Football season is very much on the horizon with only 26 days till kickoff and basketball season is actually less than 100 days away. What potentially makes these upcoming seasons very special is both NU football and Men’s and Women’s Basketball have the potential to have big years. One fact which has been somewhat under publicized is that last year both NU’s football and Men’s Basketball team made the postseason in the same year for the first time. Though this fact might make some think of NU’s poor athletic history, I see this as a signal that NU’s major sports are moving forward. I bring this up because several articles about NU sports have been published recently. Skip Myslenski wrote an article for NUsports.com about the changing perception of NU football and an article (linked below) appeared on rivals.com about NU basketball. Obviously, NU’s football program probably has gone a longer way towards changing the perception of Northwestern sports. Certainly there is work yet to be done, and I think certain fans will never change their beliefs. Still, Northwestern’s 24-24 football record since 2003 is solidly in the middle of the Big Ten. Basketball wise, though, NU hasn’t been as successful, but NU did make strong progress from 2002-06 and last year. What Northwestern hasn’t done in hoops, though, is consistently make the postseason. Although I’m as disappointed as anyone at NU’s consistent Bowl losses, NU has made bowl games in 2003, 2005, and 2008. The ‘Cats also should have made bowls in 2004 and 2007. Those might not be Florida numbers, but they aren’t half bad compared to where NU has been in past and where half the Big Ten has been since 2003. If NU makes a bowl this year and wins I think it’ll really change on fans see Northwestern football.
The question, though, is what needs to happen for the perception of NU basketball to change. The easy answer is to make the NCAA Tournament, and that would help, but I think even more needs to happen. Many football fans still think NU had “one good year” that’s why the Wildcats need a bowl win. Therefore, I don’t think just making the NCAA Tournament once would be enough to change how people see NU hoops. A run to the NCAAs would be a great moment for NU sports. Depending how it happens, it might even be bigger than the Rose Bowl, but it wouldn’t swing people’s view of NU basketball as dramatically as we might hope.
The first thing that needs to happen for people to change how they see NU hoops is for the team to consistently make a tournament. It doesn’t have to always be the NCAAs, but finishing consistently above .500 and beating teams in the Big Ten will force other fans to take notice as the Wildcats beat their teams. NU having winning records over more than half of the Big Ten since 1995 is part of what has slowly changed football’s perception.
Another key fact that will help make the perception of NU basketball change is for NU to produce notable star players. I think guys like Fitz, Zak Kustok, Damian Anderson, and Jason Wright really helped non-NU fans take notice of NU football. When a guy wins big awards or puts up historic numbers fans can’t help but want to watch him play. When they see that guy is surrounded by some pretty talented teammates, they gain even more respect for the program that player is part of. I think NU basketball is moving in this direction with Kevin Coble. I also think there is great potential for even more of that with a potentially amazing recruiting class coming to NU in 2011.
A third key way for the perception of NU basketball to change is for NU hoops to be on ESPN or CBS more than once or twice a season. I love the Big Ten Network, but getting on ESPN and ABC was one of the biggest moments of change for NU football. The 1995 Penn State game wasn’t just critical because NU beat Penn State, it was critical because Keith Jackson and ABC sports showed up to broadcast it. ESPN/ABC is still the network which true sports fans watch and has the experts which the most fans respect. If you’re on ESPN and ESPN’s talking heads talk about you, you get the respect of most fans. I am optimistic that after last year’s season NU will appear on ESPN and CBS more this year.
There are probably fifty more things which I could list here, but I want to conclude with one more which I see as critical. That is for Northwestern itself to promote the team. Though many fans started to give NU football the respect it deserved under Gary Barnett and Randy Walker, it seems even more opposing fans are starting to admire NU thanks to Pat Fitzgerald’s ubiquitous presence in the media. I know some people will say media appearances aren’t Bill Carmody’s thing, but I disagree. Carmody actually is a pretty good interview. He’s funny, personable, and more honest than any other coach. He is also, despite what some say, a very good coach who is well respected by the basketball community. Given the chance Carmody could win over just as many fans as Fitz, but I don’t see him making as nearly as many appearances on radio and TV. If he doesn’t want to do so, well, then that’s tough. Somebody has to make him. Not only will it help promote the program, but it might also eliminate another of NU’s negative perceptions—empty seats.