Thursday, December 3, 2015


 at!  The Hat has returned to its rightful place in Evanston after the Northwestern Wildcats managed to pry it from the heads of the Illini.  Last year, a miserable debacle, the Hat game to end all Hat games with an appropriately miserable bowl berth on the line, the Illini won.  Northwestern turned the ball over four consecutive times and Northwestern's Hat-Nemesis Tim Beck Man stood in Ryan Field cackling as his three-year reign of madness in Champaign finally culminated in him hoisting the Land of Lincoln trophy to a horrified purple throng.  "Look upon this Hat," he bellowed defiantly.  "This justifies my ludicrous three year anti-Northwestern campaign.  This is normal! This is normal!"

In the year since, things have changed.  Tim Beckman became Shit Canman.  Bill Cubit, toiling as interim, took over the Illinois program in perpetuity, the Cubit name guaranteed to ring across Illini football for two entire years.  Northwestern rode a spectacular defense, a running game led by Justin Jackson-TheBallCarrier, and the sane and rational decisions of referees to a 10-2 record, a national ranking, and a bowl game.

Clayton Thorson came out firing in the first half as the 'Cats scored three touchdowns.  It appeared as though the Wildcats had spent the entire season refusing to throw before unveiling the Trojan Pass in the crucial Hat Game.  In the second half, though, Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall turned to their innovative Run 'n Punt offense, relying on Jackson The Ball Carrier to Carry The Ball while the defense took over.  All-Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker terrorized the Illini backfield and the Wildcat secondary kept the passing game in check.  They were helped out by Illinois receivers who dropped an almost unfathomable number of balls-- Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt had a much better day than the box score indicates.  No sequence better sums up the snake-bitten Illini than their effective drive to a fourth-and-one near the Northwestern goal line.  The Illini lined up to go for it, then false-started.  Down ten, Cubit decided to kick a chip-shot field goal which then shanked wide right.  This series of plays will be displayed in the Van Pelt Museum of Football Cruelty.


Illinois fans seem disappointed with the Bill Cubit contract.  Cubit was certainly not one of the marquee names changing jobs during this Flight Aware season.  On the other hand, Cubit presents a few advantages to the University of Illinois:

1. Players seem to like him and he has weathered the storm of general administrative tumult.
2. Probably believes in hamstring injuries.

Illinois's interim athletic director seems less than excited about the hire.  Here is what Paul Kowalczyk has to say about Cubit:
"Obviously, it's not ideal but for now, I don't think it'll put a dagger in the heart of the program."

I am not an athletic director.  But I am fairly sure that is not a ringing endorsement.  And I am also sure that you should use the phrase "dagger in the heart" unless your profession involves antechambers.

It is disappointing to see Illinois fans disillusioned about their football program, even if the schools are sworn enemies forever destined to clash as foretold by Beckman's Clock.  There would be nothing more satisfying than seeing a Hat Game have actual consequences in the Big Ten West.  There would be nothing more exciting than seeing ESPN College Game Day come to a Northwestern/Illinois game not because it is an embarrassing one-endzone baseball stadium sideshow novelty act, but because the winner would be going to Indianapolis.

Both Northwestern and Illinois have had great seasons this decade, just never at the same time.  The Northwestern/Illinois rivalry is in that way like a seesaw, although most of the time it is more like a rotting plank of wood moldering in a dirt patch four feet from a rusted seesaw mechanism.  Yes the teams compete for recruits, for media coverage, and in a grimly farcical branding war futilely focused on the Chicago market that climaxed in Saturday's game at a well-nigh empty Solider Field.

But, in the larger Big Ten, both are traditionally moribund programs overshadowed by the conference's Football Brands that expect to effortlessly plod through them on their way to yet another Rose Bowl.  Despite the in-state rivalry, Northwestern and Illinois remain bound together in Big Ten also-ran solidarity.

Northwestern's stirring victory over the Illini not only gave them bragging rights in America's Greatest College Football Rivalry, but it also gave them America's Greatest Rivalry Trophy, the Land of Lincoln Hat.  But there is one thing about the Hat trophy that has bothered me and that is this: the Hat is permanently attached to the base and it cannot be worn.

Look this Wildcat sadly attempt to mime wearing the Hat.  He cannot.  There is a base in its way.  This is madness.  The Hat should be removed from its base and worn triumphantly upon the victorious heads of the hat-winners, not reduced to a grotesque locker-room burlesque.

Abraham Lincoln did not travel through Illinois carrying his hat on a trophy base.  That would be ludicrous.  The Lincoln-Douglas debates would have never helped publicize Lincoln enough to take Democratic nomination in 1860 because no one would consider voting for a hat-carrying maniac. 

LINCOLN: That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of 
                     Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these 
                     two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.
DOUGLAS: Why do you carry around your hat on a base instead of wearing it on your head?
LINCOLN: At this time of strife and division, you wish to discuss my hat?
DOUGLAS: Your hat practices are discomfiting and peculiar.
ANGRY BYSTANDER:  Answer the question, Lincoln!
ANGRIER BYSTANDER: Go back to Kentucky, you hat-carrying scarecrow!

I urge you to write school administrators and your representatives about this travesty and to engage in pointless hashtag activism about this by tweeting #WEARABLEHAT at all involved parties.  I plan to publish a 3,000 page screed about this in a new screed format I have invented called the monomaniagraph. Together, we can unite and probably amuse ourselves for nearly 45 minutes.


