Friday, August 30, 2013

Football Season is Here

Last night, thousands of people swarmed to stadiums bathed in light, bands serenaded them with fanfares invariably coming from the classic American 70s jazz rock songbook, the slightly-less-hulking men booted their footballs into graceful parabolas where they fell into the arms of another person who tried desperately to avoid being run over by eleven human steamrollers.  Football!

College football is a bewildering mass of contradictions.  It is rife with the pageantry of dance teams, marching bands that continue to dress like Otto von Bismarck, people who convert recreational vehicles into elaborate mobile meat distribution centers, the South, and an infectious student enthusiasm that can best be described as Gin Lane drunkenness.  It's enough to completely baffle and overwhelm outsiders such as Stephen Fry, who is unable to contemplate a flyover by both military jets and a war damn eagle.

College football is fueled by young people risking their knees and skulls for our amusement, watched over by a keystone police force determined to stop them from selling their signature or their pants while the grizzled, twenty-foot visages of the coaches shill woodenly for a variety of comical local products.

College football is a the engine of innovation as coaches from smaller programs desperately try to score against the NFL behemoths on the rosters of the BCS powerhouses.  In 2013, Northwestern will deploy up to eight quarterbacks simultaneously: A running specialist, a passing specialist, a run-option guy, a pass blocking quarterback, a quarterback who may or may not punt at any time, an all-time quarterback who also gets to play quarterback for the other team, and Kain Colter, who will do all of those things simultaneously.

College football sells itself on tradition, while universities move conferences and abandon century-old rivalries at the drop of a hat in order to vacuum up any visible crumb from an enormous pie.  The Big Ten will have 26 teams next year, at least two Lucrative Conference Championship Games, and a spin-off Big Ten Network 2 which will feature a show where Tim Beckman destroys all of the purple goods in a different retail establishment each week and one where Bucky Badger stares unnervingly into the camera for at least 30 uninterrupted minutes.
Big Ten Network 2 goes highbrow in its academic programming

Welcome back.


This Saturday, the Wildcats return to the field to take on the Cal Golden Bears.  Cal went 3-9 last year leading to a new direction for the program.  Now, Cal looks to head coach and potential Rocky trainer Sonny Dykes to right the ship.  These teams have some ancient history, as the Wildcats defeated them in the mythical 1949 Rose Bowl although this happened so long ago that I'm not sure the 1949 Rose Bowl wasn't a chariot race that the 'Cats won by engineering one of those evil chariot race contraptions that sliced up the other chariots' wheels while the drivers cackled relentlessly.  Dykes, a disciple of Mike Leach, will brings a variation of his high-powered aerial attack that fans have taken to calling the Bear Raid.

Northwestern's defensive preparations for the Cal game have become 
increasingly sophisticated as game day approaches

Running the show will be a true freshman, Jared Goff.  He'll have to deal with Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose, Tyler Scott, Chi Chi Ariguzo, and Damien Proby, and the 'Cats will hope to pressure him into early mistakes.  Meanwhile, Cal's defense needs to find ways to shut down the Colter/Siemian/Mark combination.  Both offenses rely on deception to open holes and get receivers open.  By the end of the game, the players will clear off of the field while Dykes and Mick McCall stand at the 50-yard-line in an Offensive Coordinators' Duel, furiously scribbling on white boards until one of them runs out of marker or collapses into exhaustion.

"Pro T Flare D," Dykes incanted


Northwestern comes into this game ranked #22 in the country.  The football season previews that I have been devouring from the excellent and insightful to the television people vapidly yammering about football to kill airtime have mentioned Northwestern as a team to look out for the in Big Ten.  Venric Mark is on preseason Doak Walker watch lists.  Commentators have expressed sympathy for teams that have been Coltered and those whose Coltering awaits them this season.  Even the Northwestern defense has not been maligned.  This is exciting and terrifying.

One of the things that I've really enjoyed about Northwestern football is that it is generally liberated from insane fan expectations to win a national title every single year. College basketball and football are rare sports in that they allow for small triumphs: Ending an embarrassing national losing streak and throwing goalposts in the lake, beating a storied rival, making it to some benighted bowl game sponsored by a company whose dot-com bona fides have made it defunct before kickoff, actually winning a bowl game, maybe making that basketball tournament that I've been hearing about even if they get run off the court by the Washington Generals who in the future have given NCAA eligibility and been moved to a separate conference with the Globetrotters, only the Globetrotters have been disqualified and have vacated generations of wins because of glitter buckets.

For fans of teams looking up at the traditional powerhouses, college football can seem monotonous and unfair, perennially under the boot heels of Ohio State and Michigan.  But the fact that winning begets winning can also be a source of hope.  There's mercifully no tanking in college sports; otherwise, Northwestern would have been an unstoppable football juggernaut and I would be spending my free time screaming at Paul Finebaum.  And look where the Wildcats are now.

