Saturday, November 24, 2018

Statistics

Pat Fitzgerald has a saying he likes to bleat out from time to time: "stats are for losers."  This sort of sentiment comes partly from Fitzgerald's frustration from feeling overlooked and underrated due in part to Northwestern's historical ineptitude, a bizarre and thin-skinned fascination with media figures (it will always remain a mystery to me why he spent so much time calling out some ESPN guy I've never heard of repeatedly for daring to pick Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl), and a sort of cheeky macho posturing where Pat Fitzgerald feels the need to act like the model of his look, a gritty, middle-aged Duke Nukem.

And yet one of the curious things about Fitzgerald's tenure as head coach has been a consistent gulf between Northwestern's rating by various advanced statistical metrics and the team's performance.  This comes from a bizarre pattern where the Wildcats struggle against a coterie of profoundly non-threatening foes like the Central Eastern Corner of Illinois Feeblemen or Jabroni Technical College before somehow roaring back to life against Big Ten opponents, all of whom are defeated by seven points or less if they cannot be dragged into Northwestern's overtime chamber.

This season, Northwestern has somehow risen to win a profoundly troubled conference and play in the Big Ten Championship game; SBNation/Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings say that the Wildcats are the 76th best team in the country.  College football can work this way because football itself is a bizarre and impossible game where the outcome of games can hinge on one or two plays, and Northwestern has made nearly all of them. “They beat teams just like that," P.J. Fleck said about last week's loss. "Iceman from ‘Top Gun,’ for all the people who know that. Cool as ice. Never makes a mistake."
 
"I.C.E.M.A.N." Fleck said. "Intensity. Coolness. Execution. Mangling. 
Anklyosaurus. Neurotransmitters."
I also want to point out the incredible next paragraph from the  
Star Tribune article where I got the Fleck quote from columnist Jim Souhan: 
"Most of Fleck’s speechifying targets 18-year-olds who may be impressed by 
such silliness. Iceman from ‘Top Gun’? I may have been one of the few people
 in the room old enough to know what he was talking about, yet I had no idea 
what he was talking about. He might as well have been comparing Northwestern 
to Gatsby, or Shemp."

The season is short or, in statistics jargon, the samples are small.  With the exception of the world-devouring Alabamas of the world, it is very difficult to tell if a team is better than another, and because of the nature of the game, it is almost impossible to predict if a team will beat another team or whether a team is better.

Fans and pundits have several strategies to deal with the ambiguity baked into college football.  One way is to try to build empirical models and rankings.  The other way is through rhetoric, logical fallacies, transitive property wins, television analysts with tie knots so large that they are orbited by smaller tie knots going on television and talking about the Positional Matchups with grim certainty even though they have absolutely no idea how any of this is going to play out, ad finally people screaming at each other. 
 
There is also the tried and true method of Plushomancy, divination 
by Giant Mascot Head

And yet, one of the strange epistemological paradoxes in sports in general, but particularly in college football, is that you could build a computer that takes of several acres with whirling tape machines and people dressed like NASA ground crews scurrying around with armfuls of printout graphs that could tell you precisely how good every team is and it has no effect on what actually happens.

The central question surrounding Northwestern football this season is: why? And also: how?  A Northwestern team that has not looked particularly impressive has amassed enough ugly wins over the exact configuration of teams it needed to beat to win the West.  Have they been profoundly lucky?  Do they have some sort of transcendent clutch switch that allows them to make the exact play they need to make at the exact instant they need to make it and no other time?  Are they the avatars of a cursed football deity, brought forth by the unholy addition of Rutgers and Maryland brought in to smite the maniacs who dared to divide the Big Ten into this precise configuration of divisions by forcing Jim Delany to watch Northwestern play in the championship game?

