Friday, September 23, 2016

Week 4: FOOTBALL JUGGERNAUT NORTHWESTERN STEAMS TO POWER FIVE WIN

In 2013, the Wildcats won their first bowl game in more than sixty years and celebrated by violently revenging themselves against a plush monkey doll that Pat Fitzgerald used as a symbol of the bowl drought.  Three years later, Northwestern reversed a moribund two-game losing streak by duct-taping themselves to the Duke Blue demons and flailing away for sixty minutes until they got a win. 

LOGAN: Jesus Christ, it looks like someone assassinated FAO Schwartz
BRISCOE: (Trenchcoatically) That's one way to get a monkey off your back. 
                         (He order 17 hot dogs from a nearby vendor). With dynamite.
(Script from "Monkey Business, "the ripped from the headlines Gator Bowl 
episode of Law and Order aired Sept. 18, 2013)

Northwestern's first win came against a "Power Five" opponent that may have been the weakest on its non-conference schedule.  The team seemed destined to a season of doom and gloom after losses to Western Michigan and a stunning upset by FCS powerhouse Illinois State.  To be fair, it does not take much to send Northwestern fans spiraling into doom and gloom.  The entire Wildcat football programs sways suspended over a gorge of historical football ineptitude not yet quelled by two decades of competitive and even Big Ten championship-caliber play and pushed at all times by opposing fans who don't believe Northwestern should even be in the conference.

Poster for Northwestern's Doom and Gloom-themed 
1980 Football Season

Northwestern's glorious victory over its equally insufferable quasi-rival relived the terror at the prospect of an 0-12 season.  The Wildcats did not necessarily look like world-beaters, but they did look like a team that defeated a major-conference opponent and put the Big Ten basement teams on notice.

BYCTOM deploys its Purdue Confidence Meter, built to measure how 
confident Northwestern fans are in beating Purdue

Clayton Thorson had a career game, scoring with some impressive strikes against a Duke defense monomanically obsessed with stopping Justin Jackson from ball carriering.  Austin Carr climbed to the top of the Big Ten receiver leaderboards.  A young, injury-ravaged Air Team Secondary rallied in the second half to hold rumored Henry Higgins inspiration Daniel Jones in check.  But the game itself devolved often devolved into a comedy of errors as depicted in this highly technical game analysis:

THE SPORTING MAN'S CURSE 

"Did you hear about Bunto Rawlford-Munch?" I said during lunch one day at the Goose Society Club.  "He's been receiving all sorts of sporting paraphernalia: jodhpurs, pneumatic golf clubs, falconing trousers, football helmets." As soon as I said football, Chompy Stodgeaway-Mopp turned, his face twisting into the look of a man whose oyster dinner had betrayed him and led its foodstuff comrades on a rampage through the intestines. “A bunch of oafish rot if you ask me. You can keep your football and any other configuration of violent human pyramids.” He stomped off, leaving a trail of chicken feathers.

“Poor old Chompy, you won’t hear a good word about football from him for a long time,” said Puffer Festoon.  He explained the odious turn of events that had turned Chompy from a football enthusiast to a man just short of forming a subscription society to ban it.

Chompy, you must understand, has an excess of the sporting blood.  He was nearly chucked out of school for running an exam score wagering ring that fell apart in a scandal of score-lowering where promising students unknowingly had their science textbooks swapped for old alchemical treatises.

Chompy's sporting enthusiasm was not tempered despite his almost clairvoyant ability to pick losers. George Saint-Mutton financed his honeymoon by betting against Chompy every time.  So Old Chompy was prone to touching his friends for a tenner, but having exhausted the largesse of every sharp, horseman, and old school chum within the City, he had to turn to investors of the rougher kind. When Vercingetorix wheezed to seventh in the Bumperton Stakes, Chompy owed no less than 45 quid to Victor Darnton, a man whose associates, the colossal Pumbleswan twins, liked to practice their amateur chriropractics on Darnton's most unfortunate debtors.  

With nowhere else to turn, Chompy trudged into his uncle's office.  His uncle,  Theodore Herodotus Stodgeaway-Mopp, earned a fortune with Pleasant Farms, the country's largest chicken processing concern, which patented the first gizzard-chopping apparatus.  The elder Stodgeaway-Mopp looked down on his nephew's sporting pursuits and their rare encounters tended to end with entreaties to quit the racetrack and enter the chicken business.  It was only when Chompy demonstrated, using a model chicken in his uncle's office, precisely how the Pumbleswan twins would rearrange his beak and redistribute his feathers that his uncle agreed to pay his debt.  But he imposed a condition.  Should Chompy fail once again to pay this loan back, he would join Pleasant Farms from the bottom as an apprentice gizzard-grinder.  Chompy would sooner join a the circus as an apprentice bear-taunter, but he had no choice. He grabbed the notes.  

But when Chompy stopped by the track for one quick race, he found an opportunity so golden that it it only existed in fairy stories guarded by some noxious giants who go about walloping people with tree trunks.  A great, purple faced man with a walrus mustache was holding forth about his sporting prowess to everyone who would listen. Chompy quickly saw that this gentleman did not have the benefit of his full faculties.  To be honest, this fellow appeared so pickled that he seemed to be keeping himself upright through the wind power from his own voice.  

Everything he picks comes up a winner, he boasted to the small group of punters assembled around him.  He grabbed a sporting newspaper and announced his infallible picks.  "The Mad Vicar in the seventh," he said, jabbing with a wobbly sausage finger. "Blowtorch Jack Blonnett over Ironknuckle Kitchen by knockout," he cried as the sporting paper fell apart into component pages, leaving him squinting at the most obscure matches on the last page, which was the only one he managed to hold onto.  "Wildcats versus, what’s this?  Blue Devils?  Gentlemen," he said, "I am not a religious man, but I will simply not allow for blasphemy in the…what sport is this?  Football, you say?  Well these impertinent devil-worshipers should be banished to whatever lightning-stricken mansion they perform their rites in." That is when Chompy perked up.

You see, during his brief adventures hiding away from the Pumbleswan Twins, Chompy had become so desperate for sporting action that he sought out increasingly obscure papers for games he could not even follow.  In the course of his researches, Chompy came across an article, a small blurb more accurately, that deprecated the footballing prowess of these very same Wildcats.  According to the article, they had comported themselves in their first two contests like an old dandy so riddled with rheumatism that he can barely shake a cane when a gang of exuberant youths comes by on a hat grabbing expedition.

Chompy knew that he possessed solid scientific information, as mathematically sound as anything that Euclid chap came up with.  It was as if a beam of light emanated from the heavens into the Turf Club and offered the solution to his problems in a single bet.  “I say,” Chompy said, as the gesticulating punter spun about trying to honed in on Chompy.  "This tenner says these Demon chaps will thump those Wildcats into a carton of mince-meats.”  “Is that so?” the tout replied, his sidewhiskers flaring up like a startled lizard.  “I am so confident that these sinister lucifers will be driven underground that I will spot you five, what do they call them?  Points?”  

“Suits, me,” Chompy said. 

"Dash it, I certainly won’t allow that sort of impudent demon-worship in this sacred house,” the portly bettor hiccuped at Chompy.  “I’ll give you seven points.”  

Now, Chompy will swarm to a sure thing like a shark to a bleeding sea lion, but he was raised as a proper gentleman who never lets a fellow sportsman get more than ankle-deep in the soup if he can help it.  “I think we’ve already settled on a bally good wager,” he said, but his magnanimous gesture only further agitated the tout, who turned an even deeper shade of purple.  “My Whatsitcats will roll your Satanic blackguards into the very hell where they presumably reside," he bellowed.  "Eight points!"  

