What do you do for an encore? At Northwestern U., the good times are over

September 08, 1996|By Myron Beckenstein

IT WAS A wonderful story, a glorious story, an unbelievable story, and now Northwestern University is going to have to spend years paying for it.

Last year, the school that didn't belong in major-league college football suddenly was showing everybody, knocking off this football power one week, that football power the next. (Northwestern 19, Michigan 13; Northwestern 21, Penn State 10; Northwestern 17, Notre Dame 15).

Every game it was supposed to lose, it won. The one blemish on its record was a loss in a game it was supposed to win (victim of a combination of weird occurrences, if you want excuses).

And suddenly Northwestern was in the Rose Bowl - not Penn State, not Michigan, not Ohio State, but tiny, little, too smart for its own athletic good Northwestern.

Anticlimactically, it lost the Rose Bowl game, but the damage already had been done.

As this college football season starts, most professional football commentators are doing the same thing to Northwestern that they did before every game, before every quarter last year, saying the past is not a prologue but a fluke, that reality will triumph, that the gods have had their fun, that Northwestern will resume its losing ways.

This year they are saying Northwestern will be better than it was two years ago, but certainly not as successful as it was last year.

They may be right or they may be wrong, but in a larger sense it doesn't matter. Northwestern has been deeply damaged, a victim of its success. In getting better, things can only get worse.

Up until last year, Northwestern had a reputation as a challenging school, in a fine location, with a smorgasbord campus and some talented professors. It also had an athletic program that was supported but not indulged.

Victories were appreciated because they were relatively rare. Losses were dealt with calmly, certainly not enjoyed but understood, accepted as part of life and let's keep things in perspective and not lose track of how football fits into the big picture.

This is where the problem comes in.

Things have been turned on their head. Now, victories won't be appreciated, but demanded. Now losses won't be accepted, but anguished over.

A mere winning season, which only a year ago would have seemed too much to hope for, now would be seen as a disaster. A 7-4 or 8-3 season wouldn't be much better. Losses are no longer acceptable.

And because loss is as much a part of life as victory (check the statistics: There is as much of one as the other), the campus will become gloomier, the feelings of satisfaction rarer, less joie in the de vivre.

Consider: When Northwestern was 3-7, there were three episodes of pure joy and a couple of modified joy when the team almost won or came away with a moral victory (a great and not fully appreciated psychological concept).

But now, if the team goes 7-3, there are three moments of pure heartbreak and seven moments of relieved tension. The thrill of victory has turned into the agony of possible defeat, just because the school is doing better.

Northwestern's new status may have spinoff consequences, too.

Applications for admission increased 20.8 percent last year. A coincidence? Who knows? Better students? Who knows?

Tomorrow evening at 7:30, Northwestern is having an information session at the Sheraton Inner Harbor for prospective students and their parents.

It will be interesting to see if the attendance is larger this year than last year and if more sports-related questions are asked.

It will be interesting to try to figure out if the prospective students are attracted to Northwestern by its academic reputation or by a chance to be associated in the public perception with a fashionable product (the moral equivalent of wearing clothes with the maker's name prominently displayed).

We don't have to worry about Northwestern being corrupted by success; it just will be demoralized.

Myron Beckenstein, a Northwestern alumnus, works on the foreign desk of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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