I toured Northwestern on Oct. 23, 2009. I was a high school junior, and it was my first college visit. I was terrified.
My tour guide, Kevin, calmed me down. He told us a little about himself. He was a senior journalism student. He was on the sports staff of the campus radio station and had interned at Sports Illustrated for class credit. He wanted to be a sportswriter.
He was like me.
Today, that tour guide, Kevin Fishbain, is a Chicago Bears beat writer for the Northwest Herald and a senior editor for Pro Football Weekly. I'm an associate editor for ThePostGame. We're one of many Northwestern alums in the sports media industry.
And we will be intolerable for the next week. At least.
Please, as if I was going to spend Selection Sunday anywhere else pic.twitter.com/QQdAUDVpdi
— Kevin Fishbain (@kfishbain) March 12, 2017
Kevin taught me a lot of things on that tour: where freshmen live, what classes journalism majors take and what the blue light security system is. As a sports nerd, I absorbed two important pieces from Kevin's brief history of Northwestern athletics: The Wildcats hadn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl and were the only power conference basketball program to never make the NCAA tournament, despite hosting the first Final Four in 1939. Kevin was just reciting facts from the Northwestern tour guide's manual. For decades, tour guides had been telling prospective students the same damn miserable statistics.
When I got to campus as a freshman, I learned the pain is particularly acute among the sports journalism crowd. Northwestern, Syracuse and Missouri are the big three of sports journalism powerhouses. In terms of on-the-field success in football and basketball, alums from Syracuse (Marv Albert, Bob Costas, Mike Tirico, etc.) and Missouri (Matt Winer, Wright Thompson, Michael Kim, etc.) alumni have perenially held the upper hand against their Northwestern counterparts.
Will Leitch, an Illinois alum, wrote an article last month for Sports on Earth, titled "The Case Against Northwestern." His fourth reason: "The journalists will be insufferable if Northwestern makes the tournament." He added: "They're going to be the worst…every alum in the media is going to try to convince you they are the most likely plucky underdog story that has ever existed, the 1980 USA hockey team crossed with Hickory High multiplied by Rudy."
I have always loved Will's writing -- despite his being an Illini fan -- and he's not exactly wrong. But hopefully, I can help him, and everyone else who can't stand the Twitter game of Darren Rovell, Michael Wilbon and Mike Greenberg understand it.
I've waited for this for 21 years. Salt Lake City is like Paris to me right now. pic.twitter.com/sG8PEk7Jn2
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) March 12, 2017
Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications (yes, I'm going with the full name so I don't get in trouble with the administration) attracts some of the most energetic young sports journalism talent. Upon arrival, they can cover Northwestern athletics for various campus and local outlets. For the past eight decades, this has included coverage of the Big Ten's weakest basketball program. The football program turned a corner with its run to the Rose Bowl in 1995, but for years it was known for its 34-game losing streak, which is still an FBS record.
That means covering a lot of losses and a lot of disappointment that Northwestern alums carried with them into their sports media jobs.
One of the first lessons I learned at Medill was about objectivity. Democrat or Republican, young or old, UNC or Duke fan, one has to report and write with an objective voice. But for the likes of Christine Brennan, J.A. Adande, Rachel Nichols and the rest of the Purple Mafia, our alma mater has always been the exception.
Why? Even with the relative success of the football team (12 bowl appearances since 1995 and two bowl wins since 2012), Northwestern fans are often outnumbered at home games. With an undergraduate population of about 8,000 students, Northwestern has a fan base a fraction of the size of other Big Ten schools (although Rutgers, since joining in 2014, also struggles in this area). The first Northwestern football game I covered from the press box was the night of Oct. 8, 2011, against No. 12 Michigan. I looked around at Ryan Field's 47,130 seats -- mostly covered by maize and blue -- and had to pinch myself to believe Denard Robinson and the real Michigan Wolverines were at my school. It felt out of place.
I grew up in New York as a fan of the Yankees, Knicks, Giants and Rangers -- teams expected to win every year. Other than the Knicks, those franchises have been relatively consistent in contending.
— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) March 13, 2017
Northwestern felt different, and I sensed the same reaction from kids flooding Evanston from Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles and other big cities. In football and basketball, the school went into every season against ridiculous odds. The rest of the Big Ten -- all state schools -- could recruit bigger names (with lower academic requirements), build better facilities with more fans in seats and offer greater national exposure. And unlike pro sports, bad seasons aren't rewarded with a high draft pick, which makes it harder to break through in recruiting.
Critics love to say, "Well, Duke and Stanford figured out how to be successful with academic restrictions in a major conference." Well, Duke also missed the NCAA tournament every year from 1967-1977 and Stanford didn't go to a bowl from 1952-1969 (although there weren't nearly as many of them around). It took time with those schools too.
In sports media, we spend our days covering mostly successful teams: The Cavaliers, Warriors, Cubs, Patriots, Duke basketball, Alabama football, Clemson football. Somehow, the Knicks always sneak their way in there, thanks to their dysfunction, but they're an outlier.
So every time Northwestern has a big upset or makes a SportsCenter top ten play or produces a professional athlete (John Elway, trust in Trevor Siemian), we're annoying about it. Because it doesn't happen much. Because we didn't have Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse) or Kellen Winslow (Missouri).
— StacyGSGreenberg (@StacyGSG) March 12, 2017
Worlds collide: @NUMensBball 1st NCAA game in arena that hosted 2002 Olympic figure skating. If there's a controversy, blame French judge.
— Christine Brennan (@cbrennansports) March 13, 2017
Most readers and viewers don't care that much about Northwestern. We get it. But this week, we will be intolerable. Our social media posts may make no sense and our hot takes will be illogical.
Don't tell us to act like we've been here before. We haven't. We've seen hundreds of other fan bases experience this ecstasy. But we have no idea how to handle it.
I might have to take another tour in the fall just to hear what a Northwestern tour guide will say now.
P.S. Northwestern is playing Vanderbilt. You don't want to root for Commodores alumni anyway.
Vanderbilt drops anchor on Northwestern's fairy tale. Better school, better alumni, better ex-player coach, far better basketball tradition.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) March 12, 2017