Chompy attaches the greatest honor to the noble art of bookmaking, but even he has his limits, and he was not about to be buffeted about the Turf Club by some grandiose eggplant. “Well, then, if you're so confident, give me nine and I’ll pay out double,” he said.  The tout roared and lurched towards him, only kept off the carpet by a graceful lunge onto a sturdy chair.  “You coarse hare!  Ten!" he said. "But you'd better be prepared to pay out triple.”  

That sealed it.  Chompy handed three tenners for safekeeping to Old Grousey, the head valet who assiduously kept these sorts of arrangements amongst gentlemen.  For a split second, Chompy thought he saw a glint in his opponent’s eye, but the man quickly collapsed into a heap of guttural snores, and Chompy was so excited he forgot to place a small one on Quagmire, which (it turns out) came up lame in the first turn.

The day of the match, Chompy arrived at the club resplendent in ties the color of his favorite football club, the Duke Blue Demons.  He arranged updates via telegraph and we brayed like agitated hyenas every time another footman came in breathless with a new update.  His face fell when the Wildcats took a quick lead, but he improvised a jig when his side tied it up.

Two footmen barreled in with news.  Northwestern had missed a three-point goal, the first said, and Chompy spun his devil-topped walking stick with vaudevillian √©lan.  Then his face fell as the second man told him that a Duke player had roughed up the kicker to in excess of the violent standard of the sport, and the Wildcats would get a closer try. “How can you get a penalty for running into a person when the whole bloody enterprise depends on running into people?" Chompy said, his gesticulations knocking the decanter out of Gulpo Yarrow-Mawp’s always sweating palms. “For all I know they're out there swinging billyclubs and blackjacks at each other.”  Just then, a cab pulled up with a third footman. “Out with it, already,” said Chompy. He read the telegram and Chompy beamed. “He missed.”

It continued in that vein for hours in a flurry of telegrams.  Chompy had no idea what was going on, but managed to follow the movement of the score and the ten points that separated him from an unthinkable consignment to his uncle's dashed chicken prison.  Both sides kept approaching a scoring position only to carelessly discard the ball like a pair of soiled spats.  Time after time, the Duke team appeared to have the Wildcats about to relinquish the ball before committing some confoundingly illegal action.  At one point, a forlorn footman came under a hail of dinner rolls after he solemnly announced that a Blue Demon had lashed out at a Wildcat and been forced from the premises.  “Here I was told that this was a rough-and-tumble game for vigorous roustabouts and you’re telling me a chap’s been chucked because he gave them all a free spot of pugilism?” Chompy said, before aiming a dinner roll at a the valet, hidden behind a tray he kept around for precisely these circumstances. 

Chompy’s celebration turned morose after Northwestern went up by seventeen when, according to a telegram, the Duke defenders had abandoned a Northwestern player like Robinson Crusoe in the middle of the field.  He peevishly dismissed a footman who he sent away and told him to fetch a catalog for chicken-resistant outerwear.  But the footman refused to move, insisting that Chompy would want to see his latest despatch.  Chompy read the message and he let out a pretty good elephant bellow.  “They’ve scored!” he yelled. His beloved Blue Demons, with no hope of winning the game, still managed a ripping series of football maneuvers toward the end-zone.  All he needed was a nearly automatic extra point to get him to ten points, get his money that would keep him safe from his uncle’s diabolical chicken facility, and keep him in the sporting life until at least the Hamwattle Stakes.  He caroused about, striking a number of what he believed might be football postures.  “Sir,” the last footman wheezed, grabbing at his cramped abdomen. “A final telegram has arrived.”

THIS SUBTITLE HAS A CORN PUN

Northwestern has a serious challenge ahead when it begins Big Ten play for all intents and purposes on the road against Nebraska.  The Huskers are undefeated, coming off an impressive Reverse Body Clock win at Oregon, and look to have exorcised themselves of their propensity for ludicrous close losses last season where they lost, by my recollection, 17 games by a row by a hail mary hook and lateral combination designed by the Sinbad character from Necessary Roughness.  Northwestern has historically played the Huskers close; last year's narrow victory in Lincoln came from Nebraska's inept, Tecmo Bowl-style tackling attempts on Clayton Thorson as he triumphantly gallumphed through their secondary, which is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.


This year's Nebraska team looks like it could be the class of the Big Ten West and brings with it the traditional swarm of Nebraska fans to Ryan Field.  All Big Ten opponents that are not currently too depressed to handle football take over Ryan Field because there's twice as many of them in every class as Northwestern's total enrollment and the Wildcats have essentially no casual fans except for people who I've buttonholed at social gatherings and yelled at about Northwestern football until they pretend to care.  The vast majority of these visiting fans are friendly and nice and hilariously distraught on the occasions when Northwestern upsets them.  But it's still frustrating to go to a home game knowing that Northwestern will probably have to go to a silent snap count.

This site, like many members of the Blogspot Family, is a fount of ideas, and throughout the years of Nebraska Crisis I've proposed numerous sane and normal solutions to the visiting fan problem: enforcing a strict purple dress code with doormen recruited from the finer clubs who have Crimean War experience, a Voight-Kampf Test for Ohio State partisans, constructing a Potemkin Evanston a mile north of the city complete with a cardboard stadium to lure opposing fans away from Ryan Field.  The Northwestern Athletic Department, however, refuses to take action on these reasonable and practical solutions and will therefore expose me and hundreds of other Wildcat fans to the psychologically damaging high-fives and fist-bumpery in my own section.  To any Nebraska fan who happens upon this blog while searching for football fan fiction on the internet know this: I will be mildly disappointed if the Wildcats lose this game.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Week 3: I'm Not Mad, In Fact This Is Funny To Me

On opening day, Northwestern and Western Michigan grabbed each other and dove off the Reichenbach Falls as they tried to simultaneously lose the game on the same play. The Wildcats had been outplayed, but still had a shot to sneak away with a victory until they were foiled by a Bronco unable to successfully lose the game on a delightfully boneheaded miscalculation. Last Saturday, the 'Cats faced a frisky Illinois State squad from the Missouri Valley Conference and sank, thumbs up, into a vat of molten steel.

I know now, why you cry, but it's something I can never do along with understand why they 

had Thorson throw the ball 41 times

There are a few ways to cope with a disheartening loss to an FCS opponent whose joyous fans thronged Ryan Field. One way is to remain positive, hoping the team has stared into the abyss and spends the rest of the week in an unending 168-hour-long sports montage featuring synth-heavy songs that all sound exactly like this poster of the 2005 Wildcats team looks.

This might be my favorite piece of football-related art


The other way is to spitefully revel in the damage that a free-falling Northwestern team can do to ranked opponents on the schedule. By merely playing them, they can destroy their opponents' ranking like a football virus that eats away at the host and, should the montage work and the Wildcats become inspired by a song called "Not (Line) Backing Down" and they beat one of these teams, we can enjoy watching their ranking sink, forcing disgusted opposing fans to become so enraged that they enter their message boards in a clumsy virtual reality, determined to fire the coach from cyberspace while doing battle with rival fans who invade their message board through virtual reality and they perpetuate cyber violence against each other across smoking modems.


