Friday, November 18, 2016


I remember a time when Purdue cut a reign of terror through the Big Ten, when Purdue regularly sent its quarterbacks to the NFL instead of to SEC teams as ghoulish Big Ten specters, when the mustaches were blond and resplendent on the sidelines like an army of Bounty Men ordering a neverending bombardment of touchdowns while Purdue Pete taunted the opposition with his blank homicide face.  That was not that long ago.

Everything Purdue Pete does is disturbing and threatening

But recent years have not been kind to the Purdue Boilermakers who have devolved into a pit of forlorn football ineptitude.  The pit is not metaphorical.  Earlier this season, a burst water main caused the formation of a large sinkhole in the Ross Ade endzone, as reported by a twitter account described as "The Official Twitter of the Purdue University Intercollegiate Athletics Sports Turf Crew."
It was as if Purdue's own stadium had grown sentient, preferring to devour itself instead of bearing witness to the miserable football perpetuated against it, against long-suffering Purdue fans, and against the various interim personnel haplessly watching mediocre teams treat Purdue like sports movie winning streak montage opponents.

The strange thing about the Boilermakers is that they have not played up to their bumbling reputation.  They have started games strong and have taken leads to halftime.  They leaped to a 10-0 lead against Northwestern on Saturday, and they took close games to halftime against Minnesota and Penn State.  Then, it all falls apart.  The most foreboding site for Purdue has not been another member of the injury-ravaged roster limping to the sidelines or former coach Darrell Hazell attempting to draw up another ineffectual play with a puzzled look; it is the chilling thump of the World's Largest Drum unleashed during a halftime spectacle to signal the impeding doom of the Dread Second Half.

Normal football fans have pointed to Purdue's injuries and lack of depth for its second-half descent into the abyss.  What I like to imagine, though, is that it is completely due to interim coach Gerad Parker's halftime speeches.  Parker, perhaps wearing a false blond mustache, walks into the locker room before the game screaming football things at them about clear eyes and full hearts and they go out inspired to football greatness.  Then, at halftime, Parker attempts to rally the squad but he starts sweating and screaming before finally a larval Purdue Pete bursts forth from his chest and scuttles into the air ducts and then when David Blough rears back to throw he thinks he sees the creature incubating in the very football he is holding and is forced to repeatedly throw it to Montre Hartage.


The Wildcats will travel to Minnesota to take on the Golden Gophers, desperate to get that sixth win and claim a crappy bowl berth like the third son of a dynasty bumbling into a minor bishopric.  The Gophers lost their opportunity to contend for the Big Ten West after falling to Nebraska and now jockey to move up the arbitrary hierarchy of also-ran bowls.

Last year, the Wildcats pounded Minnesota.  They were unable to run the ball, and Anthony Walker terrorized quarterback Mitch Leidner into throwing footballs like they had been replaced by lead football sculptures.  Northwestern inched over the field on a drive that took almost the entire third quarter.  This year, the Gophers look for revenge with an improved team with a tough defense and fearsome running back Rodney Smith, the Big Ten touchdown leader.

But the Gophers will also have to deal with Austin Carr.  Yes, Carr was on last year's Northwestern team.  He recorded one catch for fourteen yards in last year's Minnesota game.  This season, though, Carr has seemingly come out of nowhere and emerged as the best receiver in the conference.  Carr has already tied Jeremy Ebert's single-season touchdown record, and he leads the Big Ten in every major receiving category.  Carr, along with an improving Thorson, has helped transform Northwestern's offense from a lurching tank designed to throw Justin Jackson at the defensive line long enough for the defense to rest and attain punting position to an actual threat to move the ball.  

Northwestern's 2015 offense practices its offensive system known as the "pre-punt"

The Gophers are favored, but these teams appear evenly-matched.  The Wildcats hope to head back to Evanston garlanded in Belks.

Northwestern's basketball season is here and so is heartbreak.  The 'Cats lost to a buzzer-beater against Butler, and suffered an early blow against the eternal and seemingly-impossible quest to actually make a postseason tournament.  Northwestern basketball exists in an endless continuum of buzzer-beaters, overtime losses, and last-second putbacks in every game that they play against an opponent that is not leaving Welsh-Ryan arena with a suitcase full of cash for getting violently dunked on for 40 minutes.

The Wildcats graduated stalwarts Tre Demps and Alex Olah who now play together as noted by the greatest sentence ever written about Northwestern basketball: "Olah joins his former Northwestern shooting guard Demps on Belfius Mons-Hainaut, which plays in the Belgium Scooore! League." (It should be noted that the Scooore! League is now known as the Euromillions Basketball League, which is slightly less delightful).