There are some answers.  Northwestern's early-season struggles came from an offense juggling two quarterbacks as Clayton Thorson returned from his horrifying knee injury.  Then, star running back Jeremy Larkin retired, and the Wildcats' running game stalled until the emergence of freshman battering ram Isaiah Bowser.  Wisconsin played Northwestern with a quarterback making his debut.  Kirk Ferentz is being held hostage by a Speed-inspired madman who has threatened to destroy Kinnick Stadium if the Hawkeyes go above eight wins.  Northwestern refuses to blow anyone out because the program is in the grips of an overtime cult. 

Regardless of what the numbers say or what cavalcade of coincidences and clutch play has allowed Northwestern to make it this far, the fact is that they are the Big Ten West Champions.  They cannot be stopped from playing in the Conference Championship Game by anyone.  And should they do it one more time, they look at the numbers and the statistics and Pat Fitzgerald prints them out and rips them apart on the sidelines like the time he had the team destroy a stuffed animal monkey when they finally won a bowl game, they would be finally proving once and for all that beating Ohio State or Michigan and knocking the entire conference out of the playoff would be extremely funny.

SOFTENING THE CLAIMS TO THE HAT

With the big Hat Showdown coming once again, it is important to point out that the state of Illinois is in the midst of a full-blown Hat Crisis, a seething cauldron of intrigue, fraud, and skulduggery involving the prize Lincoln Hat in the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  According to this tremendous report from WBEZ, which I cannot to full justice to in this blog post, the a private collector sold the hat to the museum, claiming that Lincoln gave it to a farmer from Southern Illinois as a gesture of gratitude in 1858.  Even that information remains cloudy-- an affidavit from a descendant of the family suggested that William Waller received the hat in Washington D.C. sometime after 1861.  Those reports represent the sum total of evidence that the hat ever belonged to Lincoln and is not just some nineteenth-century hat that some people had lying around in the closet.
 
The Lincoln Hat of Dubious Prominence casts a hat-shaped 
shadow over Springfield

According to the WBEZ article, the Lincoln Presidential Library spent $25 million on Lincoln artifacts in 2007, and the hat was the centerpiece of the collection.  As the article says "in 2007, an appraiser valued the hat now in Springfield at $6.5 million and used adjectives like 'transcendent' to describe its apparent majesty."  In my imagination, this involved the entire board of the Library seeing the hat and determining they must have it during a bacchanalian Lincoln trivia contest and speech-reading competition and paying for it with cash in a priceless period-accurate briefcase that may have belonged to Stephen Douglas.  Now, with the Lincoln Library and Museum in some financial trouble, the authenticity of the hat is coming into question.

When historians looked into the hat in 2013, they were unable to find much evidence that the hat had ever belonged to Lincoln, although they found nothing to specifically disprove the claim.  This is when the foundation called in the FBI and presumably its top Historical Hat Authentication Team led by grim, black-suited agents, battle-hardened from the never-ending Pancho Villa Sombrero Debacle and at least one of whom has scars from a violent confrontation with someone claiming to own a fraudulent Betsy Ross Bonnet.  As WBEZ reports, "two tests were performed in 2015, comparing DNA samples from the hat itself with Lincoln’s blood-spattered handkerchief, gloves, and shirt from the night of his assassination, and two tufts of Lincoln’s hair, among other things."  But even these sophisticated tests could not prove that the hat belonged to Lincoln.  

Here are some sentences from the rest of the article:

"In an interview, Nick Kalm, the foundation’s vice chairman, said his organization is still satisfied that the hat is Lincoln’s and that nothing uncovered by the FBI testing or museum curators disproves that. He went on to note that with some historic relics, “leaps of faith” sometimes exist in determining their authenticity."

"Underscoring the secrecy, federal agents were encouraged by the museum’s former Lincoln curator, James Cornelius, to “disguise themselves as a news crew” when they entered the museum, [Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Executive Director Alan] Lowe told WBEZ, based on internal correspondence only recently discovered.
Lowe described the overall secrecy surrounding the FBI testing as a form of 'subterfuge.'"