Still from a treatment of my new screenplay called Re: UNACCEPTABLE


DISPATCH FROM ILLINOIS STATE
When the college football honchos got together and devised their byzantine championship system, the last game they had in mind was a mid-September contest between Northwestern and Illinois State. But that is what they have created. College football presents a great ordered hierarchy, a Great Chain of Being from the juggernaut teams that clash in titanic bowl matchups to the tiniest Division III schools(1) whose games are attended by a lonely sports reporter for the student newspaper and small detachment from the nose tackle's seminar patiently waiting for the game to end so they can finish their group presentation on Great Expectations. So when the kicker for the Illinois State Redbirds(2) bonked the football off the left goalpost, he played into college football's most attractive selling point: the setting of up an intricate arrangement of teams within a neat football ecosystem defined by real inequities in money and resources and prestige and then watching college football utterly destroy it as fans of the upset teams stare into the distance, their hands on their head, their butts kicked.
College football upsets come from two streams of inequity. The first is structural. Northwestern plays in the Big Ten, a major conference(3) commensurate with big money and television exposure(4) and the ability to qualify for the playoff by beating other Big Ten teams. Illinois State plays in the FCS(5), a lower-tiered league that does not have its own television network and pants sponsors and allows fewer players on scholarship. In 2015, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said that Big Ten teams should not play FCS schools anymore, characterizing them as an "opponent that is not tantalizing for fans, for players, for television or even for rivals." In other words, Cmsr. Delany thinks that Big Ten fans, even agitated into their most crazed football bloodlusts, have no interest in watching their teams whale on some overmatched lesser-conference detritus before getting back to the serious business of qualifying for the Ducolax Opioid-Related Stool Softener Bowl. Cmsr. D's edict means that the Northwestern Wildcats will not have a chance to avenge their loss; assuming that the Cmsr.'s plans remain in place, the Redbirds will own an perpetually-increasing winning streak against the Wildcats and can spend the next several decades accusing Northwestern of ducking them out of fear of another killing bonk.

The other source of college football inequity comes from perception and media coverage. College football's championship depends on its discursive elements; it is post-modern. There are too many teams to accurately determine which ones are better than the others when they have similar records. Even when they do not, the press, fans, and constellations of football personalities that influence the sport can find ways to dismiss teams by derogating their opponents' record and conference (the "ain't played no one" refrain), rejecting losses from early in the season, weighing the effects of circadian rhythms(6), and referring to the team's general place in the history of college football. College football championships had been lawless affairs awarded based on the votes of hat-wearing reporters. Fans eventually demanded a more accurate championship assessment. For fifteen years, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) tried to balance some of this subjectivity (not to eliminate it since politicking and shit-talking form central parts of the appeal of college football) with a computer formula.(7) The new College Football Playoff has rejected the terrifying Skynet implications and returned the messy business of college football championships to the humankind-- an unaccountable cabal of thirteen notables. 

All sports depend on the tension between what is supposed to happen and what actually happens, but few sports set the perennial power teams (PPT)(8) up for perpetual victory as much as college football. Their advantage reaches beyond the money and facilities and taps into habitual resignation. Fans of PPT fallen on hard times resemble bleary-eyed aristocrats forever pulling sleeves to tell passersby about how volleyball arena used to be a ballroom where they waltzed with Maj. Berensky, resplendent in his hussar uniform, before the revolution. Northwestern is not supposed to beat a PPT because they lost dozens of games in row the 1970s and 80s. Illinois State is not supposed to beat Northwestern because they play in a division so far below them that they are not even eligible to play for the same championship. The Redbirds could revel in their ability to beat a team despite a college football infrastructure dedicated to preventing that outcome. For the Northwestern fans trudging back to their cars and trains, Yr. Corresp. can only report that they seemed utterly bummed. 

NOTES
1. That's just the NCAA. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) fields teams, and schools also field a number of club teams in all sorts of competitions, but you get the point.
2. Sean Slattery, a Junior from Rockford, Ill.
3. These teams are now referred to as the Power Five (P5) and include the Big Ten, Big Twelve,* the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference, and the Pacific Twelve. These conferences tend to attract the lions' share of attention, money, and television time, and their champions automatically qualify for the playoff. The remaining FBS teams play in the so-called "Group of Five" conferences. This was clearly an attempt to find some sort of name that did not inherently taint them as a group of also-ran football conferences, and what they came up with sounds like a nineteenth-century anarchist cell.
* The Big Ten has twelve teams and the Big 12 has ten teams, but the conferences have decided their brand names have become more important than numerical accuracy. Yr. Corresp. would find this highly irritating, but does anyone want the people who came up with "Legends and Leaders" (see Note 5**) in charge of renaming an entire conference?
4. The Illinois State-Northwestern game was carried on the Big Ten Network, a television network owned by the conference. The arrangement gets the conference direct money from advertisers that sell, based on a few games' worth of samples, salsa additives, tractor equipment, and extra-large men's pants. The network televises games that would never previously air, puts less prominent sports like volleyball and wrestling on TV, and allows for hilarious documentaries of players from newly-added teams that never had anything to do with the Big Ten but are now lumped in, like if the USSR started airbrushing Nikolai Yezhov into pictures.
5. Football Championship Subdivision. The Big Ten plays in the Football Bowl Subdivision. These designations replaced 1A (FBS) and 1AA (FCS) in 2005. The FCS points to the fact that its teams play in a sixteen-team championship playoff, whereas the FBS traditionally decided on a champion after a series of bowl games, a group of polls, and a system of computer rankings (see Note 7). The FBS adopted a four-game playoff for the 2014 season, but it remains the FBS because the playoff games are also bowls and they probably did not want to change the name again and order a bunch of new business cards.**
**These names always come from some marketing committee and spring into being, authorless and fully formed and immediately adopted by fans and reporters. The whole thing is kind of Orwellian, although occasionally successfully resisted when the nomenclature becomes too dumb even for college football, like when the Big Ten called its new divisions the "Legends and Leaders" to almost-universal derision.
6. The Very Same Northwestern Wildcats scored an upset of their own last season against eventual Rose Bowl champions Stanford. Stanford dismissed the loss by claiming that their body clocks had been affected from having to play a game at 11:00AM CDT and they were physiologically still asleep or at the very least mentally pyjamaed.
7. Fans became so upset at computer projections that they tweaked the ranking after the 2003 to increase the input of human polls, even though these polls were still filled out by reporters whose knowledge of West Coast football remained limited by their own circadian rhythms and by harried graduate assistants who fill out the coaches' poll because the coach has no time to watch other games w/r/t his schedule of watching film and yelling at teenagers and walking around all the time in shorts expecting everyone to call him "coach."

8. As distinct from the Power 5

NORTHWESTERN VOWS TO CONTINUE PLAYING FOOTBALL
The two consecutive debacles at the beginning of Northwestern's season have certainly dimmed expectations. This Saturday, the Wildcats take on Duke. The Blue Devils hammered FCS North Carolina Central and lost to ACC rivals Wake Forest. They hope to avenge a loss to Northwestern in a spectacularly hideous game that featured a sequence of eleven consecutive punts.

Northwestern has sustained more injuries to an already injury-ravaged roster of defensive backs. Fitzgerald has juggled the defensive lineman after watching them get mauled for two consecutive weeks. Justin Jackson will hopefully get to carry the ball again. Let the sky turn brown with the rain of a thousand punts enough punts to sap the enjoyment of football from everyone in the stadium including Duke's players who get discouraged and just want to go back home and get into arguments about basketball recruiting.

The key to Northwestern's strategy may be on
this VHS tape


The Wildcats' season is not over yet. They still have an opportunity to rediscover their defensive prowess and upset teams or possibly beat Purdue by arranging a convoy of fans to go to Ross Ade stadium and stage a popular vote to determine the outcome of the game instead of subjecting themselves to it.

More importantly, they have an entire season to focus on the single most important goal this season, which is to keep the Hat at all costs. Lovie Smith, for all his Chicago protestations, and his NFL pedigree, has never been in a Hat situation. He does not yet understand what is at stake: a tophat that is mounted, infuriatingly, to a base and unable to worn on the head like other hat trophies, possibly out of some justified fear of Hat Madness.

