Friday, November 26, 2021

Sad Cat Hat Chat

The last Illinois coach to win the fabled Hat trophy was literally Tim Beckman, the state's most prominent doofus-coach.  Beckman did a heroic service to this particular blog as the first person I am aware of who went all-in unironically on the woeful rivalry between these two programs by printing what many prominent archaeologists recognize as the only anti-Northwestern rivalry merchandise ever produced, referred to Northwestern as "that school upstate" presumably because he was not quite able to wrap his head around Northwestern's northern and slightly eastern distance from Champaign, and, as we later learned from documents related to the lawsuit that led to his dismissal, made his injured players wear purple in order to show that they are weak.  

Former Illinois coach Tim Beckman dramatically demands The Hat

Beckman won in 2014 in the greatest game ever played between Northwestern and Illinois, a game between two five-win teams for a spot in the Heart of Dallas Bowl held in the dilapidated husk of the old Cotton Bowl.  Illinois fired Beckman a week before the season began the next season.  They've lost every Hat Game since.  Northwestern beat interim coach Bill Cubit in an extremely depressing game played at Soldier Field, and Lovie Smith went winless against the 'Cats in five tries.  For six years, the Hat has not graced the head of a single Illini.  The longest streak of wins in this series is seven, both done by Illinois; they beat Northwestern from 1979-1985 and in all contests between 1913-1927 that paused for the First World War with no games from 1916-1921 and for a reason that I have unable been able to discover between 1924 and 1926.  A Northwestern win here would also even the all-time record as Illinois currently leads 55-54-5.  These stakes are silly and sort of meaningless but they are important that, given Northwestern's dire reputation due to a few decades of being extremely bad, they would at least be as bad if not slightly less bad than perhaps the Big Ten's historically second-worst team.

But Evanston's emergency Potential Hat Loss sirens are flashing because Northwestern was once again throttled, this time at the hands of Purdue in a showdown at Wrigley Field that football experts have described as "extraordinarily silly."  The 'Cats held their own in the first half and looked like they could keep it close until Purdue discovered the One Simple Trick to defeating Northwestern by throwing a sideline route to Milton Wright (defensive coordinators hate it!) and the game turned into another boring rout.

The star of the game was not Wright or Aiden O'Connell or any Purdue player, but it was Wrigley Field, which was put into Football Mode by hastily constructing a slip 'n slide over the infield dirt.  Players lost their footing on almost every play in the Chaos Grass. On two occasions, the Purdue kicker lined up for a kickoff and completely ate shit; the sight of a Purdue player flying in the air like he has slipped on a cartoon banana peel was a very Purdue sight at the game, and the fact that his accidental onside kick bounced off a Wildcat and let the Boilermakers recover the ball can only be described as "brutally Northwestern."


Northwestern is scheduled to play at least two more games at this wretched baseball diamond so hopefully they will either figure out how to install a surface that can be used for something other than the escape scene from a silent movie about bumbling art thieves or they just lean into it and just leave the infield dirt and pitchers' mound and bases on the field and let the players try to avoid them as the announcers say things like "well the bags are loaded" as players writhe around and grab their ankles near first, second, and third base.

In 2010, the Wrigley game was a college football event.  This was the only time I could possibly imagine ESPN's College Gameday, then at its peak as the official capital of college football, visiting a game between Illinois and Northwestern.  The game itself was a one-endzone debacle, featuring a miserable Northwestern team without an injured Dan Persa that gave up 300 yards rushing to Illinois's Mikel LeShoure.  By 20201, games at baseball stadiums have proliferated across college football.  This time the game was not nationally televised but featured on Big Ten Network Regional Action.  While the broadcast was unbearably hamfisted with baseball references, I did enjoy some of the shtick such as putting up the out of town Big Ten scores and playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame between the third and fourth quarter.  I doubt the game drew any additional curious onlookers. and those who did were treated to yet another desultory Northwestern loss on a sloppy field.  

There is only one game left for Northwestern to play before the season mercifully ends, and I can hardly bear the thought of it.


The 2019 Hat Game, where a woeful two-win Northwestern team marched to what seemed to be certain doom against a frisky Illinois team that had upset Wisconsin earlier in that season, stands as one of the funniest and most satisfying Northwestern wins I have ever seen. The Hat was practically there on Lovie Smith's head, and Northwestern took it away by completely abandoning the passing game and just letting quarterback Andrew Marty run them over again and again in a truly disgusting, muddy, rain-filled slop in front of 29 people.  

