Friday, November 17, 2017

A Win Streak

After 15 minutes of game time or approximately Lawrence of Arabia in real time, neither Purdue nor Northwestern had scored.  It was a cold, endless, inexplicable night game so perfunctory that Northwestern did not even bother to break out its Night Game Gothic alternative uniforms but instead paraded around in a ridiculous industrial camouflage.  The game was marred by strange penalties, an unending aerial assault (Purdue asked backup quarterback Elijah Sindelar to throw the ball 60 times).  By the end of the game, Northwestern looked fairly certain to win, but Purdue hung around enough in the fourth quarter to theoretically tie it-- by the end, I was hoping they would, that they would get their 15 points or whatever they needed to even the game and send it to overtime where I am pretty sure the remaining dozen Northwestern fans deranged enough to stay through all 19 hours of this game would have immediately smeared themselves with hot dog condiments, constructed cardboard capes, and chanted as Northwestern ceased being a football team and immediately became a bizarre overtime cult.
Remaining Northwestern fans prepare for The Overtime by performing 
their profane ritual of putting their hands in the air, putting their hands up in the air

The Wildcats hung on for their seventh win and fifth straight by maintaining their fearsome run defense, daring Sindelar to beat them.  Purdue, though, refused to allow the 'Cats to bash them with Justin Jackson.  They plugged every running lane, bringing in safeties and linebackers and Purdue fans with the most robust Joe Tiller mustaches to crowd the line of scrimmage.  That seemed to work until Riley Lees unleashed a brilliant punt return only to have the officials call it back-- with no clear footage of the infraction, a confused Ryan Field crowd unleashed a torrent of abuse screaming out SIR YOU WILL HEAR FROM MY LAWYER in disgusted unison.  The Wildcats responded with a quick drive and did not look back; a blistering 94-yard drive after a near goal line stand just before the end of the first half further increased the lead presumably because Pat Fitzgerald was unable to signal in his traditional end of half play to take the ball and tunnel underground.
Riley Lees gains a new nickname the Aggrieved Punt Returner

Wisconsin's win over Iowa ended any hope of Big Ten insanity somehow leading the 'Cats to a near-impossible berth in the championship game.  Northwestern will now try to avenge last year's defeat against the Gophers, who spent last Saturday sending the Nebraska Cob Nobblers to the Harsh Realm and extend their win streak.  It's all bowl positioning and hat trophies now, and the possibility of a nine-win season that would have seemed impossible after the Duke game.


More than any sport, college football nurses cults of personalities around charismatic coaches, none more so than Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, who is charismatic enough to start his own cult.  The Gophers nabbed Fleck from Western Michigan where he led the Broncos to becoming a MAC powerhouse that may have also been no less than the third best team in the Big Ten West last season.  He also invented the greatest football slogan of all time in "Row the Boat," a motivational mantra he developed after the tragic loss of a child.  "Row the Boat" became inextricably linked with Western Michigan football, a horse team that somehow became confusingly adorned with all manner of nautical symbolism.

Western Michigan puts up a hippocamp statue of its Martime 
Horse theme outside Waldo Stadium

Last year, I wrote about Fleck being trapped by his popular catchphrase, tiring of rowing the boat but constantly harangued by those who want to hear about boats and rowing.  But that was a deranged fantasia written on the the world's final blogspot website.  Fleck has gone beyond rowing the boat to a host of ludicrous motivational acronyms.  Here for example is Fleck explaining F.A.M.I.L.Y. (Forget About Me I Love You) and H.Y.P.R.R. which is somehow an acronym for How Yours Process Results Response, which is a completely insane thing for an acronym to stand for.

Fleck is an acronym savant, the kind of person who would blast into a 
room prepared to tell a group of people about A.L.U.M.I.N.U.M. 
(Always Leave Unused Melodicas In Numbered Utility Modules) and then, 
finding himself in Canada, improvising to Actually Lackadaisical Ungulates 
Make Intolerable Neighbors In Unkempt Meadows without blinking

I normally think ludicrous motivational acronymeering is ridiculous and insipid, but it works for Fleck because he comes across as completely sincere, as someone who believes wholeheartedly in whatever HYPRR is and is ready to HYPRR with you and your entire family for months if necessary.  It also works for Fleck because he works in an insane business, the business of asking large young persons to smash into other equally large or sometimes even larger people while literally a 100,000 people scream at them and point at them accusingly with foam #1 fingers. Maybe Fleck hopping around in a rented hotel conference room with a wireless microphone telling his players about the revolutionary SCOMPTT Method (score more points than them) can bring the Gophers back to contention in this hilarious and miserable football conference; maybe his slogans will collapse in on themselves and remain plastered on the walls as ironic icons of football ineptitude like Butch Jones's Champions of Life rhetoric or Tim Beckman's numerous propaganda posters.
Illinois locker rooms are dedicated with the
 tattered remains of Beckman's information campaigns

I am not predicting anything about this season because Minnesota and the non-Wisconsin and non-Illinois Big Ten West is completely inscrutable.    


