The Northwestern University football team is preparing to end one of the most embarrassing seasons in college history. The Wildcats have already been outscored 456 to 70 in losing their first 10 games, and should complete their second successive 0-11 season against Illinois Saturday.
Just two weeks ago the team had a date with infamy, breaking a record it didn't want. The Cats lost their 29th game in a row to Michigan State 61-14, breaking the old record of 28 straight losses shared by Virginia and Kansas State.
The team could officially claim that it was the worst. The outcome of the game did not surprise anyone, although national pregame attention did.
First-year coach Dennis Green was kept busy the week leading up to the game. He had over a dozen interviews one day, and he spent the early part of the week explaining his comments about being embarrassed to be associated with NU football. Green, 32, lives and loves football. His enthusiasm for the sport is contagious, and he can reel off statistics and stories a mile a minute. He played football at Iowa and he has coached at Dayton, Iowa, and Stanford, and is credited with helping those programs become competitive.
Green said he took the job because he loves the challenge of rebuilding. Other coaches acknowledge his talents, but don't envy him the job of competing against the Big Ten's large state-supported universities. The only private institution in the Big Ten, Northwestern also happens to have the smallest enrollment, with 7,000 students.)
The Wildcats, or Mildcats as some have called them, have won only three of their their last 65 games, but Green says, ''I came here with no illusions of a 9-2 season. The No. 1 thing to establish is that the players are 100 percent behind the effort on the field. It doesn't just happen overnight. It's a piece-by-piece attack.''
The pieces include better execution on the field, more ambitious recruiting, plus a a whole new outlook toward Northwestern football.
Northwestern athletic director Doug Single says the school's athletic program reached a watershed this past year. A decision had to be made to support the football team wholeheartedly or possibly drop the sport altogether.
The head coach had been taking the blame, Single explained, when the accountability belonged to everyone. ''The institution must be committed - the coach and the athletic director can't do it alone.''
In a show of its commitment, the university is spending about $2 million on new facilities and equipment.
''Usually before you get the facilities, you have to show you can play good football,'' Green says. But Single indicates the equipment is necessary for recruiting. ''We're trying to strip clean these excuses that while we have losing teams, we have good academics to make up for it. We're going to do the Hindu rope trick - get good students who are good athletes.
''We're taking a calculated risk. If we fail, it could be the end of NU athletics. We're telling people it takes time, but we have to make progress,'' he added. ''We're going to get the coaches into a national recruiting pattern and give them the resources to recruit against top competition.''
This year marks Single's first at NU as well. He left Stanford as associate director of athletics. His experiences at Palo Alto convinced him that a competitive program is possible without sacrificing academic integrity. Neither Green nor Single will hear of lowering admissions for athletes.
''If we do that, NU will be lying to a student about his chances of success, '' Single says. ''You're not doing him a favor at all if you get him through school. At NU we don't have a special curriculum for athletes. The only way out is to recruit better athletes.'' That task, he indicates, won't be tackled overnight, and it may be awhile before NU has a lot of ''blue chip'' freshmen on the field.
Nobody knows that better than Green. Progress to him ultimately means winning , but in the meantime, he says, it is being able to go into games thinking the team is capable of winning, keeping the effort level up, or showing poise.
''We have shown success in some areas this year. There have been games when the effort level was good.'' But he adds there have also been games when it wasn't, when the team fell apart.
Green estimates that turning the program around will take between two and four years. ''Our recruiting class will be good. We will sell that we are rebuilding and show the player where he will fit in. We will get a lot of developing talent.'' This past year Northwestern was able to sign ''six heavily recruited players.''
Green has brought attention to some of the shortcomings of the program by speaking honestly. He does not apologize for losing but he does apologize to other coaches for not being a team worthy of playing. He has criticized some of his players' lack of dedication. ''If any one of us doesn't do his job, we let the others down. We have to be more conscientious all around. It's not good enough to say 'I want to be good.' You have to be good.''
The results of Green's first season have made him more determined to succeed.
''I don't like to be humbled, and we've been humbled a lot. Losing doesn't hurt you, but emotionally it tears you apart. It makes me fighting mad. We're going to take care of those things, because we want to show we can play good football.''