By Monday, Northwestern will know its bowl fate.  The Playoff Committee awaits the results of Lucrative Conference Championship games.  The bowls begin their dance of selecting teams by trying to land the biggest Brand Teams allowed by their slotting.  The combination of bowl selection and playoff rankings have made this a week for the brandishing of advanced statistics, complex transitive property arguments, and the traditional claims that teams ain't played no one.  It's Recrimination Week.  Northwestern, for once, is in the middle of this because they are jockeying for a more prestigious bowl game and higher rankings.  This is exciting because it implies a small amount of relevance for Northwestern's football program and also because it is fun to complain about things on the internet and make snide remarks about body clocks.

Of course, bowl positioning does not really matter.  The entire hierarchy of bowl games after the playoffs is a meaningless system where older bowl games that have names that appended by ridiculous sponsors rank higher than games that are named completely by their ridiculous sponsors; thus, the Gator Bowl (now known as the Bowl) is more prestigious than the GoDaddy Bowl, the Quick Lane Bowl or the arrestingly bellicose Armed Forces Bowl.
The Beef O'Brady's Bowl, played at the decrepit Tropicana Field, was such a perfect shitty 
bowl game name that it burned out like a glorious comet.  Then, it metamorphosed into the 
BitCoin Bowl, which was somehow even more ridiculous before settling into the 
disappointingly stolid St. Petersburg bowl.  I have pledged $45.00 in naming rights for the 
bowl to be called the St. Petersburg Bowl. 
If you are a representative of the St. Petersburg Bowl, please contact me and let me know 
when to fly down a present the trophy.

The hierarchy of bowl games is, I suppose, a way to differentiate the bowl games that have multiplied across the nation.  This year, there are more so many bowl games that there are not enough teams that have reached the magical 6-6 threshold of Bowl Eligibility to play.  Therefore, 5-7 teams will receive invitations, in order of Brand Status.  This means that Illinois, despite dashing itself upon the rocks of Northwestern's defense for four quarters last Saturday can still go to a bowl (and I hope they are selected).  Nebraska, America's most prominent 5-7 team, will almost certainly receive one.  At this point, matchups and rankings and hierarchy are all that separate the bowls until the NCAA decides to thrust all of the non-playoff teams into a giant fishbowl and select bowl matchups by lot.

This is not a time to become stressed about Northwestern's ranking or bowl positioning.  The Wildcats have won ten games and they are ranked and I am still sort of dreading a flood of hail marys that will somehow take them all away.


Northwestern has finished off a season of the impossible.  In the past two years, the Wildcats won ten games combined, and lost in mind-bogglingly improbable ways.  In two games, Northwestern fell victim to passes bouncing off a defenders hands at the last possible second.  In one game, they lost to a field goal team that successfully assembled itself like they were in aBuster Keaton movie.  They lost in overtime and they lost in the final seconds of regulation attempting to prevent overtime when the quarterback fell on his buttocks.  They literally lost to Tim Beckman. 

This season, the Wildcats went an astonishing 8-0 in games decided by a ten points or fewer and every one of those weird breaks fell their way.  This season, Northwestern managed to stop the tying conversion.  This season, the winning field goal went through the uprights.  This season, the referees took an apparent game-winning touchdown off the board because the whimsical hands of fate have decided that Northwestern should have that win fair and square by redefining what the terms fair and square mean.  This year, the Wildcats got the Hat.

Northwestern won with ugly football.  They unleashed a defense rivaled only by the 1995 team and seemed content to score only as many points were necessary, as if by winning by more than the bare minimum would trigger a loss through an innovative Price is Right scoring system.
Coming this spring to Big Ten Network, contestants bid on Rotel, extra-large men's pants, 
and luxury vacations to Indianapolis

Fitzgerald and McCall were content this year to let Justin Jackson ball carrier at people until they got within scoring range.  If not, they were happy to punt and let the defense back onto the field.  Every once in awhile, Thorson would find a receiver or, more excitingly, find a lane to gallop down the field with gangly strides through a baffled defense.  This offensive approach was effective, but also kept Northwestern's games within terrifying range of Northwestern events at all times.  Wildcat football is not often going to roll into a Big Ten stadium and demolish the opposition, and good seasons thrive on plays designed for wild swings of fortune.  The head football coach doubles as the endowed Dr. Ray Arnold Chair in Butt-Holding. 

It is possible to look at the Wildcats' numerous escapes this season and see their record as dependent on luck.  Advanced statistics appear to think the Wildcats have wildly overachieved.  But college football is itself an anarchic scrum relying on young people, the bounce of an oblong ball, BODY CLOCKS, weather conditions, referees deciding on increasingly arbitrary and obscure definitions of a catch, and a host of a zillion other things that wreak havoc on a twelve-game sample.  No teams, not even the championship-caliber, coach-firing, juggernaut nightmare teams win all their games without weird bounces and luck.  Northwestern not only played lockdown defense and had an effective running game, it also enjoyed the favor of the football chaos deities for once.  They won ten games, went 6-1 at home (and 1-0 at Chicago's Big Ten Neutral Stadium), and will finish the season ranked and in a prominent bowl game.  And our reward is to get to watch them one more time without the pressure of a bowl drought that originated in the Truman administration.  Most importantly, we have The Hat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If they end up making the Hat wearable, can I wear it too?