Last week, Michigan men’s basketball team traveled to take on Northwestern. For years, that trip amounted to a fun field trip for the Wolverines, a chance to pad their stats before taking on the Big Ten’s big boys.
Not this year. The Wolverines and the Wildcats both entered the game in the top half of the league, and on the verge of an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
That was business as usual for the Wolverines, who have won 14 Big Ten titles, and gone to the NCAA tournament 26 times. But they were not taking anything for granted. Just a few weeks earlier, when they’d gotten off to a terrible start in Big Ten play, most pundits had given up the Wolverines for dead.
But they battled back, creating a wicked offense while actually playing some defense. They had come back from the dead.
If Michigan felt motivated, it was nothing compared to the incentive Northwestern felt. The Wildcats have won exactly two Big Ten titles, the last one in 1933 – FDR’s first year in office. The only time Northwestern had anything to do with the NCAA tournament, it was hosting it -- back in 1939, the first NCAA tournament. And the Wildcats still couldn’t wangle an invitation to play on their own court.
Since then, more than 300 teams have played in the NCAA tournament, including Southern Utah, Southeast Missouri State, and St. Francis of Pennsylvania.
Only five schools have missed the tournament every single year: Army, the Citadel, William & Mary, and St. Francis Brooklyn – not to be confused with St. Francis of Pennsylvania, of course. Oh, and the Northwestern Wildcats.
At least the Wildcats came by their incompetence honestly: from the top. Back in the eighties, their president, Robert Strotz, said, “I think having [bad teams] can help academic standards.” Apparently, he believed losing squads meant that you must be serious about school. I mean, why else would your teams stink so much? Perfect logic.
Apathy was in their DNA. When the Wildcats were losing again, their fans had a favorite cheer: “That’s all right, that’s okay! You’re going to work for us someday!”
How to fix it? Their new coach, Chris Collins – who played for Duke, and whose dad Doug coached the Detroit Pistons – knew they couldn’t do it the way other programs did. So they figured out the Wildcat Way: find players with a few qualities other programs don’t care that much about.
First, they need to recruit serious students, or they’ll never get into Northwestern. Then they want captains of winning high school teams, because they know how to lead. And finally, they like stubborn SOBs who are eager to prove all the schools that didn’t recruit them were wrong.
And that’s what’s great about college sports: unlike the pros, they’re all different, so every college team needs to figure out how to do it their own way. The Wildcat Way might not work for other schools, but it works for the Wildcats.
The team Collins put out on the court against Michigan probably didn’t have a single player the Wolverines wanted. But there they were, playing in front of a packed house, tied with Michigan with 1.7 seconds left.
That’s when Northwestern’s Nathan Taphorn threw the ball the length of the court – a perfect bomb. Derek Pardon caught it, turned around, and slipped it into the basket for the score, the game, and a likely NCAA bid – Northwestern’s first. Seconds later, Pardon got mobbed by the students rushing the court – another rarity in Evanston.
But here’s the best part: Michigan’s fans couldn’t even get upset about getting upset. They have too much respect for Northwestern, so they couldn't help but be happy for the Wildcats.
If you don’t like Northwestern, you don’t like college sports.