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updated: 9/4/2013 11:28 AM

Still hard to believe how far Northwestern has come

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  • Northwestern's Tony Jones, left, is congratulated after scoring against California in Saturday's season-opening victory for the Wildcats. NU is favored to win again this week at home against Syracuse.

    Northwestern's Tony Jones, left, is congratulated after scoring against California in Saturday's season-opening victory for the Wildcats. NU is favored to win again this week at home against Syracuse.
    Associated Press


Decades of visions are difficult to flush from the mind.

Consequently, Northwestern fans, I must apologize for still being stunned every time the Wildcats win a football game.

Consider that Syracuse's current team is ordinary at best, but 20 years ago similar Orange players would have been 3-touchdown favorites over Northwestern.

Thirty years ago bookies wouldn't even have taken bets on the mismatch.

Yet the latest line for Saturday's game in Ryan Field has the Wildcats favored by 2 TDs.

What is happening in Evanston is even more remarkable than the Blackhawks becoming relevant in Chicago again. This is Northwestern, for gosh sakes.

When the Wildcats won the Gator Bowl last New Year's Day the reaction from football fans that weren't paying attention the past decade was, "The Wildcats won a bowl game?"

Yes, Northwestern won a bowl game!

What's next, NU qualifying for the NCAA basketball tournament? The Cubs winning a World Series? The White Sox drawing three million fans?

Perhaps, perhaps and perhaps.

Northwestern hadn't won a bowl game since 1949. Then Harry Truman told the 'Cats to get out of the postseason kitchen because it was too hot, and the rest is history.

All these years later college football and NU football have changed so dramatically that NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald is comfortable establishing goals like winning the Big Ten, big-time bowl games and, yes, even a national title some day if the SEC ever drops the sport.

"At the end of the day," Fitzgerald said in July, "the expectation is to win championships."

Those words inspired flashbacks through decades of Northwestern football futility. Among them were a gambling scandal, a player's family filing a wrongful-death suit against the university and the sudden passing of head coach Randy Walker.

Not even a 34-game losing streak can compare with events like that, but those seasons did feel dreadful as the Wildcats slumped through them.

Those were the days in the 1970s and '80s when Michigan and Ohio State would plunge the ball up the middle on every play on the way to lopsided victories over Northwestern.

One week Wildcats coach Rick Venturi was asked whether Michigan State, with its fancy passing game, might score 100 points against the Wildcats.

Not only wasn't Northwestern boasting to be "Chicago's Big Ten Team," many believed the 'Cats didn't belong in the Big Ten … until the day that was even more remarkable than NU finally winning a bowl game.

Northwestern beat Notre Dame in the 1995 season opener. At Champaign for an Illinois game, journalists gathered in the back of the press box to watch a TV in awe as the Wildcats finished off the Irish.

It was like watching the moon landing without any prior warning.

That season the 'Cats finally returned to the Rose Bowl, only to lose to Southern California. The next season they went to the Citrus Bowl, but when Tennessee fans chanted "S-E-C" the only response NU fans could muster was "S-A-T."

But in merely qualifying for postseason games, Northwestern football had come a long way from the days when student workers would sit in the back of the press box reading textbooks instead of following the game.

Now people nationwide notice Northwestern football enough that the 'Cats are ranked No. 19 in the country. NU is 1-0 after beating Cal last week and favored to beat Syracuse this week.

Please, Wildcats fans, excuse me for still being stunned by all this.

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