Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bowl Game Part V

It's nearly 2013, which means that Northwestern fans have an opportunity to recover from their New Years' revels, roll out of bed, scrape the vomit from their hair and clothing and extremities, and watch the Wildcats take on Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

This year's postseason had less intrigue than other mid-tier bowl selections.  This is a shame, because I really enjoy baselessly speculating about the machinations of bowl executives planning the football team's fate in a walnut-lined state room where national bowl representatives and corporate sponsors meet to wheel, deal, and bet on brutal animal-baiting tournaments away from the prying eyes of polite society. 

Bowl officials take a break after a grueling morning filibuster from the Beef 
O'Brady's people before a leisurely afternoon picking the Belk Bowl matchups 
and then hunting the ultimate prey: man

Every year, someone will mock the proliferation of crappy bowl games, bemoaning their necessity, mocking their increasingly ridiculous corporate affiliations, and deriding them as all but meaningless in the standings.  These are ridiculous accusations.  Bowl games are more college football and allow you to turn on your television at 4:30 on a weekday and be pleasantly surprised by a game that usually includes one potential Future Big Ten team.  Corporate names will serve as a useful footnote in history books that want to explain how a goofy-looking puppet served as the business plan of several late-90s internet enterprises that were rich enough to purchase naming rights to a crappy bowl game.  And no fan base in the history of crappy, also-ran bowl games wants to win the Gator Bowl this year as much as fans of Northwestern.

The 2012 football season has seen the Big Ten devolve into a joke, its best team undone by the promise of free tattoos,  its reverse Manifest Destiny expansion eastwards into an ever-bigger Ten, its school-grabbing setting off another wave of conference realignment.  None of this matters to Northwestern, losers of nine bowl games since 1949.  While this season has been a pleasant surprise, a bowl win could topple the last barrier standing between Northwestern's awful football history and current football decentness.


The last game of the 2012 season was more than an intrastate struggle between a surging Northwestern team and an Illini team down on its luck.  It was a reckoning.  The Illini had been in possession of the Hat for two unbearable years.  Northwestern fans suffering from a nervous disorder commonly referred to as "hat fever" screamed about hats in their sleep, removed all hats from orange-wearing persons in their vicinity, and even constructed crude hats out of paper in order to cope.

Those affected with hat fever may take solace in scholarly Lincoln research or by 
covering their walls in homemade Lincoln paraphernalia, such as the Lincoln 
constructed by University President Morton Schapiro

In the first half, the Illini startled the Wildcats by moving the ball with ease.  It seemed as though Tim Beckman's anti-Northwestern saber-rattling had lit a fire under them, and that is not a mixed metaphor because I am implying that the saber could be rattled against a stone, creating a spark that could ignite some kindling beneath the Illinois players, which is a very common motivational tactic at the highest levels of competitive football.  Northwestern fans braced for another harrowing game coming down to the final seconds.

That did not happen.  The game got out of hand in the second half.  Illini drives stalled and extended Northwestern possessions with penalties, including two on Coach Beckman himself for sideline interference.  The video of one of the penalties involved the official chasing the play along the sideline, running over Beckman, and, without a moment's hesitation, throwing a flag down on his prone body to add insult to injury.  That may not even be the strangest Beckman sideline moment this season; he was reprimanded by the NCAA earlier for surreptitiously dippin'.  I don't blame Beckman for that.  College football coaching is a stressful job, and coaches should be free able to use all of the smokes, chaw, snuff, and opium products they desire during the course of a football game besides their traditional recourse to ass-slapping and screaming at someone without the slightest modicum of human dignity.

No one should be allowed to get this angry without having immediate access to 
chewable barbiturates or a horde of hearty fellows sworn to medieval vengeance 
upon an unsavory duke

The 50-14 rout was one of the most lopsided wins in Northwestern history against a Big Ten foe.  By the end, Fitzgerald seemed more concerned that all of the seniors got a chance to play, even if that meant putting Bo Cisek in at running back to achieve some measure of Ditkaness.  The big win was enough to put Northwestern back into the polls at #20.  More importantly, it meant that The Hat has returned to its home in Evanston, where it will hopefully remain as Beckman fumes and comes up with more ways to comically denigrate Northwestern football.

