Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pre-Bowl Anticipation

The New Year's showdown against Auburn is looming for the Northwestern football team. You can get into the spirit by spray-painting your possessions purple, vandalizing any Bo Jackson billboards you come across, and learning the 1929 Wildcat song through sheet music and lyrics that somebody has inexplicably put on Ebay so you can make sure each one of your yows is pitch perfect.

As the team gears up for the trip to Florida, the news is obviously stagnant, aside from the usual reminders of Northwestern's bowl futility. In a shocking change of pace, the Chicago media has been dominated by Notre Dame Intrigue, which now features torchlit booster meetings, clever use of improbable doppelgangers, and stair-bound swordplay (incidentally, there's a factoid that you always get on tours of medieval fortresses and the like about spiral staircases being designed for the advantage of right-handed defenders in sword fights which naturally brings up the question of how many staircases they could have had in the House of La Russa). The college coach swapping procedure seems designed to force false denials and betrayals that seem more at home in the Congress of Vienna than in, say, South Bend, Indiana.

The Duke De La Russa signals for a
lefty staircase to optimize the matchup
between his stalwart guard and
marauding invaders

In any event, there is something extraordinarily unsavory about a coach who changes jobs for whatever reason before finishing the season. No one likes a demoralized team rallying feebily around a lame-duck coach, especially in a BCS game. The situation badly needs to be injected with some semblance of rationality and sanity, so here is a workable solution: Teams may not hire another team's coach until both teams have finished bowl play. In return, the team firing its coach is allowed to literally run the coach out on a rail or parade him through town in one NCAA-sanctioned medieval punishment device as disappointed boosters pelt him with offal. In addition, schools would almost certainly circumvent the rules to make sleazy under-the-table offers to other coaches before bowl season, which will maintain the vital levels of sleaze, dishonesty, and hypocrisy that currently fuel college football and keeps pitchfork-wielding journalists employed.

One approved coach humiliating device would be the pillory,
used here against highwayman and convicted perjurer John
Waller in this 1732 engraving where enterprising mob members
re evidently pelting him with mice. According to the Newgate
Calendar,"This profligate wretch, Waller, to robbery added the
still greater sin of accusing the innocent, in order to receive the
reward in certain cases attending conviction" and he was also described as an
"abominable dealer in human blood" which also seems like a phrase
that has escaped the lips of Michael Buffer at some point


The Wildcats are an astounding 10-1 heading into a Big Ten showdown with Illinois after holding on against Stanford and beating Central Connecticut. As reported in this article, flabbergasted Central Connecticut coach Howie Dickenman labeled Northwestern as one of the top three teams in the Big Ten and claimed that he will now refer to Carmody's version of the Princeton Offense as the "Northwestern Offense" before stopping to hand out a bunch of Gobots and Mr. Pibb to disappointed youths.

It's a good thing that the Wildcats are winning with the Chicago Bulls squandering last year's playoff momentum by turning into a truly awful basketball team. The season's futility climaxed in an epic, NBA-record 35 point choke job against the equally inept Sacramento Kings that will almost certainly end with Vinny Del Negro pretending to sell computers out of Frank Constanza's garage.

Brad Miller was unable to get his vengeance on the Kings for forcing him
to participate in a misguided Evil Sheriff Day promotion at Arco Arena


This week's New York Times had a fascinating story on the Pacific island nation of Nauru and its game of high stakes diplomacy. Nauru became the fourth country to recognize the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia along with Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Nauru evidently did not have the struggle of the peoples of the breakaway regions under the boot of Georgian oppression in mind, nor a desire for general world-wide recogition of Nauru as a contry that exists. Instead, Nauru claimed $50 million of aid from Russia's Department of Whimsical Foreign Affairs. Times Reporter Ellen Berry describes the Russian reaction as not quite a diplomatic coup:

The news provoked waves of mirth from Russian commentators, some of whom broke down the per-capita cost of lobbying various nations to recognize the enclaves: roughly $3,500 a head for every resident of Nauru, $100 per Venezuelan, $200 per Belarussian, etc.
Of course, this is not Nauru's first endeavor in the aid-for-recognition game. Nauru earned $130 million from China by refusing to recognize the independence of Taiwan in 2002 (I have no idea how this happened, but I like to imagine an uncomfortable confrontation at the U.N. where someone gets a face full of martini) only to stab China in the back three years later by reestablishing relations. These incidents of micro-treachery stem from economic issues instead of the more pleasant rationale that Nauru's foreign relations department is filled with people who run their foreign relations strategy based on the board game Diplomacy, where it is far more satisfying to betray people for no apparent reason than to watch your flank from an unexpected attack from the relentless Ottoman war machine. These diplomatic moves, as well as other strategies such as providing disreputable offshore banking and accepting aid from Australia to take in their unwanted refugees, are part of a strategy to make up for the drying up of the phosphate supply that powers the Nauru economy.

Nauru achieved independence in 1968 under President Hammer DeRoburt, as noted on this helpful Late Twentieth Century Hammer Achievement Chart:

On this graph, the X-Axis represents time and the Y-Axis general
Hammer progress in HAUs (Hammer achievement units) with data
points demonstrating key Hammer moments: president of a pacific
island nation, home run king, hard-boiled, mustachioed detective,
parachute pants enthusiast

Nauru is not the only troubled country in region. Consider Palau, a fellow Mircronesian island, which spent the 1980s embroiled in murderous controversy over the ratification of the Compact of Free Association with the U.S. that would end trusteeship on the island. In 1985, its first president, Haruo I. Remeliik, was gunned down outside of his home, leading to the arrest and conviction of three suspects related to his oppostition which was later overturned, as detailed in this New York Times article as well as an excerpt from Embattled Island: Palau's struggle for independence by Arnold H. Leibowitz. A later investigation led to the conviction of Remeliik's former Minister of State John O. Ngiraked for aiding and abetting the assassination. Meanwhile, other investigations focused on bribery and intimidation surrounding the Compact ensnared president Lazarus Salii-- in one incident, a party of government employees including Salii's own assistant had a frank exchange of bullets with an opposition leader's house. As the net closed in on him, Salii died in 1988 of gunshot wounds in an apparent suicide as noted in this chaos filled excerpt from a section of the Europa World Year Book that can be easily confused for the back of a Graham Greene paperback.

A guide to Palau intrigue from left to right: Remeliik, Salii,
Ngiraked, the inevitable Walken intervention or Walkentervention
as it is known in the mercenary business

With the football team poised for its first New Years Bowl since 1996 and the basketball team on the precipice of hope against hope for the gossamer chance at making the NCAA tournament though there's still a long way to go let's not jinx anything before we get into the high-flying excitement of Big Ten baseketball season, it's an exciting time to be a Northwestern fan. And with the rest of the non-hockey Chicago teams breaking new depths of incompetence (I will be ready to discuss the concept of Carlos Silva in 2010), the Wildcats are essentially the only game in town leading perhaps to Chicago fans recognizing them as a legitimate home team and getting some locals into the stands to the cheer on the team with a furious intensity that is slightly unsettling. If not, perhaps a generous gift from the Athletic Department can earn some recognition overseas.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bowl Finalized

By now, you know that Northwestern will play on New Year's Day against the Tigers of Auburn at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. This time Northwestern leapfrogged a 9-3 Wisconsin team fresh off of a demolition of Hawaii, a stunning reversal of fortune for the Wildcats who have been twice scorned by the Outback Steakhouse people in what could have been the biggest controversy in Australia-U.S. relations since the American Revolution ended transportation to Georgia and thus flooded Australia with confidence men and bacon thieves.