I don't think Northwestern will finish 0-12. At some point, some team, overconfident in their place in the Great Chain of Football Being will swagger into Ryan Field and leave with a loss, with baffled fans questioning their entire understanding of college football, and most likely punted into oblivion. I know exactly how they feel.

Friday, September 9, 2016

WEEK 2: A Reversal of Fortune

Football is an insane game dreamed up by a maniac and altered by generations of maniacs, each more maniacal than the last. There is an oblong ball that bounces irregularly. The rules have become so complicated that the concept of a catch has transcended the empirical to the realm of metaphysics. They play in withering heat and blizzards, on grass and artificial turf, in front of tens of thousands of bellowing football zealots, in a flurry of flying limbs and football equipment and those inscrutable playcalling cards that show a walrus, the HMS Bounty, Chester A. Arthur, and Herm Edwards dressed as his alter-ego The Herminator. There's an infinite number of ways to lose football games.

Northwestern has seen its share of normal losses, outmatched, the victims of butt-kickings so profound that the team was driven from the field and forced to mournfully snap the ball from a neighboring backyard swing set.  The Wildcats have also suffered a profound number of losses so absurd that they have formed a litany: the Hail Marys, the Double-Tip Firewagon Field Goal, the Onside Kick Returns, The Entirety of the 2010 Outback Bowl, The Time Tim Beckman Won The Hat and The Entire Earth Was Temporarily Shrouded in Darkness, His Unearthly Hat Cackle Summoning Forces Beyond Our Comprehension.

Beckman, having looted the Hat and placed it in its Hat Cradle to catch the light of the Blood 
Moon, planned a Reign of a Thousand Hats, proclaiming once and for all Illinois as Chicago's 
Big Ten Team, the fearsome billboards of the Illini lined from toll plaza to toll plaza but then 
he got fired

The loss against Western Illinois belongs in this woeful gallery.  It has all the elements: a MAC opponent viciously rowboating through an erstwhile dominant defense; a blown lead; a heroic drive stalled by the fumble-touchback, the single most damaging reversal of fortune play in organized sports; a spectacular, potentially game-saving blunder by an opposing player so grotesquely misguided that his own inept execution of his plan actually turned out to his benefit,; a 25-minute replay challenge that ended in misery.

To quickly break it down: Thorson's fumble into the endzone would be ruled a touchback if 
Davonate Ginwright either grabs it or falls down or grabs it and takes it from the endzone. 
Instead, Ginwright hurled the ball back into the endzone like he was John McClane throwing 
an explosive device back at a Gruber Brother before leaping out of a window, which is literally 
the only way Northwestern could get the ball back.  BUT, Ginwright did not manage to stay out 
of bounds, foiling his own plan to do the single most foolish thing in the situation.  The only 
way for the play to be more costly for the Wildcats is if the NCAA had spraypainted a "Dr. Pepper 
Fumble Here to Lose Game" logo on the exact spot Thorson dropped it

The loss undid a heroic effort from Justin Jackson who ball carriered and ball received all over the WMU defense.  Clayton Thorson and the new crop of receivers played solidly until Thorson fumbled his way into a Rube Goldberg catastrophe.  The loss could be chalked up to an excellent game from Western Michigan's Zach Terrell and Jamuri Bogan and a disappointing day for a Northwestern defense that sorely missed Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry.  On the other hand, Northwestern lost on a controversial endzone replay, which clearly means that once again the College Football Establishment is conspiring against the Wildcats, the insidious tentacles of their agents reaching into replay rooms operating out of dozens of shadowy organizations.  Chris Collins identified a Michigan referee conspiracy against Northwestern during the Big Ten Basketball Tournament, and I've discovered some mindblowing evidence that will shake you to the core:


THERE IS ANOTHER GAME

Last Saturday's disappointment gives way to this week's hope.  Fortunately for Northwestern, the cats face FCS Illinois State at home.  Traditionally, FBS teams and especially major conference teams take this opportunity to steamroll FCS squads while touchdown-crazed fans bray for the walk-ons in a twisted football bacchanalia.  This is not that game.  For one, Illinois State is a season removed from a berth in the FCS championship game, where they lost a close game to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State.  For another, Northwestern has lost home games to lower-division teams in the past, most recently Chip Kelly's New Hampshire team in 2006.  Despite the recent success, the history of Northwestern football remains a museum of football indignities, and there are few types of losses the Wildcats have not suffered with the exception of the consistent domination over defunct Chicago-area dental colleges, whose team message boards to this day are filled with tooth-taunts from swaggering Northwestern partisans.

The 1903 Wildcats handled Chicago Dental according to this Tribune article 
that describes an unrecognizable sport featuring dental backs and line bucks: 
"In a game which showed Northwestern weaker than even the most pessimistic 
feared, the Methodist school yesterday allowed the Chicago Dental college 
eleven to make two touchdowns, scoring only three itself, so that the final score 
was 18-11.  One of the touchdowns made by the Dental college was scored on a run 
of 105 yards, but the other was made by straight playing, the dental backs 
pushing the ball by line bucks the length of the field."
This information comes from Hail to Purple, which not only tracked down 
the game but successfully lobbied to change inaccurate accounts of the game 
that dared to insinuate that Northwestern had lost to the dental college. I count 
this as their greatest victory

More importantly, Wildcat football over the past several season has alternated between indomitable luck and turns of events so catastrophic they seem to be the provenance of trickster football deities. Last season, the 'Cats got every bounce in close games, every big stop, and every call on their way to ten wins.  The two years before, a snakebitten Wildcat team innovated increasingly baroque and intricate ways to lose games.  Every game remains its own discrete event.  But in a season that has already begun with disturbing harbingers of chaos, of footballs bouncing off arms and crossbars and a crimson Pat Fitzgerald storming onto the field in protest, his fists pumping not with the vigor of victory but ineffectually against the referees and the laws of football and physics, it is hard not to be on guard.

FOOTBALL AND AMERICAN SOCIETY

Football was originally developed as a way for college students to beat the ever-loving snot out of each other so they can grow up to be monocled industrialists and talk about manfully looking into the eyes of a hale-hearty fellow who attempted to put his head through their sternum. Now, I am convinced that its most important function is as a release valve for monomaniacs that would otherwise be sieging post offices or filibustering through Costcos and instead they’ve channeled their energy into making kids run through those nets that make you keep your knees up while yelling KEEP YOUR KNEES UP.

All coaches of sports at high levels work insane, unreasonable hours to justify the insane and unreasonable amounts of money and attention we shower on professional and college sports. Football coaches represent the extreme end of the coaching version of monomania.  NFL coaches all but move into coffins in their offices, emerging only to draw a bunch of Xs and Os and reluctantly talk to the press about injuries. They operate at all times under a veil secrecy usually associated with government space laser programs that we all know exist. In the offseason, they are usually fired. Those that keep their jobs disappear from view until the next Mandatory NFL Event.

A resigned Belichick breaks down under a hail of reporters' questions to admit that the New 
England Patriots play football

College football coaches have a similar job except they spend their entire off-season text messaging with teenagers and filming commercials for truck dealerships and debasing themselves with internet meme gaffes. This, it turns out, is extraordinarily useful. Instead of passive-aggressively tweeting at each other and gang-stalking sixteen year-old nose tackles, we could have armies of goateed men named Chip and Bobby diagramming whiteboard coups and aggressively blowing whistles at helpless citizens.

EMBRACE CHAOS

Northwestern hopes to recover from the disheartening display of rowboatsmanship at Ryan Field last Saturday.   If that game is any indication, though, the chaos has only begun. Expect desperation heaves, multiple fumbles, dozens of laterals, natural disasters, plagues, and bands of unemployed coaches interrupting games to attack with their fearsome retinues of practice tackle apparatus.  Expect a grizzled Chris Collins, his purple track suit in tatters and stained with the ink of mildewed newspaper archives to appear with reams of new information about the Michigan Referee Conspiracy and its attempts to infiltrate the highest levels of college athletics through shadowy networks accountable to no one.  This is a lunatic sport designed for heartbreak and incredulity.  This is every season of Wildcat football.    

