Feeblemen or Jabroni Technical College before somehow roaring back to life against Big Ten opponents, all of whom are defeated by seven points or less if they cannot be dragged into Northwestern's overtime chamber.

This season, Northwestern has somehow risen to win a profoundly troubled conference and play in the Big Ten Championship game; SBNation/Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings say that the Wildcats are the 76th best team in the country.  College football can work this way because football itself is a bizarre and impossible game where the outcome of games can hinge on one or two plays, and Northwestern has made nearly all of them. “They beat teams just like that," P.J. Fleck said about last week's loss. "Iceman from ‘Top Gun,’ for all the people who know that. Cool as ice. Never makes a mistake."
 
"I.C.E.M.A.N." Fleck said. "Intensity. Coolness. Execution. Mangling. 
Anklyosaurus. Neurotransmitters."
I also want to point out the incredible next paragraph from the  
Star Tribune article where I got the Fleck quote from columnist Jim Souhan: 
"Most of Fleck’s speechifying targets 18-year-olds who may be impressed by 
such silliness. Iceman from ‘Top Gun’? I may have been one of the few people
 in the room old enough to know what he was talking about, yet I had no idea 
what he was talking about. He might as well have been comparing Northwestern 
to Gatsby, or Shemp."

The season is short or, in statistics jargon, the samples are small.  With the exception of the world-devouring Alabamas of the world, it is very difficult to tell if a team is better than another, and because of the nature of the game, it is almost impossible to predict if a team will beat another team or whether a team is better.

Fans and pundits have several strategies to deal with the ambiguity baked into college football.  One way is to try to build empirical models and rankings.  The other way is through rhetoric, logical fallacies, transitive property wins, television analysts with tie knots so large that they are orbited by smaller tie knots going on television and talking about the Positional Matchups with grim certainty even though they have absolutely no idea how any of this is going to play out, ad finally people screaming at each other. 
 
There is also the tried and true method of Plushomancy, divination 
by Giant Mascot Head

And yet, one of the strange epistemological paradoxes in sports in general, but particularly in college football, is that you could build a computer that takes of several acres with whirling tape machines and people dressed like NASA ground crews scurrying around with armfuls of printout graphs that could tell you precisely how good every team is and it has no effect on what actually happens.

The central question surrounding Northwestern football this season is: why? And also: how?  A Northwestern team that has not looked particularly impressive has amassed enough ugly wins over the exact configuration of teams it needed to beat to win the West.  Have they been profoundly lucky?  Do they have some sort of transcendent clutch switch that allows them to make the exact play they need to make at the exact instant they need to make it and no other time?  Are they the avatars of a cursed football deity, brought forth by the unholy addition of Rutgers and Maryland brought in to smite the maniacs who dared to divide the Big Ten into this precise configuration of divisions by forcing Jim Delany to watch Northwestern play in the championship game?

There are some answers.  Northwestern's early-season struggles came from an offense juggling two quarterbacks as Clayton Thorson returned from his horrifying knee injury.  Then, star running back Jeremy Larkin retired, and the Wildcats' running game stalled until the emergence of freshman battering ram Isaiah Bowser.  Wisconsin played Northwestern with a quarterback making his debut.  Kirk Ferentz is being held hostage by a Speed-inspired madman who has threatened to destroy Kinnick Stadium if the Hawkeyes go above eight wins.  Northwestern refuses to blow anyone out because the program is in the grips of an overtime cult. 

Regardless of what the numbers say or what cavalcade of coincidences and clutch play has allowed Northwestern to make it this far, the fact is that they are the Big Ten West Champions.  They cannot be stopped from playing in the Conference Championship Game by anyone.  And should they do it one more time, they look at the numbers and the statistics and Pat Fitzgerald prints them out and rips them apart on the sidelines like the time he had the team destroy a stuffed animal monkey when they finally won a bowl game, they would be finally proving once and for all that beating Ohio State or Michigan and knocking the entire conference out of the playoff would be extremely funny.