"'I have been on the front lines defending the provenance of the hat, but I have been doing that not having all the available information. This is unacceptable. We simply cannot operate that way,' Lowe wrote to foundation CEO Carla Knorowski and foundation Chairman Ray McCaskey."

To sum up, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum may have been snookered into buying a fraudulent Lincoln Hat based on just some guy saying so 150 years ago, and at some point an FBI Hat Crew snuck into the museum in disguise in order to DNA test the hat based on Lincoln's bloody death pillow and absolutely nobody knows what to do with this dubious hat other than the obvious thing-- make it the trophy for the Illinois vs. Northwestern Rivalry Football Game and allow the winning coach to parade around in it.

HAT GAME

Meanwhile, there is a football game to get to.  Illinois, fresh off the worst defeat in school history, is in a traditional death spiral to end the season.  They have had another difficult year, one where the most notable thing that happened was Lovie Smith growing a spectacularly grizzled beard and then the school handing out some incredibly soggy bottom boys-ass fake beards.
 
The Beard Out is a tremendous gimmick, I sincerely hope 
none of the beard recipients tried to eat a hot dog

The game has essentially no stakes beyond the hat.  Illinois will not go to a bowl.  Northwestern has already clinched its spot in the Big Ten Championship game, and the only question remaining is whether Jim Delany would hire a mercenary militia to stop a 7-5 Northwestern team with a loss to Illinois from appearing in Indianapolis.  The Wildcats are heavily favored but will also be looking forward to next week's game.  

There is nothing on the line except for the Hat, the Greatest Rivalry in American Sports, a knock-down drag-out fight between these two august programs fighting for a trophy.  And whoever gets it can hire the FBI to figure out how to put it on their dang head already.  I am on the front lines defending the provenance of the Hat.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Championship/Rivalry

Let's just lead off with it: the Northwestern Wildcats have won the Big Ten West.  There are two games left; Northwestern could spend its road trip in Minnesota lounging on hammocks and its Hat Game against Illinois in a beach resort, zinc-nosed and sun-addled, and they can be 6-6, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them from showing up in Indianapolis to represent the entire Big Ten West.  Football analysts, burning out their BCS computers and going through cartons of green accounting visors have all stared at their Johnny Mnemonic virtual reality devices and come to the same conclusion: this is incredibly funny.
 
College Football analysts try to deal with their computer models that 
keep showing that Northwestern won the Big Ten West

This is not to take anything away from the Wildcats, who have had a simultaneously disastrous and heroic season.  It is to say that Northwestern has managed to win an entire division championship to the point where they get to wear special hats and get a trophy that I had no idea even existed until Saturday by what has been very close to the absolute minimum number points required.  Northwestern will be the first major conference team to win a division without defeating a single out of conference opponent-- this includes Akron, a profoundly shitty MAC team whose win over Northwestern was its first over a Big Ten opponent ever in a football history that stretches to the nineteenth century.

Northwestern won the West by racing to an enormous lead against Purdue then failing to score a point in the second half, by beating an at-the-time winless Nebraska team in the throes of its worst season in recorded history by scoring ten points in less than three minutes including a 99-yard touchdown drive to send the game to an overtime period won by a backup kicker playing in his first game, by somehow needing to come back against a Rutgers team so putrid that they had been trying to consolidate their turnovers with an agency so they just owed the entire Big Ten a few interceptions on weekly installments.
 
When you're coaching Rutgers

The Wildcats have confounded predictions, statistics, numbers, gamblers, logic, and reason.  They have won the Big Ten West through what appears to be the absolute minimum amount of success.  For three months, the Big Ten West has been told to get its act together and, with minimum competence, seize the division but no one has; Northwestern's stand is like the terrifying and insidious effects of climate change.

