Saturday, November 24, 2018


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.


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.


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.

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