Belfius Mons-Hainaut's mascot, Le Renard Clip Art

This basketball season will be the final one at Welsh-Ryan arena before it undergoes renovations.  The team will move to the empty, desolate All State Arena for a year and move back into a disappointingly opulent arena, resplendent in video boards and actual seats and this is terrible.  Welsh-Ryan Arena is a gloriously dilapidated barn, and the only renovations allowed should be to add side backboards like an elementary school gymnasium and a cage from which spectators can hang and taunt the opponents like you'd find in any respectable thunderdome.  They should redecorate the arena only if Northwestern qualifies for the tournament and then the whole thing should be decorated with elaborate friezes depicting the team's glorious entry to the four-team quasi-Tournament by dint of winning a second game in the Big Ten Tournament forcing all of Indianapolis to cower before the might of its zone defense.

Northwestern's renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena includes a much-sought cage ticket and 
complimentary chainsaw check


Anyone who follows college sports does so with clenched teeth waiting for the inevitable scandal because college sports are an insanely corrupt enterprise propped up by a shocking gulf in compensation between the players and the institutions that profit from the spectacle.  The whole thing is orchestrated by the NCAA, which polices this tension by drawing up hundreds of pages of guidelines about the exact hours which maniacal coaches can text emojis at teenagers.  So it is inevitable that this system that remains a vestige of nineteenth-century mustache guys literally stomping each other to death on football fields leads to shit that can best be described as fucked up.

This week, former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar sued the school, alleging that basketball coach Chris Collins and the entire athletic department pressured and harassed him into leaving the team after the NCAA rules prevented him from transferring.  The complaint argues that Collins, who recruited Vassar, felt he was not good enough to play on the team and wanted him to give up his athletic scholarship and accept an academic scholarship so the school could use it on a different recruit.

The lawsuit alleges that Northwestern tried several ways to get get Vassar to relinquish the athletic scholarship: by replacing his practices with something called the "Wildcat Intern Program" that involved menial janitorial work at athletic facilities, by crudely doctoring his time cards to threaten him with dereliction of duties as a means to yanking the scholarship, and by informally offering a cash payment to "go away."

Northwestern has denied the allegations.

Vassar's lawsuit also attacks the NCAA's transfer rules, which prevented him from moving to a different school.  The Tribune's Teddy Greenstein explains the reasoning behind the NCAA's restrictive transfer policy at the end of the article [italics mine]: 
NCAA transfer rules exist to discourage schools from "poaching" players from other programs. Schools put in a considerable amount of time and money to recruit players, so the feeling has been that their investment should be protected.  Plus coaches believe that if a player can simply leave and immediately play elsewhere when he or she faces adversity or tough coaching, it promotes a bad life lesson.
This last part raises eyebrows considering that successful coaches often leave for more attractive jobs without warning on train cars specifically designed to ferry them out of the town that they have paid for with the giant canvas sacks full of money with which they are compensated.

The Vassar lawsuit's allegations are disturbing.  The legal process is ponderous, and we don't know if a court will find that Northwestern's pressure on Vassar to transfer was as grotesque as the methods listed in the complaint.  

Collins desperately wants to get Northwestern to the Tournament, and has method includes an aggressive approach to his roster.  His arrival saw the departure of numerous walk-ons and players recruited by Carmody to pave the way for players that fit his system.  But the Vassar lawsuit shows that, even ignoring the troubling allegations of payoffs and internship time card frameups, Collins is willing to move on from his own recruits just as easily if he doesn't feel they will get him to March Madness.

To me, the appeal of Northwestern athletics has always been its obscurity.  The stakes remain low: desperate attempts to qualify for low-rent bowls, a defining failure to make it to a tournament that allows an ever-increasing number of entrants, and the howling from opponents of far more historically successful teams shamed into losing to a team whose most visible fanbase is tarps.  I had thought that these low stakes could shield Northwestern from the worst of the NCAA's inherent bullshit not because Northwestern is any less corrupt any other school with major sports programs but because the ruthless recruiting and rostering shell games that are absurd enough in the quest for national championships become unabashedly ludicrous when they apply to a team whose greatest recent success involves disdainfully refusing to play in the CBI. 

Of course that is naive and stupid.  For Chris Collins and the athletic department, bowls, Hats, and downmarket basketball tournaments that weave perilously in and out of existence are not enough. Collins seems to think that his management of scholarships will help him win. As we've found from the fallout from the football union, the NCAA's byzantine restrictions infect every instance of big-money college sports.  Historical crappiness cannot save you. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hat week; paging Tim Beckman allusions and illusions.