I would enjoy it if Outback Steakhouse was actually owned by
Australians instead of a bland American conglomerate so that
they could force flummoxed coaches to play on a rounded Aussie
Rules cricket field such as the Brisbane Cricket Ground, home of
the Brisbane Lions and known colloquially as "The Gabba"

The Big Ten's bowl hierarchy after the selection of BCS teams is sort of nonsensical as playing in a better bowl has virtually no consequences except the prize of playing on New Years and not going to Detroit to entertain Mike Illitch's Praetorian Guard. That is why instead of it being up to corporate boards and attendance figures and the sort of backroom cronyism that involves suspenders, brandy, and hearty chuckling through clenched teeth locked in a vice grip on the most malodorous cigars on the market, the remaining bowl-eligible Big Ten teams should throw in their lot with Lady Luck and spin a Wheel of Bowls to determine their location. Fate cares not for alumni populations or which fan base owns the most Winnebagos and it spares everyone the bleating and hand-wringing of boosters who would have no recourse to complain about the machinations of a soulless wheel. Better yet, why not throw all of the non-BCS bowl games into a giant World Cup-style draw and watch as, for example, Penn State misses out on a BCS game only to be thrown into the Meineke Car Care Bowl as Charlize Theron tries valiantly to appear simultaneously jocular and not afraid of a rampaging Paterno?

The BCS selection show in the best of possible worlds


Auburn finished 7-5, dropping five of its last seven and prompting ESPN's Mark Schlaback to claim that "Perhaps no team took more of a back door into a bowl game than the Tigers" while ranking the Outback Bowl the 20th best bowl games of the 34 to be played this year. Hurting the appeal of the bowl games is the mascot matchup, another boring cat-cat contest. Auburn will be looking to confuse the Wildcats both with Gus Malzahn's spread offense and the fact that despite being represented by tigers, Auburn faithful are constantly going on about eagles, which points to a solution that can only be resolved by ace Northwestern reporter Skip Myslenski who was last seen foaming at the mouth at the British Museum.

That, at least, is vaguely more interesting than Northwestern's generic Wildcat, which is pretty much one step removed from simply naming the team "Mascot." The story of how the 'Cats got their nickname (from Tribune reporter Wallace Abbey after a tough loss to powerhouse Chicago in 1924, a more civilized age when teams can get named for a good showing in a loss and reporters had names such as "Wallace Abbey"), lends the name a colorful origin, but it does not change the fact that Northwestern athletics currently share a moniker with, by my count, five other Division 1 programs (including the FCS New Hampshire Wildcats that would have beaten Northwestern in 2006 if the stadium was not covered in tumbleweed). Until that day in 1924, Northwestern was known as "The Purple," taking a page from Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, and the House of Orange and before that as the "Fighting Methodists" as students dressed as the Wesley Brothers held open-air pep rallies to exhort Northwestern's football program and other popular Northwestern tests of strength such as tug-of-war and the thrashing about of one's footmen.


Northwestern has by far the most generic mascot of the Big Ten, as illustrated on this official BYCTOM Pyramid of Mascot Ubiquity:

The pyramid flows from the base of specificity to a generic pinnacle and
is broken up by category rather than individual mascot. Just below
Northwestern is the category of animal mascots, although it should
be noted that the Big Ten bucks a national trend by featuring
ground-dwelling pest animal mascots, with the exception of Penn
State, although Penn State gets points for essentially making up its
own wild animal. The next category features specific groups of people,
slightly less generic than animals, although there was unfortunately
not room to shunt the Illini off to a "mascots specifically denigrated
by the NCAA" category. Note that Iowa straddles the animal and
person categories as they're technically named for Natty Bumppo
(who, for those keeping extensive records, fits into the categories
of frontiersmen and musket-wielders), but choose to be represented
by an anthropomorphic tight-wearing hawk. Next on down is flora,
greatly less represented than fauna in the mascot/nickname world.
Finally, the pyramid ends with Indiana, whose Hoosier mascot is obscure
beyond conjecture and is therefore represented by a
grimacing Lou Piniella.