It is no secret that the Wildcats have a very good football team this season.  And it is no secret that the tough schedule, bad luck, or a few unfortunate injuries could derail them short of contention for the LEGENDS title.  Even if they get all the breaks, it will be difficult to top last year's ten victories, plus the bowl game victory that caused Pat Fitzgerald to parade around the severed head of a plush monkey doll like a medieval warlord.

Patfitz Khan exhorts Our Young Horde to plunder one village at a time

There has been no football played yet.  The Wildcats have yet to thrill us with an overtime victory or shatter us with one of those fourth quarters.  On the eve of this football season then, we should enjoy what this season will bring: purple-clad fans attempting to intimidate people with fist-claws, Venric Mark and Kain Colter incinerating hapless defenders, interceptions and fumbles, Dave Eanet highlights, and at least four solid months of mocking Tim Beckman anonymously on the internet.  Football!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Football Is Coming

It has been an agonizing eight months since the Wildcats' triumph over the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.  Since Northwestern's triumph over more than 60 years of post-season futility, regular-season futility, general football-related futility, and athletic futility so futile that it occasionally resembled some sort of performance art, the Wildcat basketball team stared into the depths of a post-Shurna world, Coach Carmody was granted his sarcastic stomping around the sidelines with his palms upturned papers, the Bulls somehow won a playoff series with their entire offense geared around Nate Robinson, the Hawks won a Stanley Cup involving nearly enough sudden-death overtime minutes to match the entire lockout-shortened season, the Cubs and White Sox continued to insult the sport of baseball, the United States won a Gold Cup, and this sentence was conceived, gestated, and finally burst forth onto the internet in a brazen assault against anything a rational person would ever consider reading.
Yes, winning a Stanley Cup was amazing, but what Chicago 
sports fan did not enjoy the budding rivalry between Bulls 
miniature bench gunners?  I'm surprised John Lucas III did not 
somehow hit either one of these persons with a folding chair at 
some point

Meanwhile, the 'Cats are scant weeks from a visit to Berkeley with a high profile matchup against Cal carrying the exhilarating and terrifying burden of expectations.


The football team's win was quickly overshadowed by the firing of Bill Carmody and subsequent hiring of Chris Collins.  With Collins, the 'Cats have another high-profile, young and energetic coach who seeks to do the impossible and bring a tourney berth to Evanston.  Like Pat Fitzgerald, Chris Collins also seems to have undergone some Clockwork Orange procedure that has robbed him of the ability to communicate in anything other than high-intensity coach speak about Northwestern Excellence and Our Young Men, and Building the Program.  Personally, I would prefer a brasher approach that would involve him aggressively making a lay-up in Bo Ryan's face or recreating his 2 Legit 2 Quit performance at press conferences, which is no doubt a way to inspire champions.  After all, MC Hammer did not take over the rap world by talking about taking things one rap at a time but by implicitly threatening his audience with some sort of bodily or emotional harm.
Intimidation personified

The danger, of course, is that adding an additional young, energetic head coach could cause some sort of problem with the university's general humors situation.  If, and this is only a terrifying hypothetical, so please do not go cowering into your shelter yet, Collins embraces the fist pump, the result could throw the entire Earth off of its rotational axis unless some soccer team in a corresponding Southern Hemisphere locale is able to locate two young coaches who celebrate with David Lee Roth kicks aimed at the horizon.

If these fists are a-shakin', the Earth may start a-quakin'

Collins faces a tall task ahead of him.  He'll be aided by the return of stalwarts Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski, and another year from JerShon Cobb.  Despite this talent, he's clearly building for the future when Northwestern takes its rightful place as a potential top-68 team that plays one or more games than they usually play.


And so it is.  The 'Cats return with as much preseason hype as the ill-fated 2001 team.  Fitz's squad lost some stalwarts on the offensive line and on the defense, but returns the bulk of one of the most successful teams in school history.  The dynamic tandem of Kain Colter and Venric Mark are back, with Trevor Siemian lurking in the shadows as someone willing to do the unthinkable and pass the ball in an ungentlemanly rebuke to Northwestern's Jazz Age rushing attack.   Dan Vitale only got better and will potentially rumble for many yards, although I have to consult my AP Football Cliches Style Manual to see if superbacks count as a position where players rumble for yardage along with fullbacks, tight ends, and terrified linemen with eyes the size of serving platters.
A definitive moment in the history of football rumbling that 
does not involve "William" The Refrigerator Perry

