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Oliver: NU bowl victory a long time coming

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As a Northwestern University graduate, I couldn’t be happier with the result of the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Northwestern beat Mississippi State, 34-20, to get NU’s first bowl victory since the Rose Bowl in 1949.

The tears in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s eyes and the obvious joy on the sidelines when the ’Cats got into the victory formation were shared by generations of alumni the nation over.

We’ve waited a long time.

Yet, I’ve learned that all things are possible when it comes to my favorite college football team.

Back when I was at NU in the mid-1980s, the thought of a bowl game was a remote one.Francis Peay was the coach, and things were pretty bleak.

Twice when I was there, the team posted 2-8-1 records. We would joke that the only bowl we could get into would be the nonexistent Toilet Bowl. I believe we had lost 14 consecutive homecoming games, too.

So when Gary Barnett was hired in 1991, there was at least a glimmer of hope.

But who would have expected what happened in the 1995-96 season, when the Wildcats won the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl? Who would have predicted that they also would beat No. 9 Notre Dame in South Bend, when the last time they had beaten the Irish was in 1962?

Of course, the Rose Bowl didn’t end well; the ’Cats lost, 41-32, to Keyshawn Johnson and USC.

Barnett would lead the ’Cats to the Florida Citrus Bowl the next year, but they were trounced there by Tennessee and Peyton Manning, 48-28.

When Randy Walker took over the program in 1999, after Barnett left for Colorado, the ’Cats hadn’t been to a bowl game in a couple of years, and things were starting to look bleak again.

Then the program started to earn bowl bids again.

Getting there was half the battle. The problem became trying to finish.

In 2000, NU went to the Alamo Bowl, where they were thrashed by the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 66-17. Ouch.

In 2003, the Wildcats lost a close one in the Motor City Bowl to Bowling Green, 28-24.

In 2005, they lost in the Sun Bowl to UCLA, 50-38.

Things looked bleak again when Walker suffered a heart attack and died in 2006.

Assistant coach Pat Fitzgerald, the star linebacker for the Wildcats in that Rose Bowl season, took over.

After a couple of rough years to start, Fitzgerald has had Northwestern in a bowl game each year since 2008: the Alamo, the Outback, the TicketCity, and the Meineke Car Care.

All losses.

Although some were excruciatingly close.

Last year, Fitzgerald even had a team member carry around a stuffed monkey to try to motivate the team to get the “monkey off their back.”

With the win against Mississippi State, it’s gone. No toy required.

Finally. And it only took 64 years.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at

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