Friday, September 2, 2016

Week 1: Bronco News Letter

The barricades are up on Lake Shore Drive, the helicopters are circling, and Ryan Field prepares for the annual pilgrimage of thousands of fans from Chicago hoping to catch a glimpse of their Big Ten team. Last year's Wildcats surged to an unexpected and delightful ten-win season for only the fourth time in school history based entirely on Body Clocks, and now they hope to take their assault on opponents' circadian rhythms to Indianapolis.

The 2015 Wildcats had a simple gameplan-- to smother the opposing offense, run Justin Jackson into the other team, and bury them beneath a merciless hail of punts.  When the strategy worked, the defense erased the other team and the running game wore down the clock in an excruciating exhibition of football brutality.  When that didn't work, they put their fist-claws in the hands of the insane gods of football-- they won a game on a botched two-point conversion, a last-second field goal gifted by incompetent clock management, and brain-disrupting satellites launched into low orbit that subjected the referees to space hypnosis and forced them to continue taking touchdowns away from Wisconsin until they were roused from their stupor by a hail of snowballs.

Alex Erickson's attempts to reason with a referee fall on deaf ears 

Will Northwestern be able to repeat their extraordinary feats of football derring-do?  Bah-humbug football experts say no, based on their fancy statistics, distrust of a football team that wins numerous games by opponents unveiling ludicrous Twilight Zone coaching tactics, and the tendency for Northwestern teams with preseason rankings to become grotesque, avant-garde parodies of football as part of someone's senior thesis. 

"M00N: 100 Yards of Sorrow" captured a jury prize in the Exhibition of Football Nihilism for 
demonstrating "an apt metaphor for the purposelessness of violence"

Yet there are some reasons for optimism.  The 'Cats return several key contributors to last year's dominant defense, including superstar linebacker Anthony Walker.  Quarterback Clayton Thorson has a year of experience under his belt and hopes to improve his passing game to complement his herky-jerky auto lot inflatable running style.  Former running back Solomon Vault and cornerback Marcus McShepard have switched positions to bolster the receiving corps and expose opposing defenses to the terrifying possibility of the forward pass, virtually unknown in the modern game of football.

There is no more pointless pursuit than predicting Northwestern football.  They have to play Ohio State and Michigan State on the road.  Their chief rival is no longer coached by a maniac who came out of a Joseph Conrad novel about football.  The difference between a Northwestern victory or loss usually comes down to a play so ridiculous that it turns into a Wes Anderson version of football where a blank-faced twelve-year-old coach with a false mustache calls a play out of John Dominic's Manual for Foot Ball Aptitude and players dressed in immaculate old-timey football costume are unable to catch a papier-mache football that goes through an intricate series of Rube Goldberg devices involving a hamster wheel, a 1960s style vibrating weight loss belt machine, and a tricycle before the ball crosses the line and a blank-faced referee played by Bill Murray unenthusiastically signals for a touchdown. 

By my statistical formula, devised on a vision quest through the mystical environs of the Greater Chicagloand Metrolitan Area, Northwestern is going to the Rose Bowl.

BRONCO NEWS

NFL analysts have spent the last two weeks with their corkboards and pushpins trying to piece together the beguiling series of events that have led to Trevor Siemian starting at quarterback for the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos.  Peyton Manning retired.  Backup Brock Osweiler left for Houston.  And the main competition for Siemian was journeyman quarterback Mark Sanchez, known mainly for attempting to run through another man's buttocks like he was Wile E. Coyote charging through a tunnel made of paint.

Mark Sanchez with the haunted expression of a man who sees butts every 
time he closes his eyes

Certain maniacs have suggested that Siemian may struggle in the NFL because he put up some of the worst statistics by a Northwestern quarterback in recent memory. These so-called football experts, who spend their summers sorting through index cards in their homes filled with arcane statistics, know nothing about Northwestern football. Do they know, for example, that Siemian spent most of his career as a change of pace co-starter who only came in when it was time to throw like one of those World War I cannons mounted to a railroad car? Or the psychological toll taken on him by the strain from coming in as the “passing quarterback,” which set off a whole series of diabolical mind games about whether he would actually pass or he'd run or he'd pretend to run but still pass or he'd pass anyway or he'd spend the entire offseason disguised as a Western Illinois player named A. Augustus Vermillion only to betray his new teammates in the second game and lead Northwestern to a 24-7 victory?

Siemian should, according to proprietary BYCTOM algorithms, immediately become the greatest quarterback in the NFL because of his expert kneel-down game, Super Bowl experience, and the time he led Northwestern to victory against Notre Dame and created a mass-hysterical event where thousands of Notre Dame football fans attempted citizen firings of Brian Kelly through their most unhinged message boards.  Expect Siemian to blithely swat down all challengers as he rampages through the futile professional defenses of the NFL.

Entertainment impresario Carl Denham cautions against allowing a 
rampaging Siemian to climb to mile high heights

The Trevor Siemian Era of Broncos football begins now.  I can't believe it either.

ADDITIONAL BRONCO NEWS

Northwestern faces the Western Michigan Broncos Saturday at Ryan Field.  Coach P.J. fleck, a wide-eyed football evangelist who has out-recruited the Big Ten basement, led the Broncos to an 8-5 record last year, knocking on the door of perennial MAC bullies Northern Illinois. SBNation's Bill Connelly graded them higher than Northwestern last season, using his mysterious S&P+ rankings.  Though Northwestern is favored, this is no easy contest to ease into the football season; the Broncos play in the Eastern time zone and have therefore fortified their body clocks against the dangerous football disruptions caused by Central Time.

P.J. Fleck will bring his exciting “Row The Boat” catchphrase back for yet another season. Sometimes I wonder whether Fleck ever gets tired of his performative rowboating, like he’s at a pep rally and the band’s about to break into Western Michigan’s disappointingly non-maritime fight song and Fleck is just staring at the crowd who are all wearing row the boat shirts and some are hoisting oars and maybe one or two students is dressed up like a Gorton’s Fisherman and they’re all waiting to explode into an orgy of rowboat pantomime and he just can’t do it anymore, he’s out of it, the boat in his mind just sitting dead still in the center of a pond, but then the booster comes in, a Colonel Tom Parker type, and he’s staring at him through dead, flinty eyes, and he says Jesus Christ Fleck these people paid their damn money to see you row the GODdamn boat so why don’t you just get some pep in your step and give ‘em a show, who the fuck do you think you are, Bear Bryant? are these folks here to watch you diagram a sumbitching OFFtackle play? no they aren’t, he says, and so Fleck goes out there and when the klieg lights hit him and the trombonists start waggling their instruments around you’d have no idea about any of this, the doubts, the desperation, the nights spent with a chalkboard where he’s written and erased “drive the car” and “pedal the bike” and even “hang the glide” and the smile is there and the jaw squares around that football chin, and the eyes sparkle with conviction. “Row the boat,” Fleck says, and the cheers engulf him and his team streaming out onto the stage in padless jerseys.

Or maybe he just really likes to say row the boat


Western Michigan, like most college football teams, holds a precarious spot in the football ecosystem.  Fleck's recruiting prowess has elevated them to a MAC championship contender. With each victory, though, Fleck becomes a more tempting target for a powerhouse team to poach in the offseason, wined and dined in the stately dining cars of the Power Five's suspender-thumbing boosterati.  Regardless of Fleck's future, the Broncos hope to make a statement by coming into the most intimidating stadium in the Big Ten and come away with a win.  The 'Cats have no choice but to row them to hell.