And so the Wildcats go into their next two games in the perfect position.  They cannot lose.  Yes, they should beat Minnesota, a team that is currently thrashing about every week while deciding whether or not to turn into a werewolf.  And yes, they should beat the flailing Illini, who remain under a tailspin under Lovie Smith who has just decided to cope by getting grizzled, even with the prized Hat at stake.  But consider this: what if they lose?  What if they get rowed by the Gophers or the Illini sneak by while Northwestern follows their patented just sort of hang out and see whatever happens is good with me gameplan and then they lose? 

They can't get taken out of Indianapolis at this point.  Jim Delany can't deploy a cardboard Yosemite Sam that says "you must win this number of games against the Illini to play in the Big Ten Championship."  And while the Big Ten would prefer to set up road blocks between Evanston and Indianapolis for this game than let a 6-6 Northwestern team play there, there is nothing stopping them.  Of course, it would be a giant bummer for Northwestern to lose the next two.  But it would also be extraordinarily funny, and the Wildcats have seized the mantle of America's Funniest Power Five Division Winner as an avatar of chaos that will easily carry them over whatever unlucky chump gets served to them in the Big Ten Championship that they are actually playing in (you can look it up) and then head to the Rose Bowl to attempt to win their first out of conference game.

RIVALRY

It has the sorry lot of Iowa fans to wake up in the middle of the night over the last decade and realize they have a rivalry with Northwestern.  They would, like most Big Ten fans, like to have a rivalry with a traditional Big Ten Power like Ohio State or Michigan or even Wisconsin, the type of rivalry where you have a Farm Implement Trophy and songs about how you hate each other and the Big Ten Power actually does despise them back but instead they are forced to deal with Northwestern every year.  The Iowa-Northwestern rivalry is not a traditional football rivalry where fans taunt each other and letter jacket guys kidnap the mascot and perform sporting japes worthy of stories that will last for generations at the Grim Waterfowl Club; their rivalry is more like the one between homeowners and termites.

Northwestern has now beaten Iowa three years in a row.  Each victory has been a disgusting affront to football.  Last year, in the midst of a howling southern gale at Ryan Field, both teams refused to score until Northwestern lured them into overtime.  This year, they battled to a putrid 3-0 half and basically refused to play offense until Bennett Skowronek made one of the greatest catches I've ever seen from a Northwestern player almost at random and then Iowa decided to close the game by bashing themselves in the head with large, comical props.  My sources on Iowa message boards inform me that Northwestern got away with numerous Uncalled Holding Penalties.

This is what life is like now, for the Hawkeyes.  Their fans do not want to give in and debase themselves to admit they have a rivalry with Northwestern; every year, Northwestern comes in and the teams blow raspberries at each other until the Wildcats ruin their season. 

In 2000, the Wildcats took on an abysmal Iowa team with an outright Big Ten Championship and trip to the Rose Bowl on the line and they lost one of the most devastating games in Northwestern history.  It was bitterly cold, and on the way out of the stadium, Iowa fans gleefully taunted anyone in purple to enjoy San Antonio, taking it as a given that the Citrus Bowl would pass up Northwestern for the more lucrative Michigan fanbase even though Northwestern had beaten the Wolverines head to head in one of the greatest games ever played.  Those vengeful Hawkstrodamuses were proven right.  This time, though, Northwestern's win, combined with just an absolute Rube Goldberg Machine of Big Ten shittiness propelled them to a Division Championship to celebrate upon Kinnick Stadium in front of disgusted Iowa fans who had, along with every other Western team, squandered an opportunity to win this wretched division.

Last week, Northwestern took on Notre Dame in another sort of quasi-rivalry game.  There is no way that Notre Dame considers Northwestern a rival: all of Notre Dame's rivalry is with the past itself, a sepia-toned succession of leather helmet mustache guys gouging the eyes of Army or valiantly battling the Spanish Flu; Notre Dame's current rivalries seem to mostly be with the entire sport of college football as everyone else has grown sick of the men's hats of the Associated Press constantly vaulting them into title games based on a stale, ghostly aura only to see them humiliated by a never-ending succession of JaMarcuses Russell.  This is how Notre Dame exists now, its pugilist cartoon mascot now squaring off at every fanbase in the world waiting for them to lose.  It is fitting that Notre Dame will play today in Yankee Stadium as their football program is the closest thing to every Boomer anecdote about Mickey Mantle made flesh.  A middling Big Ten program that resurfaces every dozen years when Notre Dame deigns to play them until they lose and mysteriously vanish off the Irish schedule cannot compete with History.
 