Here's something to denigrate: somebody give me the name of the person 
responsible for making a hat trophy attached to a base, denying all of us in 
attendance the opportunity to see various Northwestern players parading around 
Ryan Field while wearing the trophy as a hat while haranguing anyone in the 
Illinois football organization named Douglas


Mississippi State, like Northwestern, started the season on a tear.  They began 7-0 before the realities of life in the SEC West led them into a brutal three game stretch against Alabama, LSU, and the Johnny Football Men.  They managed only one more win the rest of the season, against a reeling Arkansas team in its death throes of the John L. Smith era.  Nevertheless, the Bulldogs, like every Northwestern opponent in the history of Northwestern football, see the Gator Bowl as a winnable game and a way to end their season on a high note.

The Bulldogs boast two of the top cornerbacks in the country in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.  Between the involvement of and Darius Slay, this will be the slayingest bowl game in the country, especially if Slayer can play the halftime show that consists of them acting out the dozens of crappy movies and TV episodes entitled "Slay Ride."

Slayer members have the choice to act out a T.J. Hooker episode described 
on IMBD as: "Stacy realizes a couple who foiled a drug raid are a team of 
robbers" or a Kojak episode with a plot summary that contains the sentence 
"Discovering that a young Army wife had fallen from a roof at an earlier 
convention (which they had attended) leads Kojak to her call girl sister."

Fortunately for Northwestern, the Wildcats no longer throw the ball, so Slay and Banks will be spending most of their time trying to tackle Mark or Colter.  The Bulldogs do have a terrifying wide receiver in Chad Bumphis, and, while the 'Cats have shown some improvement in pass defense, they are still vulnerable to the big play.  Mississippi State is less terrifying on the ground, where it averages about 140 yards per game, good for 88th in the country.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that Northwestern's best chance for a victory will involve stymieing Bumphis and successfully keeping it on the ground and away from their rapacious defensive backs.  But because this is Northwestern, I predict that the best way to win this game is to go out to a significant first half lead, collapse entirely in the second half, and allow the Bulldogs to get within 45 seconds of winning the game but hope that the final hail mary falls three centimeters short of Bumphis's grasp in the endzone as unconscious Wildcat fans plummet down the stairwells at EverBank field because their nervous systems can no longer bear the strain except for the fat-cat alumni who have had fainting couches installed in their private skyboxes.


Northwestern may not be playing a bowl game in the state of Texas, but that does not make the early twentieth century reign of the Fergusons any less fascinating, as described in Randolph Campbell's Gone to Texas and James L. Haley's Passionate Nation.  In 1914, an obscure banker named James E.Ferguson came, essentially, out of nowhere during the Democratic gubernatorial primary.   Like many Southern states, Texas was governed by one party.  The fractious Democratic Primary in most elections determined the winner of the election, and was therefore more spirited and hard-fought than the general election. 

The major issue in 1914 was prohibition, and Ferguson's opponent, Thomas Ball, was an ardent prohibitionist.  Ball, however, belonged to a country club that served drink, and, while he claimed he did not imbibe, his membership created a clear "I did not inhale" situation in 1914 Texas terms.  Ferguson ignored prohibition and declared that he would treat any legislation for or against prohibition the same folksy way: "I will strike it where the chicken got the axe," he proclaimed, although the historical record is less clear about whether or not he hooked his thumbs into his suspenders.

Ferguson was a populist candidate, and "Farmer Jim" ran on a platform promising rent relief to tenant farmers.  He was an expert at hurling invective at his opposition, mustering every Southern blowhard trick in the book to go after Ball.  When President Woodrow Wilson endorsed Ball, Ferguson portrayed it as Yankee meddling, invoking the "sacred principles for which the gallant Confederate soldiers fought and bled on so many Southern battlefields," which is the rhetorical equivalent of dressing as a giant thumb and hooking yourself to a 30-foot wall-mounted suspender.  He won the nomination and the general election.
Texas Governor James E. "Farmer Jim" "Pa" Ferguson 
grafted his hands onto state monies as effectively as 
he cultivated home-spun nicknames