Of course, if the pyramid had swung in the opposite direction, Northwestern could have a mysterious nickname such as "Hoosier" with an entire Wikipedia page devoted to its possible origins including categories such as "Frontier banter" and "Pugilistic Boatmen." I suppose it proves the ancient mascot axiom that the price paid for a unique nickname is the fact that theories about its origin include the phrase "did not become an insult until." Another problem with the Hoosier nickname is its susceptibility to having it turned onto Indiana fans with a "Hoosier daddy" chant, drawing the red-sweatered ire of Bobby Knight and a classic shame on you column from Tribune columnist Eric Zorn entitled "Regardless of Intent, NU Rowdies' Taunt was a Bad Call." Zorn then backed off his criticism of Northwestern, sheepishly explaining to his readers that "I have never heard any of the rap or rock lyrics I'm told employ the phrase 'Who's your daddy?' to mean, in effect, 'Am I not at this time in a position of dominance over you that parallels the position a father has over his offspring?'"

Eric Zorn is one of the Tribune's ace
Metro section columnists along with
Mary Schmich who moonlights as the
writer for the Brenda Starr: Woman
Reporter comic strip best known for
featuring a character with what is
best described as a silk-pajama eye-
patch. Despite this fact and a redesign
that makes the once-proud paper look
like it ought to be called "Hot Rod's
Klout Komix-- 5¢," the Trib is still seen
as slightly more reputable, although the
Sun-Times should get credit for actually
celebrating the firing of Jay Mariotti as
well as this publishing this fantastic
hatchet job by Roger Ebert, although he
still appears on ESPN to expose readers
to his nasal squawk and his giant head
so grotesquely boulbous that if he was a
Dick Tracy villain his nickname would
be "The Head"

Then again, without the Wildcat nickname, Northwestern would never have a fight song with the word "yow" repeated like the mantra of an over-caffeinated toddler, so perhaps an apology is due to the estate of the late Mr. Abbey.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hoops and Bowls

Northwestern's basketball team has continued to pile up wins against teams with tournament aspirations, beating an undefeated NC State team and making a vital contribution to the Big Ten's victory over the ACC in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, which allows Big Ten officials to seize tobacco plants and bib overalls after being forced to surrender their corn crops and wretched post-industrial blight to the ACC year after year.

Drew Crawford fouls the Wolfpack's Dennis Horner hard
enough to turn him into a Messerschmidt grotesque

Though the Wildcats entered the year with the goal of wrenching the NCAA Tournament monkey off their backs-- not one of those untrustworthy monkeys that toddles around the houses of unsuspecting eccentric and lonely people in a diaper only to turn into a simian wrecking ball of fur and fang, but one of those full-on shrieking, biting Outbreak monkeys-- but the 'Cats' continued success without Coble is as gratifying as it is surprising. The Wildcats' winning stems from Shurna and Juice emerging as serious threats, Nash wreaking havoc in the 1-3-1, and Bill Carmody finally embracing the occult after no longer getting satisfaction from punishing fans of loose, flowing basketball with his plodding Princeton offense.

Carmody is captured in this grainy footage attempting to make contact with
the Assyrians' most hostile deities, such as this demon whose modus
operandi was sneaking up on a target distracted by his own vigorous fist-
shaking and aching calf tumors

Unlike in the carving depicted above, Northwestern's Big Ten foes will see them coming partly because of Bruce Weber and Tom Izzo's shared passion for applying Near-Eastern mythology to basketball stratagems, but also because Northwestern has made some noise on the national stage. LTP exuberantly predicts a 10-1 nationally ranked Northwestern heading into conference play, although less optimistic fans may still want to prepare for the possibility of the bandwagon crashing into another wagon filled with poison, cutting implements, and poinsonous cutting implements.


Northwestern football is left twisting in the wind until this Sunday, when the creepy cabal of corporate stiffs, NCAA officials, athletic directors, and bald men chained to briefcases full of money (I've always wondered whether the fancy steel briefcase used for illegal monetary transactions is pro-rated into the deal or if the hitman or cop impersonating a hitman to atone for the death of his partner or child skipping happily along in the fuzzy, merrie-go-round music flashback gets to keep the briefcase as an extra bonus, and then you go to his house and he has no space for leather jackets and tight t-shirts and automatic weapons because he has dozens of fancy silver briefcases taking all of his closet space. And surely the briefcase is thrown in, because no drug dealer or arms dealer or South American coup aspirant is going to say something such as "here is $10 million in unmarked treasury certificates for the sniping, less, of course, $654.31 for the fancy briefcase although being thrifty and accountable is the way to the top of the drug, arms, and dictatorship career) decide where everyone gets to go bowling.