A 1991 image of "Mickey Mantle," a fictional 
baseball player invented in the late 1980s by 
Bob Costas and Ken Burns has created a cottage
 industry of fake Boomer Baseball Anecdotes and 
must be exposed by courageous people not afraid 
to put the truth on Blogspot.com

College football rivalry fits within the sport's completely discursive tradition in that the biggest marker of a rivalry are fans talking about whether or not a fanbase is or is not their rival.  Conferences and schools try to cement these with annual games on the schedule, "rivalry week" showdowns, and trophies, but the concept of rivalry belongs entirely to the fans.  The greatest moment in the history of college football rivalry was Bob Diacco's laudably insane quest to build a trophy from scratch and instigate a Big Game with UCF and UCF's hostile indifference to the Civil ConFLiCt.  No one has seen the trophy since it was abandoned somewhere on a sideline, ignored by UCF who would not even deign to parade it around.  In an ideal world, the complete rejection of this Rivalry Overture would eventually twist its way into a real rivalry, with UCONN coaches bringing larger and more elaborate rivalry trophies to the stadium every year while UCF makes more pointed shows of ignoring it until the Huskies roll up with a semi full of life-sized Dog-Knights while UCF has hired a crew of backhoes to immediately bury them.  The other great rivalry moment of the twenty-first century is this:

 
The accepted, Branded Rivalries are the most boring in college sports.  Instead, it's the ones at the margins, the ones that are constant sources of bickering about whether the teams are actually rivals, whether one team cares as much as the other about a rivalry, ones where there very nature of the concept of rivalry is contested in a way that would make an absolutely unreadable and dreadful paper called like "'Little Brother' or 'Big' Time Rival: College Football 'Rivalry' and the Discourses of Disparagement in American Society 1978-2012" in PAAAWWWWLLL Quarterly.   

The sole exception remains America's greatest rivalry game, the Battle for The Hat and I'm concerned because Lovie would look tremendous sporting that thing with his silver beard. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Overtime

Yes, there may be a person, huddled in a shack somewhere or in one of those vans that are full of computers where people karate chop keyboards and scream that they’re being hacked by an animated ASCII skull, who has analyzed the film and advanced data that can tell you credibly what the hell is going on with Northwestern football this season, but you can stop right there because I can tell you that it is because the entire program has been subsumed into an overtime cult.


Last year, the Northwestern Wildcats were exposed to three consecutive overtimes; they emerged victorious but forever changed from a mid-tier Big Ten West team to an organization based entirely on the concept of overtime, the suspension of normal time into an infinite dimension where time itself falls away into a worthless abstraction, where football can continue indefinitely to a period of never-ending Perfect Overtime stretching into infinity and also (it goes without saying) everyone gets a really cool cape.

Once you understand the idea of Northwestern as a twisted overtime cult, their season makes far more sense: once the Wildcats, clearly an unstoppable force in Big Ten football, have staked out numerous imposing leads over teams in the first half, Pat Fitzgerald gathers the team in the locker room, puts on the Overtime Crown (a gigantic, bejeweled flat top that fits on top his normal flat top), assembles the Overtime Implements, and implores the team to let their opponent take them into overtime in the way that a river carries silt through its tributaries into the ocean.  Yet, even a team like the Northwestern Wildcats cannot always achieve overtime without the co-operaion of the other squad, and Northwestern has been forced to hang on to win against Purdue, to blow the lead to Michigan, to lose to Akron through a series of ludicrous misfortunes that can only be explained as the machinations of a football cult, or to do whatever it is occurred at the end of the Rutgers game that led to an impossible, blasphemous five point lead.