Ferguson's first term had some successes.  He passed a bill to lower and fix tenant rents for farmers (although it was eventually ruled unconstitutional), formed a state highway commission, and passed a bill for compulsory education.  Soon, he began interfering with school administration, high-handedly ousting the president of Prairie View Normal and Industrial College.  Edward Blackshear had drawn the ire of Ferguson as a supporter of Ball and as an African American academic whose rise to prominence contrasted with Ferguson's virulent white supremacy.  Ferguson then turned to the University of Texas.  He threw his weight around, attempted to remove the president, demanded the firing of several faculty members whom he believed had crossed him, and signed an official proclamation demanding the trustees present him with their lunch money at the capitol every afternoon. 

The fight with the university made him powerful enemies, who quickly latched onto allegations of corruption.  Ferguson moved more than a hundred thousand dollars worth of state funds into his own private accounts and mysterious loans of dubious origin floated into his coffers.  He was indicted, impeached, and convicted of fraud and embezzlement and barred from state office.  But a simple conviction of fraud would not keep Ferguson out of politics.

In 1924, Miriam A. Ferguson appeared on the ballot.  James Ferguson had opposed women's suffrage; now his wife ran for governor with the thinly-veiled understanding that newly-dubbed "Ma" Ferguson came as a package with "Pa."  Running under the slogan "Me for Ma, and I ain't got a durn thing against Pa," the Fergusons swept back into power on a platform opposing the rising influence of the Ku Klux Klan.  Miriam Ferguson became the first woman elected as a state governor, but "Pa" clearly pulled the strings.  The impeachment and conviction had not slowed down Fergusons' gleeful corruption; they began selling pardons to anyone willing to pay the vastly inflated price of Ferguson livestock and meted out state contracts to those willing to pay for expensive advertising space in their newspaper. 

The Fergusons on the campaign trail striking a blow for equal rights 
for women in terms of graft and state-wide corruption

A reformer swept out the Fergusons in the next term, but they reappeared during the Depression.  Ma Ferguson returned to Austin in 1932, just in time for them to control the distribution of New Deal federal relief funds.  The Fergusons throughout remained dedicated to their principles of lining their pockets, attacking people with pointed folksiness, and, disparaging academics as "mutton headed."


The Wildcats have had a surprisingly successful season mixed with gut-wrenching disappointment and ulcer-forming excitement.  These are also ways to describe Northwestern's bowl appearances, as they have continued to come up just short for several frustrating years.  This year, the 'Cats seem primed for another close game against an evenly-matched squad.  They will almost certainly try to kill you, me, and our friends and loved ones because that is how Northwestern plays football this year except against Illinois and FCS teams.  There's nothing more to be written that has not already been written or personified in plush monkey toy form about the unfortunate bowl victory drought of more than 60 years.  Many fans may not care whether or not their team wins their crappy bowl game.  I intend to celebrate the only way I know how: by renting a gigantic alligator costume with a GATOR BOWL CHAMPION sash and crown and proclaim myself King of the Alligators on the steps of City Hall.    


Purple Flag on Saturday said...

Your words have never been more timely rendered: we are heading out now to the big New Year's Eve sale to get a fainting couch.

Great job as always. Happy NU Year!

Staniel said...

I look forward to the day that you publish an iPad app (or children's activity book) wherein the reader is instructed to connect the historical ephemera listed in the left hand column with the obscure Northwestern football attribute/aspect in the right hand column.

Left hand column: Pa Ferguson

Right hand column: a celebratory GATOR BOWL CHAMPION sash

Connected, of course! I knew that one!

I would quote my favorite lines from this post. But, then, there are too many.

Thanks so much for your blog. AND WEAR YOUR SASH PROUDLY!

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to seeing the Gator costume

NUMBSpiritLeader said...

I will happily help pay for an alligator costume as long as I get a signed photo of you in the costume with the flashing sign.

I do suggest electrooptic wire for the flashing "King of the Gators" sign. Such wire is lightweight and easily operated by AA-batteries.

Thank you for being such an inspiration.