To this day, I am not sure what happened with Lovie Smith.  Smith is the best Bears coach of my lifetime, and I am not sure how you go from getting a team with Rex Grossman as the quarterback to the Super Bowl to getting outfoxed by Mick McCall.  My theory is that Smith was not deranged enough for college football, where the coaching duties include becoming a complete maniac and abandoning oneself to madness.  Even as Smith tried to lean into lunacy by growing a legitimately insane-looking beard and losing to Northwestern five years in a row, he could not quite do it, especially in a rivalry game that I believe can be won only by the biggest Football Oaf on the field.

I believe that Smith would have been able to succeed if he didn't stop at the beard but added an additional Grizzled Accessory to his repertoire each season such as an eyepatch or a snake. 

Illinois has countered with college football's preeminent oaf, Bret Bielema.  Bielema, who traded a successful stint in Madison into a maddening run with Arkanas in the SEC and some NFL time with the Patriots and Giants, has returned to the Big Ten.  Bielema is not as splashy of a hire as Lovie Smith was, but he's an identifiable commodity, knows the Midwest and Big Ten, and is probably the exact type of coach who can get the Illini back to some bowl games once he recruits enough rectangular guys to run his preferred type of football.  

We're coming to you live from Bret Bielema's Car

But I am not interested in Bielema as a football coach.  I need to know that Illinois football is back in the hands of a Football Character that at least makes these games funny and interesting to write about.  He at least looks the part, somehow resembling a drawing of John Madden done by Gary Larson, and the internet is dying to show you pictures of his bare torso.  The SEC network found him to be so fascinating that they gave him a reality show in 2016 entitled "Being Bret Bielema," which consists mainly of people telling you how interesting Bielema is while watching him mumble quips into the camera and it is a grim reminder that Bielema's roguishly jolly uncle who is really into his Trans-Am affect is what counts as being a character in college football's grim ecosystem of joyless hardasses, scolds, and people who are shown on television every week screaming in a way that would be the most embarrassing public meltdown anyone reading this has ever had.  

There is no way a college football coach could ever come across as interesting in that sort of controlled media environment because the profession exclusively recruits personalities incapable of self-reflection or doubt.  Football coaches are almost always funniest when in the throes of their madness than in any canned press conference or documentary series.  Pat Fitzgerald is way funnier when he is seriously fuming about why he was upset about the disrespect shown to his program because Joey Galloway called his team a bunch of "Rece Davises" than Bret Bielema boomhauerishly muttering a tight five about why they don't serve egg nog all year into an SEC network camera because Fitzgerald has left his corporeal being and is vibrating at a pitch of indignation impossible for a normal non-football-brained human to comprehend.  I can think of nothing a football coach could do that would be funnier than asking Bob Diaco to patiently explain to the trophy store guy the exact specifications of the Civil conFLiCT trophy. 

 The Civil conFLiCT trophy reappeared this year when UCF appeared to have it on the sidelines of their game this season, the plot has thickened where UCF appears to have commissioned an imposter "ringer" trophy specifically to mock UCONN as the original trophy appears to remain missing. Every single thing about exemplifies the very best of college football.

While Bret Bielema is a Television-Certified Football Character, he is unfortunately lacking in the most important department, an insane obsession with antagonizing the Northwestern football team.  Bielema and Fitzgerald are good friends, and Bielema seems more concerned about returning to the sidelines after missing Illinois's last game with Covid and seeing off his seniors than about winning the Hat.  Beckman's anti-Northwestern signs remain gathering dust in some forgotten supply closet.  

Illinois has had an up and down year, with four wins including upsets over Penn State and Minnesota as well as a loss to Rutgers.  A fifth win would put Illinois on the Bowl Standby List and cap a successful season as they return to respectability.  A Northwestern win would tie all of the records mentioned above and bring this lousy season to end on a good note, with Northwestern players jubilantly clutching the Hat and showing that when it comes to rivalry games you can Throw Out The Records.  

A road loss to a better Illinois team is not in and of itself disastrous in this slog of a season.  I don't know if this game will ever regain the heights it did in the heyday of the Beck Man, when his frenzied desire to possess the Hat gave every single game an irresistible subplot that culminated in him finally holding the Hat aloft triumphantly in Ryan Field cackling with a mad glee blissfully unaware that he was about to be catapulted out of college athletics for the foreseeable future.  Bielema, frankly, and to my eternal disappointment, does not really seem that into The Hat.  Perhaps the only way to get some more juice into this rivalry short of one of the programs hiring a person who is at least willing to act like a buffoonish Football Maniac for my amusement would be if these two teams were sort of good at the same time.  That appears to be less likely.

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