Only once this year, did the Wildcats manage to successfully go to overtime on a ludicrous 99 yard drive.  There, with the sideline and the crowd chanting in a hideous dead language, their fists curled into claws, and with Pat Fizgerald foaming at the mouth from a psilocybin protein powder, the Wildcats achieved their aim, a single overtime period.
Northwestern performs the Ritual of the Pump├ęd Fist upon achieving Over Time

Ask anyone about installing a secret overtime cult at a major college football program and they will tell you that it is harder than it looks.  For one, overtime did not exist in college football before 1996.  All noted overtime cults beforehand had been conspiracies to bring about the existence of overtime itself: the Society of the Skinned Hog, the Hearty Touchdown Lads known for sporting cravats (to display their disdain for ties), and the Grackle's Call Syndicate whose writings were easily dismissed as forgeries written decades later by the famed hoax specialist A. Quintet Pumnt (undone, in the end, by attempting to fake a trove of heretofore undiscovered James Joyce love letters, the infamous "I am also into pee" series).

Many people underestimate the logistics involved in developing an overtime cult.  The selection of Implements alone can sometimes take years.  Because of the layers of secrecy involved in the Northwestern football program (it is a private school shielded from FOIA requests; Fitzgerald uses a series of arcane codes to disguise his injury reports) this blog is unable to give a full report.  Several credible accounts point to a juddering countdown clock, a live falcon named Lance Moses, a music box that only plays unearthly cackling noises, and thousands of jodhpurs whose use has never been explained.  Furthermore, Northwestern's new quarter-billion dollar practice facilities contain at least two ziggurats to be used for blaring horrid music from a compact disc entitled "royalty free music for cults and public access breathing programs."

This week Notre Dame will visit Ryan Field with their playoff ranking and their legions of Chicago-area fans and their medium-rare coach, and they think they will be playing a football game.  Notre Dame makes its first visit to Evanston since 1976.  They play after Northwestern unexpectedly beat them on the way to the Rose Bowl and then they stopped playing for nineteen years, exactly long enough for Northwestern to return to South Bend and beat them as part of an elaborate prank.  

These teams do not play nearly enough for this game to have meaning, but it does.  They mirror each other.  Notre Dame has a large nationwide fanbase that is the closest thing that Chicago has to a college football team; Northwestern has billboards.  Notre Dame celebrated national titles in the twentieth century while Northwestern fans ripped down the goalposts after breaking a record for futility.  This meeting will the be the fifth time these teams play in 25 years but for some reason the rivalry has a wikipedia page

But Northwestern no longer cares about victory.  They are here to drag the Fighting Irish to overtime, to extend the game beyond the boundaries of time and space, to dwell in Evanston in overtime as the universe is destroyed and reborn over ageless eons.  The last time Northwestern played them, Brian Kelly's brain became warped and twisted by the promise of overtime, and he kept trying to go for two unsuccessfully until he found himself in overtime and at the mercy of the Wildcats and their Baseball Kicker. 

We already live in an insane world ravaged by the ripple effect of overtimes.  The Northwestern Wildcats currently sit in first place in the Big Ten West-- this game against Notre Dame has far less import for them than the three remaining games against Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois after another stirring Northwestern win against Wisconsin at Ryan Field, a reliable abattoir for Wisconsin title hopes.  The Wildcats can literally win the Big Ten West.  They can arrive, with their buses and their trucks and their secret unmarked vans carrying Mick McCall's overtime cowl and conjuring lanterns, in Indianapolis where they can unleash upon the dome an overtime heretofore unseen by college football spanning days, months, and eons, the whole time yelling and fistpumping and trying to figure out which configuration of emojis translates to "Beauty and the Beast" or "There Will Be Blood."  All Notre Dame is trying to do make the college football playoff.