Western Michigan returns to Kalamazoo across the Lake Michigan

OPENING WEEKEND

The lines are painted, the field is green, the tarps are set, and the Northwestern Wildcats hope to prove that last season was not a fluke.  We have absolutely no idea.  It is a fool's errand to predict football, where a fraction of a second can change a triumphant march to Indianapolis into a desperate fight to qualify for the Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants Bowl in some god-forsaken Rust Belt thunderdome.  Even the Alabamas, Ohio States, and Oklahomas will at some point this season have to hold onto their butts.  Northwestern will probably lose some game they should win and author a heroic upset that causes the cry of UNACCEPTABLE to echo across the college sports internet.

It is unlikely that Northwestern will benefit from as many weird bounces and space-hypnosis referee decisions as last year.  But they could also be better. They could somehow replace the rain of punts with a hail of airborne passes, discovered by offensive coordinator Mick McCall as an exotic punt that potentially allows you to retain possession.  Trevor Siemian is the starting quarterback for the defending Super Bowl champions.  Anything can happen.

Friday, August 26, 2016

College Football: The Game of Games


There are crew cut guys in polo shirts stalking the sidelines; there's a meaningless poll released spawning a million blog posts deriding it as meaningless while at the same time assailing its rankings as the meanest injustice; there's a caller to Paul Finebaum who becomes so enraged about Alabama that he tears off his second shirt; there are inept announcers preparing to allude to hideous crimes and blatant institutional malfeasance as "off-field issues;" a thousand internet commentators simultaneously attempt to fire a thousand offensive coordinators.  College football returns this weekend.

College football breeds the most colorful atmosphere than any other major American sport because of the bizarre nature of its fans and participants: young people who are adept at drunkenness and memes, the unpaid players who study in theory alongside them, rich alumni boosters playing at the levers of power intriguing against the coaching staff, the coaching staff that consists of several hundred goateed guys all named Jimbo or Skip who replace each other every season, and the universities that inexplicably attached to this splitting atoms and producing articles about modes of The Masculine in John Donne or professional wrestling and fuck saw demonstrations.

It's the passionate fans that mark the college football experience

The atmosphere lends itself to all-consuming spectacle. College football fans do not only participate in cheering their team on the field but also in the bizarre metacompetitions for facilities, for ever-flashier uniforms, and, most importantly, in the mind-bogglingly ludicrous battles for teenagers to join their teams. It is a game of games.

These battles are not new; the history of college football is the history of every underhanded recruiting tactic humanly possible wrapped in paeans to Amateur Athletics. What is new is that a sufficiently deranged fan can instantaneously read about a recruiting battle weighed by arbitrarily-assigned grades, insult the teenager and his loved ones for not choosing his or her team, taunt opposing fans on a message board and accuse them of dirty tactics, and then watch a bunch of videos of that monkey-chained-on-dog racing that they tried to ban from the Lake County Fair in a single afternoon.  It is now possible that a die-hard not only knows the two-deep going into training camp, but the projected two-deep two years from now with kids who have yet to graduate from high school or a litany of highly specific grievances about why they'll be suiting up for the Team Up State.

Smaller programs mainly concern themselves with attracting attention.  They have eye-catching uniforms, dyed turf, weeknight games. In my favorite move, Bob Diaco of UCONN unilaterally started a rivalry with Central Florida and created his own trophy and countdown clock while UCF desperately tried to deny that the rivalry existed.  I will remember this on my deathbed.

UCF reacted with the same bemused agitation that Golyadkin had in 
The Double when a second Golyadkin appears and no one else finds it 
odd and the footmen bodily throw him out of the fancier nineteenth-
century Russian tea houses

In big schools, the clashes are operatic. They include races to build more opulent facilities, bellicose press statements, and intrigue worthy of the most Habsburg of courts, if these intrigues were all conducted as grotesque, ham-handed attempts by middle-aged megalomaniacs to lure athletes to their opulent facilities so they can scream at them for several years and fake their own funeral as a motivational ploy.

A rare but inescapable species of fan not only wants to beat State at the big Homecoming game but also have more underwater treadmills than them and a better fundraising apparatus and better marketing so they sell more tickets so they can afford better coaches who can lure better players and beat them for all the Homecomings from now until the End Times.

LOVIE SMITH, WELCOME TO THE PARTY PAL

One does not have to look far on a Northwestern football blog for an example of an equally desperate and futile marketing war: the eternal battle to be Chicago's Big Ten Team.  You may think that the intense Northwestern-Illinois rivalry has cooled since Illinois fired forklift negligence spokesman Tim Beckman and then fired his replacement because he was tainted by him and hired Lovie Smith. You were wrong.

At Big Ten Media Day, a place for Big Ten coaches to put on suits and puff out their throat sacs and eyes spots for reporters, Lovie claimed that Illinois could become "Chicago's Team." This directly contradicts Northwestern's "Chicago's Big Ten Team" slogan that they had earned by purchasing a bunch of billboards.  Neither team plays in Chicago.

Lovie Smith, pictured with the Big Ten East, West, and Conference trophies 
which will one day be united. arranged on their podium deep in the bowels 
of the O'Hare Hilton Conference Room B, and aligned with a Harvest Moon, 
casting a path on a crude map carved into the wall that shows the way to the 
Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Those enjoined in the battle to claim Chicago like it was a Holy Roman duchy in the hands of a childless noble about to succumb to a litany of incest defects imagine a marketing and recruiting bonanza.  Both schools court football-mad Chicago fans to fill their empty stadiums and Chicago athletes to bring them to the top of the Big Ten West.

The results, however, remain barren.  Chicago is a great college football city, but only because it shelters so many Midwestern alumni, who cluster in their own bars to watch the games or show up at Ryan Field to complain about it instead of leaving us alone with our tarps and yowling Wildcat sound effects. Chicago's closest thing to a college football team sadly plays in South Bend, Indiana.  Northwestern and Illinois count a total of five players combined from Chicago proper, according to the rosters on their websites.  Neither team has been able to tap into the city's astounding amount of NBA-caliber basketball talent. The Northwestern-Illinois game at Soldier Field appeared to be attended exclusively by the players' families.

Chicago's Big Ten Teams face off for the Hat. Not pictured: Chicago

Far more important than this foolish battle for the attention of an indifferent city is the actual stakes of the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry: the Hat, the greatest prize in college football.  Will this game live up to the bombastic zenith of the Tim Beckman era, complete with his complement of anti-Northwestern apparatus?  Lovie Smith, at the very least, seems interested in trying.

TACKLE YOUR LOVED ONES

College football's metagame makes it eerily fascinating.  The specter of recruiting hangs over the entire sport in a complex, chaotic system: the thinking is that a jersey sponsor may introduce an alternate helmet that trends on social media and gains the attention of an enormous fifteen-year-old who two years later tours the facilities and is interested by the quarter-billion-dollar athletic fitness facility with a waterproof X-Box jacuzzi and also the academics of course let's not forget about those and then somehow signs a letter of intent and years later is leading the team to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl while the rival team sits at home in a grim, potatoless hellscape.

He explained, Goldblumically

Does any of this relentless brand-mongering have any effect on the quality of the team on the field?  I have no idea, but the relentless scheming of tightly-wound megalomaniacs desperately competing for the fickle attention of teenagers in front of their fans, reporters, and the whole entire internet while backed by a chorus of unhinged radio show callers accusing them of every type of possible skulduggery makes it impossible to look away. The sideshow has almost superseded the games.

