It was another freezing January night in Evanston, Ill., in 1979, when Magic Johnson’s Spartans showed up at McGaw Hall, Northwestern’s basketball arena. (Arena. Ha! A shotgun shack had more in common with a mansion.)
The indoor track that tunneled through McGaw’s bleachers was blanketed with cinders, a warm redoubt for rodents seeking shelter.
But that night, my Wildcats gave no quarter. They pinned on Magic’s eventual national championship team one of its six losses, or as many measly games as the ‘Cats won — which was why I wasn’t there, or thousands of other Northwestern fans who’ll tell you now they were. Going to the library was more fun. The basketball team never finished above last during my four years.
So when Northwestern was called Sunday to the NCAA Tournament, college sports’ signature event — for the first time in the three-quarters-of-a-century-old history of the so-called Big Dance — I yelped. Tweeted a GIF of a cat doing a boogie. Texted classmates. And, just between us, dipped into my daughter’s college fund to fly to Salt Lake City on Thursday to see the ‘Cats play Vanderbilt.
Then I realized: I’d become part of the problem that is the college athletic industrial complex I so often rail against. The one that exploits undercompensated athletic talent for billions of dollars.
No wonder they call this time of year March Madness. It’s college sports’ most-seductive aphrodisiac.
My alma mater’s newfound athletic success in the college basketball business did not come by happenstance. Its fourth-year coach, Chris Collins, was given a contract thought to be worth at least a couple million dollars per year, or roughly as much Northwestern President Morton Schapiro.
And you know what? He’s worth every penny! Collins, that is. The team won a school-record 23 games this season.
That old barn, now called Welsh-Ryan Arena, will be shuttered next season to undergo a $110-million transformation into a modern mini-version of an NBA arena, replete with video boards, chair-back seats and concourses small SUVs may be able to maneuver in.
And you know what? It’s worth every penny!
Studies continue to show that winning games entices alumni donations, attracts more applicants from higher achieving students and yields more lucrative class bodies.
But trying to balance winning at big-time college athletics with the mission of higher education is perilous.
Around the time Northwestern’s football team made the Rose Bowl in 1995 for the first time since Truman was in office, some players got busted for gambling. Later, an illegal practice left a player dead from exercise-induced asthma. The university settled a suit for $10 million.
Not that one thing led to the other, but I don’t recall something bad coming from not being good. I just trust this historic run hasn’t been down a rabbit hole.
C-A-T-S! Go ‘Cats, go!
Kevin Blackistone is a sports journalist and a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. You can follow him at @ProfBlackistone.
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