TELANDER: Frenzy surrounding Northwestern is well-earned and well-deserved

BY RICK TELANDER | @ricktelander

September 10, 2013 10:47PM

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Updated: September 10, 2013 11:19PM

You can feel it in the parking lots around Ryan Field (Dyche Stadium forever to us old-timers) before Northwestern games these days.

Actual tailgating!


Little kids chasing purple footballs crashing into card tables adorned with hot dogs, bouquets and beverages.

Like it was learned from a manual dispensed by Alabama, Oregon, LSU, Ohio State and almost every other Big Ten team.

It’s in the air in Evanston, and it’s not ragweed pollen or SAT confetti.

It’s old-fashioned college football madness, something not truly felt on the Evanston campus over a sustained period since the early-1960s/Ara Parseghian regime. And maybe not even then.

College football in America just keeps ratcheting itself higher and higher on the entertainment, revenue-production scale until it has come to resemble something as formidable as the mighty NFL itself.

But Northwestern has generally been left outside the surge.

Not now. The Wildcats are coming off a season in which they went 10-3, won the Gator Bowl, and have both of their stellar alternating quarterbacks — one a runner, one a thrower —back, intact and improved.

The Cats are currently 2-0, having beaten Cal and Syracuse by scores of 44-30 and 48-27. To be averaging 46 points, even if it’s before the conference schedule, is a thing of beauty for the smallest and only private school in the Big Ten (soon to have 14 teams and probably no name change).

But it’s not just the offense, powered by thick-necked linemen Jack Konopka, Brandon Vitabile and Paul Jorgensen and those rotating quarterbacks, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Nor is it the trembling excitement Cats fans feel whenever the ball is directed toward little speedball Venric Mark.

It’s the combined effect of the larger picture — having to sustain actual college course attendance and passing grades while playing D-I ball (most of the time); the real-world value of a full ride to NU (worth up to $300,000 for a redshirt-to-grad-student player); the knowledge for high school studs that Northwestern is for real and that young fireball coach Pat Fitzgerald is the man — that translates into frenzy.

People don’t say the word Northwestern in athletic embarrassment anymore. Fresh Chris Collins in men’s hoops, women’s lacrosse championships everywhere... No, it’s not clear what is northwestern about Northwestern, but then who is the Stanford in Stanford? The school’s name rises with the success of the color purple, a hue that is unusual but only red and blue combined.

The football schedule leads to an early showdown of potentially crazy proportions — Game 5 on Oct. 5 at Ryan/Dyche against the Evil Empire known as Ohio State. By that time the Cats should be undefeated, having dispensed with Western Michigan this Saturday and Maine on Sept. 21, and Ohio State should be 5-0, if it can get past Wisconsin Sept. 28.

Here’s the slick part: Northwestern has a bye after Maine and will have two weeks to heal and game plan for the Buckeyes. If the Cats have any educational edge over any public school, it should come in endless breakdown of Ohio State film and eggheaded analysis of what makes the fourth-ranked Buckeyes tick.

Northwestern is a happy story. That may be a huge part of the excitement level as well. While tales of player crimes and coaching larceny fill student newspapers on a weekly basis, NU avoids the blotter news, the coach-as-thief immorality that makes a place like, say, Oklahoma State, seem like a reform school gone wild.

This is not to say Fitzgerald and athletics vice president Jim Phillips are saints, only that an outlaw program, this is not. There were many Cal fans, for instance, including new coach Sonny Dykes, who were disgusted with the array of ‘‘injured’’ Northwestern defensive players who sat down afield and slowed the Bears’ fast-twitch attack.

Dubious? Yes. Illegal? No.

You have Vanderbilt — another private, high-standard school — dismissing four players and suspending a fifth for an alleged rape, and you know such an incident would kill the momentum that Fitzgerald has built.

He is, as Phillips has called him, the ‘‘rock star’’ of college coaching. That’s a precious title in a realm where high school kids tweet and text their every musical — and athletic — thought.

Northwestern as contender for the Big Ten title, maybe even a BCS game? The images are sweet, thrilling. If done the right way.

And those thoughts have people jazzed around Ryan/Dyche.

Imagine, there were over 38,000 fans at the Syracuse game. That’s nothing like Michigan’s bazillion at the Big House for its Notre Dame matchup, but it’s huge for a ‘‘meaningless’’ game for the Purple.

Maybe Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has a CBS ‘‘Johnny Cam’’ following him nonstop, but Northwestern, at least, is Chicago’s Big Ten team.

That’s something.

And Fitz is It.

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