Let the insane internet accusations and berating of coordinators as inept return.  College football is back. Everywhere but within the municipal boundaries of Chicago.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

MINT CONDITION BYCTOM #1

There's no more sure sign of the impending return of college football than the first dispatches of Northwestern media hype products. In 2010, the Wildcat Department of Athletic Aggrandizement peppered Chicagoland with billboards declaring Dan Persa "Chicago's [Big Ten] Heisman Candidate" and sent weights labeled "Persastrong" to the media.  In 2013, they built a custom Goalpost On Wheels and traveled to regional news outlets threatening to tie reporters to them and assail them with kicked footballs until they agreed to add Jeff Budzien to the Groza Award watch list.  Northwestern promoted the 2014 season with a flurry of pamphlets denouncing unionization.

Other promotions considered included a jeweler's eye labeled 
PersaAccurate and a bracelet that says Persascape that, when put on 
the wrist, summons a group of dangerous persons with themed costumes 
that hunt the ultimate prey: Big Ten beat reporters 

This week, Northwestern announced a campaign promoting superstar linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. as "The Franchise" because of his propensity to license the Anthony Walker Jr. name to enterprising linebackers around the country.  According to Insidenu, they sent selected media members a lunchbox, t-shirt, and custom Anthony Walker comic book that references body clocks and contains the single greatest comic book panel of all time:

Photo by @rodger_sherman

The outsize world of college football should have the heroic exploits of players, coaches, and stodgy commissioners in comic form with an applied photoshop filter aesthetic.  So here is a collection of Big Ten comic panels showing the conference in action outside of Big Ten Network Regional Coverage.  









BYCTOM Big Ten Comics encourages you to send away for the nunchuk starter kits, x-ray specs that allow you to find BTN2 in your TV listings, a Purdue Pete that grows in water into a figure so grotesque that it could be banned by the government at any time, and special crystals from Rosemont, Illinois that, when configured correctly, will reveal the next eight members of the Big Ten.  Please allow 6-8 weeks for delivery.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Ballad of the Sloop John Belein



If you are a fan of a Big Ten team, you have no doubt received, alongside ceaseless entreaties for money, e-mails about the Big Ten Alaska Cruise. What kind of depravity and hedonism takes place when the stoutest denizens of the Midwest are allowed to run rampant and talk about fullbacks for days on end? BYCTOM and its parent company Amalgamated Anvil and Anvil Lubricants' VIL Blogging Network sent one intrepid blogger to find out.  

The fan cruise exists as the logical endpoint to fandom; beyond the websites and message boards, conventions, and newsletters, the fan cruise asks if you can enjoy something so much that you are willing to lock yourself on the inescapable sea with 300 equally deranged people. It was inevitable that the same impulse to gather hundreds of fans of comic books or hair metal or “Bones” or Gronkowski torsos would want to expand to football conferences, where fan enthusiasm is based on drunken, adversarial screaming at each other. And it makes sense that the Big Ten ship goes to Alaska, a colossus plodding its way towards the furthest northern reaches of human civilization.

With nothing but the sea spray at my back, an official reporter’s notebook in a satchel, and the latest blogging apps, I decided to venture forth with an advanced reporter’s technique called “participatory journalism.” This is same approach that led Hunter S. Thompson to start a motorcycle gang and George Plimpton to join the Detroit Lions and shout things like “sport, if you wouldn’t mind hiking the ball my hand is appropriately close your buttocks, ah well met.” What you are about to read-- edited for length, but not clarity-- is my account of a week at sea on the ill-fated Big Ten Cruise.

DAY ONE

The Big Ten Cruise is not actually a Big Ten Cruise. It is a special package on a normal cruise ship. That means there are hundreds of people aboard only realizing now, after seeing Big Ten Ambassador Ron Dayne lowered by crane onto the the ship’s deck, that they have been doomed to endless discussions of sixteen-year-old fullbacks’ 40 times with no possibility of escape.

As a members of the Big Ten Cruise Package, we were welcomed to the ship with a medley of piped-in Big Ten fight songs, handed itineraries (preciously referred to as “syllabi”) of Big Ten events, and greeted by a phalanx of mascots. Herky Hawkeye was there. Willie Wildcat high-fived children. I did not see Purdue Pete, but we have been promised that he will appear intermittently in port windows between fleeting beams of moonlight when we least expect it.



The ship set off with a rousing cacophony of key jangling and a spontaneous bratwurst-mouthed rendition of Zombie Nation. A bar television was tuned, as it would be all week, to the Big Ten Network. As the ship departed, it was airing a documentary called “Crouching to Victory: Big Ten Legend Eric Crouch.”

DAY 2

Part of the Big Ten package features, in keeping with the conference’s reputation as a constellation of elite academic institutions, a series of lectures by onboard Big Ten professors. This morning, cruise-goers can choose from:
  • “‘Head’ of the Class: A Structuralist Reading of Mascotry” from R. Paula Brumaire, Associate Professor of Mascot Semiotics, the Pennsylvania State University. 
  • “March Madness: Sousa as as a Locus of Trombone-Centered Discourse” from H. Fred Monktons, Assistant Professor of Musicology, University of Iowa 
  • “Sixty Minutes of Linebacking So Bonecrunchingly Brutal It Can Only Be Shown in International Waters,” a documentary film
Above decks, the Big Ten fans appear to be integrating well with the rest of the passengers. Without their lanyards and Big Ten apparel, they can roam undetected amongst the other cruise-goers chatting, walking the deck, and scanning the seas for birds and whales. It all seems like normal cruise behavior until a group of seemingly-unaffiliated passengers burst into a melancholy rendition of an alma mater or an unnecessarily aggressive argument about recruits’ ACT scores.

DAY 3

At breakfast, the Big Ten passengers were abuzz about the Verne Lundquist lecture later that afternoon. “It’s gonna be special,” said Bert Johanssen who has brought his wife, Bonnie, and his two children Phil and Walter from Blaine, Minnesota. “We’d always wanted to go to Alaska, and never in my wildest imagination did I believe I could see it with Verne Lundquist.” The family sported matching gold Minnesota t-shirts with Lundquist’s head crudely photoshopped onto the head of Goldy the Golpher. “We’re Verneheads,” he said.

The ship also offers an 11:00AM lecture from Beth Mowins.

The Lundquist lecture was packed wall-to-wall. I managed to get a great seat by telling them I was a journalist and patiently explaining the importance of the Fourth Estate in American society and on this ship. But, before the talk could even begin, the ballroom hosting the lecture erupted into chaos.

A disheveled man charged the stage. He had no Big Ten package lanyard. His heavy beard had been stained by chewing tobacco. A mushroom cloud of white hair was held up by a battered visor with an orange “I” turned into a B with faded magic marker. He pulled some notecards from his nylon jacket.

“Big Ten football,” he said, reading directly from the card. “Well in my house we call it…” he said, trailing off as he desperately rifled through the cards, “Bad Ten football.” A crew member hustled him off stage. The only discernible words he screamed as he was dragged off were “Lincoln hat” repeated over and over.



The big draw in the evening was a special screening of the Werner Herzog film “Grizzly Man” with commentary from Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was not on the ship; he came to us live from a recruiting visit to a go-cart track.

“I admire Treadwell,” Harbaugh said into the microphone on his helmet-mounted camera as he passed a seventeen year-old cornerback. “That area was a prime recruiting area for bears, but he just set up shop like he was supposed to be there. His only problem was GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY,” he shouted, bumping a father and son off the track, “ it was that he didn’t want it enough, and to be honest I think if someone told that German guy how to attack each day with focus and tenacity he wouldn’t fear nature’s callously unfathomable power compared to the futile designs of man.”

Harbaugh skidded across the finish line and moved his helmet cam inches from his face.