The defense returns Tyler Scott, who was second in the Big Ten in sacks, linebacking revelation Chi Chi Ariguzo and ball-hawk Damian Proby, and a legitimately intimidating secondary that includes Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose.  The return of these talented players and others who will no doubt make their mark in 2013 has not settled the important strategic issue of how many heart attacks Pat Fitzgerald plans to give me in the fourth quarter of football games this season.  While certified 'Cat-killer Matt McGloin has gone off to ply his dark arts in the NFL, Devin Gardner and Tyler Martinez have hopes to rob my scalp of its hair, and Braxton Miller is bench-pressing garbage trucks and throwing footballs through the entire Get Smart doorway apparatus.  Last year's defense was monstrous against the run; this season, perhaps they can strike fear into opposing quarterbacks beyond the usual taunts, japes, and threats to grind their bread through some obscure bone-based mechanism.
Good gravy, the Athletic Department is literally using 
this image on the banner of the official Northwestern 
Football Website.  I fear that Pat Fitzgerald may be slowly 
turning into a Mario Brother


In 1938, flour salesman Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel decided that Texas's corrupt, venal, inefficient, and exclusionary political culture was lacking something.  It lacked an unqualified radio host in the governor's mansion devoted to playing the greatest hits of Texas swing and shilling for Hillbilly Flour.  Therefore, he started one of the most incomprehensible political runs in the history of the United States that took him from Austin to the United States Senate.  The ascent of Pappy O'Daniel is wonderfully chronicled in Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy: Pictures of Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel by Bill Crawford and John Anderson, which combines an entertaining narrative of O'Daniel's career with a wealth of incredible photographs of O'Daniel glad-handing hundreds of persons and inanimate objects. 
Pappy O'Daniel enjoys the spoils of victory

O'Daniel, who inspired the identically-named radio enthusiast facing down a challenge from a broom-wielding opponent in O Brother Where Art Thou, rose as a marketing executive with the Light Crust Flour Company.  In the early 1930s, he found a goldmine in radio advertising by starting a program that featured music interspersed by his own folksy musings about a wide array of topics, many of which alluded to the benefits of Light Crust flour.  More importantly, he hitched his wagon to Bob Wills, the King of Texas Swing, who called his band the Light Crust Doughboys and made O'Daniel's show a sensation across the state.   Eventually, O'Daniel and Wills had a falling out, but O'Daniel hired a new band that emulated Wills's sound, right down to his signature yelping.  By the mid-30s, O'Daniel started his own flour company, Hillbilly Flour, and his own band, the Hillbilly Boys.

Because we live in the twenty-first century, you don't need to go to a specialized library or even put on pants to hear an example of O'Daniel at the height of his powers, selling flour and sweet fiddle licks across the oil fields and prairies because someone has put them on the internet.   In addition to selling flour, O'Daniel wrote songs, including the ballad "Beautiful Texas" and the Hillbilly Boys theme song, which is the catchiest flour jingle ever created by human endeavor.

The original nature of O'Daniel's run for governor is not clear and was probably partially conceived as a stunt to sell more flour.  But O'Daniel packed people into his rallies, which were essentially massive open-air concerts.  He campaigned on some promises for pensions and with a platform of the Ten Commandments, apparently prepared to lose the wife-coveting and graven-idol lobbies that had were sweeping through 1930s Texas with wild campaign promises to build graven idols of neighbors' wives.

Somehow, O'Daniel swept into victory in the Democratic Primary, which all but assured victory in the general election.  While in office, he continued to put out his weekly radio show from the Governor's Mansion, a move unprecedented until Jesse "The Body" Ventura commentated on XFL Football Games while still serving as governor of Minnesota.  Naturally, he swept to reelection in 1940, presumably because other candidates had crappier fiddle players.
Pappy O'Daniel seemed to subscribe to the Le Petomane School of 
Western Governing

By then, however, his ambitions had become grander.  In 1941, Senator Morris Shepherd died as did the aged son of Sam Houston that O'Daniel sent to replace him.  Pappy O'Daniel intended to claim the seat for himself.  At a special election, O'Daniel joined a slate of colorful candidates that included the barrel-clad, the bellicose, and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Crawford and Anderson compare this to the 2003 California recall election).  He defeated LBJ by less than 2,000 votes by somehow out-corrupting him, the only man to ever defeat Johnson in an election.  Once in the Senate, O'Daniel sunk into relative obscurity as he became increasingly devoted to ferreting out communists in the American government, as was the style at the time. 


It's time to watch our lads in purple helmets smash into other gentlemen in different colored helmets, time to live in a world where Northwestern football is actually seen not only as decent but good, time to watch the NCAA fall all over itself in comical fits of hypocrisy, time to watch the Big Ten absorb insults as to the quality of its football, and time to savor the final year of LEGENDS and LEADERS and a conference bereft of Rutgers and Maryland.  To be honest, I'm baffled as to what to expect and still overwhelmed from the bowl win.  The logical next step is to keep the streak improbably going to Indianapolis, to Pasadena, and in the service of fine flour products for the entire family.