This is also the time of the year when the NCAA bowl system comes under the greatest scrutiny, as pundits propel themselves out of the woodwork on homemade woodwork propulsion systems in order to mock the lesser bowl games as money-grubbing wastes of time. Yes, bowl games are money-grubbing and no, they often have no ramifications for the college football world, but BYCTOM has and will continue to embrace all crappy bowl games.

Unfortunately, crappy bowl games have little appeal beyond the competing teams' supporters beyond comical sponsorship names and the occasional power team in an off-year shunted off to some sort college football version of Siberian exile. What these bowl games need is a bit of pizazz to garner interest, much like minor league baseball games with their colorful gimmicks or circus freak shows employing loud people to trumpet the virtues of their particular freak show and get the townspeople lining up for blocks.

For example, for the recently renamed Little Ceasar's Pizza Bowl in Detroit, why not play upon the Caesar imagery to redecorate Ford Field like a mighty Roman coliseum while toga-wearing boosters strut about in their luxury boxes and effigies of Carthaginians are festooned on local trashcan fires? Even officials can get in on the act.

It displeases Mike Ilitch to see holding from #75 on the offense.
Mike Ilitch demands a penalty of 10 yards from the spot of the foul
from #75 that shall be collectively paid by the entire offense. Let
it be known from this day forward: it remains second down

Incidentally, the greatest Roman combat spectacle did not occur in the arena at all. Instead, it featured Emperor Claudius and a beached orca that ended up in a Roman port, attracted to some hides en route from Gaul. As Pliny relates, Claudius had the bloated whale imprisoned in the harbor with a series of nets and ordered his Praetorian Guard to shower it with lances and put on a show for the crowd, although this wikipedia article on gladiators makes it seems like Claudius somehow took on the orca mono-a-whaleo which would have been a far more impressive spectacle because there is pretty much no way to get a single man and killer whale in an arena with both at equal advantage unless there was a half-earth half-ocean arena not unlike the Federer-Nadal glass/clay challenge.

The only thing that stopped whale-baiting from soaring in
popularity is the difficulty of putting together a suitably seedy
underground den where gentlemen can safely wager on civilized
sporting events

Similarly, the Alamo Bowl can feature a half-time recreation of the battle and as an added wrinkle, if a Texas team is involved and loses the game, the winning team gets hoist the standard of Santa Anna and Mexico is allowed to annex San Antonio for the duration of the evening. The Gator Bowl can feature pre-game or half-time gator wrestling for eager tots (the gators are corked for their safety, naturally), the International Bowl can feature a festival of Epcott-style celebrations of worldwide cultural stereotypes, and the Insight Bowl can eschew raucous bands and cheering for some intense group pondering of metaphysical quandaries, such as how we can simply accept the "Insight Bowl" collectively with nary a raised eyebrow.

Each bowl then, instead of being largely interchangeable and forgettable, gains a unique character beyond what local food that ESPN guy can triumphantly discuss eating during the fourth quarter of a rout. Instead of worrying solely about booster vacation destinations or conference matchups, coaches will also have to worry about whether they would be forced to lead their teams onto the field with a bellicose display of military hardware (Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl) or while dressed as an Elizabethan imperial explorer (San Diego Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, a bowl so uninspiring that it can only benefit from fitting irritable coaches with enormous ruffled collars-- this is so logical I can't believe others have not thought about it first).


Although most Northwestern pundits seem to be pointing to the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, these ESPN predictions have the 'Cats in Tampa for the Outback Bowl (the losing team will be "transported" home on an aging Victorian sailboat with no access to lime juice). With Friday's World Cup draw, this will hopefully be the most exciting sporting event involving picking teams until Selection Sunday finally putting Northwestern in the NCAA tournament or watching an entire fanbase sink into a Messerschmidt grimace.