SOFTENING THE CLAIMS TO THE HAT

With the big Hat Showdown coming once again, it is important to point out that the state of Illinois is in the midst of a full-blown Hat Crisis, a seething cauldron of intrigue, fraud, and skulduggery involving the prize Lincoln Hat in the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  According to this tremendous report from WBEZ, which I cannot to full justice to in this blog post, the a private collector sold the hat to the museum, claiming that Lincoln gave it to a farmer from Southern Illinois as a gesture of gratitude in 1858.  Even that information remains cloudy-- an affidavit from a descendant of the family suggested that William Waller received the hat in Washington D.C. sometime after 1861.  Those reports represent the sum total of evidence that the hat ever belonged to Lincoln and is not just some nineteenth-century hat that some people had lying around in the closet.
 
The Lincoln Hat of Dubious Prominence casts a hat-shaped 
shadow over Springfield

According to the WBEZ article, the Lincoln Presidential Library spent $25 million on Lincoln artifacts in 2007, and the hat was the centerpiece of the collection.  As the article says "in 2007, an appraiser valued the hat now in Springfield at $6.5 million and used adjectives like 'transcendent' to describe its apparent majesty."  In my imagination, this involved the entire board of the Library seeing the hat and determining they must have it during a bacchanalian Lincoln trivia contest and speech-reading competition and paying for it with cash in a priceless period-accurate briefcase that may have belonged to Stephen Douglas.  Now, with the Lincoln Library and Museum in some financial trouble, the authenticity of the hat is coming into question.

When historians looked into the hat in 2013, they were unable to find much evidence that the hat had ever belonged to Lincoln, although they found nothing to specifically disprove the claim.  This is when the foundation called in the FBI and presumably its top Historical Hat Authentication Team led by grim, black-suited agents, battle-hardened from the never-ending Pancho Villa Sombrero Debacle and at least one of whom has scars from a violent confrontation with someone claiming to own a fraudulent Betsy Ross Bonnet.  As WBEZ reports, "two tests were performed in 2015, comparing DNA samples from the hat itself with Lincoln’s blood-spattered handkerchief, gloves, and shirt from the night of his assassination, and two tufts of Lincoln’s hair, among other things."  But even these sophisticated tests could not prove that the hat belonged to Lincoln.  

Here are some sentences from the rest of the article:

"In an interview, Nick Kalm, the foundation’s vice chairman, said his organization is still satisfied that the hat is Lincoln’s and that nothing uncovered by the FBI testing or museum curators disproves that. He went on to note that with some historic relics, “leaps of faith” sometimes exist in determining their authenticity."

"Underscoring the secrecy, federal agents were encouraged by the museum’s former Lincoln curator, James Cornelius, to “disguise themselves as a news crew” when they entered the museum, [Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Executive Director Alan] Lowe told WBEZ, based on internal correspondence only recently discovered.
Lowe described the overall secrecy surrounding the FBI testing as a form of 'subterfuge.'"

"'I have been on the front lines defending the provenance of the hat, but I have been doing that not having all the available information. This is unacceptable. We simply cannot operate that way,' Lowe wrote to foundation CEO Carla Knorowski and foundation Chairman Ray McCaskey."

To sum up, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum may have been snookered into buying a fraudulent Lincoln Hat based on just some guy saying so 150 years ago, and at some point an FBI Hat Crew snuck into the museum in disguise in order to DNA test the hat based on Lincoln's bloody death pillow and absolutely nobody knows what to do with this dubious hat other than the obvious thing-- make it the trophy for the Illinois vs. Northwestern Rivalry Football Game and allow the winning coach to parade around in it.

HAT GAME

Meanwhile, there is a football game to get to.  Illinois, fresh off the worst defeat in school history, is in a traditional death spiral to end the season.  They have had another difficult year, one where the most notable thing that happened was Lovie Smith growing a spectacularly grizzled beard and then the school handing out some incredibly soggy bottom boys-ass fake beards.
 
The Beard Out is a tremendous gimmick, I sincerely hope 
none of the beard recipients tried to eat a hot dog

The game has essentially no stakes beyond the hat.  Illinois will not go to a bowl.  Northwestern has already clinched its spot in the Big Ten Championship game, and the only question remaining is whether Jim Delany would hire a mercenary militia to stop a 7-5 Northwestern team with a loss to Illinois from appearing in Indianapolis.  The Wildcats are heavily favored but will also be looking forward to next week's game.  

There is nothing on the line except for the Hat, the Greatest Rivalry in American Sports, a knock-down drag-out fight between these two august programs fighting for a trophy.  And whoever gets it can hire the FBI to figure out how to put it on their dang head already.  I am on the front lines defending the provenance of the Hat.