“There is no doubt in my mind I would have been accepted into bear society,” Harbaugh said.

DAY 4

The trouble began earlier during the Ultimate All Big Ten tailgate. A sudden shudder and jolt on board sent two guys arguing about whether the bean bag throwing game is called bags or corn hole flying into a Big Ten Network-sponsored Rotel pyramid. I grabbed a guardrail and was able to get out of the way of some grilling equipment that managed to topple over and light a life-size cardboard cutout of Tom Crean on fire, his face enveloped in demonic flames. The ship stopped.

After a few minutes, the captain got on the PA system to tell us that we had some engine trouble. We had intermittent electricity and were not going anywhere for awhile. I waved over a crew member and told him I was an influential blogger and pressed him for the real story. I even used the phrase “deep background” but he was clearly not savvy around the press, and he told me to "scram" so he could “do his job.” That’s a direct quote; he was willing to go on the record.

The Big Ten passengers appear disappointed, but remain steadfastly dedicated to Big Ten entertainment while onboard. That evening, I bumped into a group of lanyard-clad fans still in high spirits. They told me that they had convinced Harold Krusp, a history professor from Wisconsin, to give his “Depression America: The Golden Age of Big Ten Football” talk under a flickering emergency light and they invited me to come by. I apologized and told them that I was a journalist in a crisis situation and needed to gather information. I rooted around my baggage and found what I had desperately hoped I wouldn’t need: a khaki vest with dozens of pockets.

DAY 5

The first few days of the cruise, the ship was filled with chatter about activities and processions of replica Land Grant trophies and Old Oaken Buckets. Now, the tenor of the ship has changed. There are no activities. The passengers spend their time trading gossip and what little snatches of information they can come by.

There’s a divide building between the Big Ten group and the rest of the passengers. The Big Ten fans decided to hold a Big Ten trivia contest after lunch, but without microphones the group continuously yelled Curtis Enis across the room, unable to discern whether that was the question or answer. The session ended when a large group of unaffiliated passengers silently surrounded the trivia contest until one of them stepped forward. “We really need you to stop talking about the Big Ten,” she said.

DAY 6

For a second day, the ship sat idle. Most of the perishable food has spoiled. This morning, I saw a beefy old man turn away heartbroken as deck hands callously tossed a palette of rotten cheese curds overboard. Information remains scarce and unreliable. The crew has been reassuring us that they are doing all they can to repair the ship; the captain’s grim, stubble-ridden face tells us otherwise, and frustrated mechanics occasionally surface from the engine room.

The passengers have become irate. The initial disappointment has given way to a creeping fear that we may be stranded for some time. Around 4:00, I bumped into a group of Michigan fans in a quiet corner hallway near my stateroom in the evening. “I’m concerned about the leadership on this vessel,” one of them told me (he would not tell me his name even though I explained to him the problems with anonymous sources, it's journalism 101). “This crew-- not a Michigan man among them. You can tell from those flashy epaulets.”

The Michigan Men do not appear to be the only ones planning a mutiny. Earlier, I heard a small commotion and followed the noise. The visored man responsible for the diatribe before the Lundquist lecture had gathered a small crowd around him. I was startled to realize that he was former Illinois football coach Tim Beckman. It appeared that he had used his legendary motivational skills to convince the non-Big Ten passengers that the Big Ten contingent has been plotting against them. He held up a life ring.

“I know how those Big Ten people think,” he thundered. “I can get us to land, but you need to trust me.”

“Wait, aren’t you the guy who doesn’t believe in hamstring injuries?” one of the passengers asked.

“I’m the one holding the speaking ring,” Beckman said.

At some point you cannot just be a passive reporter, standing on the sidelines. Some things are bigger than the story. I decided then and there to tell the captain about the multiple plots to take over the ship. As luck would have it, I saw him pacing the deck with a retinue of anxious-looking crew members. I ran up to him to talk, but he told me to get lost and said the next time I tried to talk to him he would use me as a propeller. Little did he know he had fallen for a classic reporters’ trick. “Possible propeller issue,” I wrote in my notebook.




DAY 7

We were all pressed together shoulder-to-shoulder to hear the captain tell us definitively what was going on. I had tried earlier in the day to pressure one of my sources, a crew member who had seen me weeping on a staircase after getting rebuffed for a quote, but he told me that he didn’t understand why I needed to know anything before the other passengers. My lecture on the sanctity of the First Amendment fell on deaf ears. So there I stood, sandwiched between Hal and Carole Mitchell from the Quad cities, straining to hear the captain. That’s when the drums started.

At first, it blended into the clanging and whirring of the futile engine repairs over the past several days, but eventually it broke through with the unmistakable cadence of a Big Ten drum line. It was Beckman, with Big Ten streamers tied into his beard leading a small but desperate-looking band of mutineers towards the bridge. He was carrying a giant rolled up canvas; his followers wore decorative helmet snack bowls on their heads. They banged on plastic goalposts pilfered from the remains of the tailgate. The crowd instinctively parted. I fell in line behind them with no regard for my own personal safety and drew a fresh pen from a vest pocket.

“Captain, I think you should step aside before you send us all to a watery grave,” Beckman said . “This,” he said, shaking his canvas scroll like the Cecil B. Demille Moses, “this will get us to shore.” His supporters fell into a reverent silence as he unrolled it. It was a sheet with a crudely-drawn Big Ten logo with the universal circle-slash “no” symbol drawn over it. He held it aloft.


 
“Hey, you told us you were drawing up a plan to move the ship,” one of his followers said, brandishing his goal post. “That took you, like, seven hours.”

Beckman blankly stared at the faces surrounding him. Even his most ardent followers pointed their goalposts and aimed their pop-a-shot basketballs at him. He scampered away from the crew, grabbed a giant inflatable Lil’ Red mascot, and leapt overboard. Together, with equally maniacal grins, they drifted towards the horizon.

With that, the cruise was over. The captain told us the ship could not continue in its current condition. We would have to be towed to shore. A small but defiant group of Big Ten fans steadfastly clung to the Big Ten experience. All evening, they gathered in a circle, clutching the children, telling tales of past Big Ten glory. “Kunle Patrick tipped the ball right to Sam Simmons. They called it Victory Right,” said one purple-clad man miming a tip drill. “Son,” said another, looking at a group of children, “let me tell you about Ron Zook.” A man in an Iowa shirt walked up to the crowd as they yielded the center of the circle. He looked each of them in the eye, his voice quavering. “Robert Gallery,” he said.

EPILOGUE

The tugboats eventually arrived and pulled us to the closest port in Ketchikan, Alaska. The ship had been running out of food, lost the ability to deal with passengers’’ waste, and had become marred by growing strife between the Big Ten passengers and the rest of the ship. One particularly irate cruise-goer toppled a life-sized talking Gus Johnson bobblehead that could not be stopped from wheezing out a chilling “RISE AND FIRE” death rattle for hours.

It took days for everyone to sort out their travel plans and make their way back to Seattle.

Once in town, I did some extremely journalistic digging on the status of the ship by calling the cruise line’s customer service number. They told me the ship had not been fully repaired in Ketchikan and would be towed back to Seattle. I went down to the port and asked around and, even though no one would answer my questions because I had clearly discovered a conspiracy so diabolical that they would stop at nothing to prevent me from unearthing it, I eventually figured out that the date of the ship’s arrival was posted on a website.

I stood on the pier and waited when it appeared-- first as a shimmering white dot then coming fully into view. A few other Big Ten fans, still clutching their lanyards, still clad head to toe in colorful university apparel, had come by as well. They stood there, half in awe, half in mourning, watching the Big Ten boat limp into port, coated in sewage and stale tortilla chips, still upright, three yards at a time.