The single defining fact of Northwestern basketball had been its absence from the NCAA Tournament.  College basketball exists in a strange netherworld where teams play what seems to be like hundreds of games on frozen, anonymous weeknights and flash through on the ESPN score crawl in obscure, indecipherable initials before finally emerging in March as a fully-formed sports product kept aloft by buzzer-beating triumph, crowd-sobbing heartbreak, and a vast and technically illegal gambling apparatus.  There is winning those endless games, rising through the various arcane rating systems, and getting the team's name on one of those brackets and there is nothing, and for the entire history of the NCAA Tournament Northwestern did not exist.
And then there they were.  They appeared to clinch their tournament appearance with a miraculous, last-second heave.  Then, buoyed by the emergence of Northwestern's vast alumni network of sports personalities that have somehow cornered the market on the world's dumbest profession, by Celebrity Moms and Dads, and through a tournament run that included The World's Least Advised Foul, a Goaltending Rules Controversy, and A Child-Meme, Northwestern became ubiquitous and almost instantaneously overexposed and despised.

This year's Northwestern team arrives in a different universe.  For years, every Northwestern team just wanted to make the tournament, to appear on that bracket, and to return to getting dunked through the Earth's core.  Now, the team has expectations to make the tournament.  The transformation of the team from a desperate also-ran to a very good team is welcome but the experience is totally different.  The Wildcats will be favored in several games.  Every win comes with the question of how it affects the Tournament Resume instead of being judged on the traditional Northwestern metric of how angry opposing fans are to lose to Northwestern.  A failure to make the tournament this year would be disappointing instead of a soothing swoon into the embrace of a sports curse.

Northwestern basketball will be unrecognizable because they are playing in an airport-adjacent monster truck and wrestling arena.  The school is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into an awful and bullshit renovation of Welsh-Ryan arena that will have things like seats and lighting and ways for players to enter and exit the court without having to get all fired up and do their IT'S GAME TIME chants and then politely wend their way through the hot dog line, but this is a mistake as grave as the grave digger that plies its trade regularly at the All State Arena.  Welsh-Ryan was a glorious shit dump that turned into a bona fide home court by the end of the season, when Northwestern fans-- more than the other team even-- packed the cramped stands that floated on top of the court and turned it into a raucous thunderdome and now that the school has had like three games of this atmosphere they are off to play in front of a quarter of an arena filled with the skeletons of hardy explorers who attempted to sit in the top deck during a DePaul game and were never seen again.     
Northwestern saved money on Welsh-Ryan Arena renovation costs by 
making the NCAA Tournament and therefore opening a hole to other 
dimension from which energy flowed and destroyed the site of this unholy occurrence

The administration is trying to build Northwestern sports into brand that doesn't have anything to do with historical lousiness.  They've got a football team that makes bowl games.  They've got a basketball team in the tournament.  They've got the facilities and arenas from exorbitant amounts of money raised by top-hatted boosters.  And, as befitting a college sports program, there's even a discomfiting scandal complete with a disturbingly inept attempt at a cover up that looks like someone in the athletic department tried to run off a player by framing him for not performing in the bullshit make-work program they invented by forging his signature and repeatedly misspelling his name.

The Wildcats return nearly every key player from last year's run, bring back a few more from injury, and add additional recruits.  But last year's run was on a razor's edge-- McIntosh's dagger against Rutgers saved them, the Mighty Heave of Nate Taphorn got them in, and no one is as aware of the precariousness of NCAA qualification than the team that watched that Juice/Shurna team miss it by a combined total of  like five points spread over several agonizing games.  There's nothing guaranteed this season; they won't take anyone by surprise, they are playing in an arena on Mars, and they still rely on their starters to do nearly everything.  Northwestern basketball has cleared its greatest hurdle, but now, after the ecstatic excitement of filling out a bracket and seeing Northwestern players in One Shining Moment, the question is what can they do to follow up. 

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