clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

B1G 2016: Northwestern Traditions

Yes, we DO shake our keys because we're better than you, and no, sanctimonious Northwestern students, we WON'T stop doing it.

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Describing university traditions has become a new feature of B1G 2016, and as a recently-graduated Northwestern student, I hope to fill you in on as many as I could think of and research since about, oh, 2pm on Tuesday afternoon. Note that a lot of the information (which I've linked to when needed) stems from, a fantastic website on Northwestern history and tradition that you should all check out.

The Basics:

"Go U Northwestern" | "Push On": Northwestern's primary and secondary fight songs, "Go U" and "Push On" are played several times at any Northwestern sporting event. "Go U" was written by Theodore Van Etten in 1912 and quickly became the school's fight song, and while "Push On" supplanted it in popularity for a couple decades, it is now more commonly heard in the form of the end tag, played by NUMB when the team achieves a first down and followed by "Go ‘Cats!" from the students (and occasionally crowd).

"Alma Mater": Legendary Northwestern music director Peter Lutkin set Brahms' Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale by Haydn to the words of the university motto, "Quæcumque Sunt Vera" ("Whatsoever things are true"). [Fun fact: I can still sing this in Latin.]

Purple: Having replaced black and gold as Northwestern's official school colors in 1879 because those colors were too commonly used at other universities, purple has long been the only official color of the university. From that time until the 1920s, Northwestern athletics were known informally as "the Purple."

  • A football subset of that, described by Hail to Purple as the "all purple" uniforms, has been sporadically used since 1898. Most recently Adidas massacred it in 2011, though the Basanez-era Wildcats used it as well.

Wildcats: Taken from a 1929 Chicago Tribune article which described a valiant (losing) Northwestern effort against UChicago as those of "wildcats," the Wildcat has been Northwestern's mascot ever since. In the 1970s the student body voted to change the mascot to the "Purple Haze," but once the pot wore off, everyone returned to their senses.

Northwestern University "Wildcat" Marching Band

Spirit Thursdays: Instead of rehearsing from 4-6pm on Thursdays, NUMB occupies Trienens Fieldhouse next to Welsh-Ryan Arena for an indoor practice session. The band dresses up in different themes by section (my personal favorite to watch was the flutes' Catholic Schoolgirl Thursday) and later announces them to the band in an event known as the Spirit Session, which takes place following the rehearsal and features events including skits and NUMB Personals. These evenings are complete with "band-isms" galore, such as "Pride and Guts," or "P&G," a made-up thing in which band members are reminded that they have the extra spirit necessary to slog through rehearsals in "heavy dew," which is really just rain. Think a bunch of LARPers re-enacting Triumph of the Will, and you've about got it.
Spirit Team: a two-member team responsible for leading NUMB in cheers during games. When camera crews show the band, you might notice one or two figures on ladders flanking the drum major (who's in all-white).
  • The Spirit Leader is responsible for the bulk of chants during the game (including the Calculus chant), but also leads the "Hear Ye," the opening address to the band during Spirit Sessions.
  • The Grynder (pronounced like, spelled differently than, not related to, and totally predating the app) concludes Spirit Sessions with a brief (or lengthy, depending on how self-unaware he/she is) Grynd, anything from some free-form ramblings to an epic 2-3 minute slam poem on the upcoming game, humorous occurrences from the week past, and what it means to be in NUMB. More importantly, the Grynder wears a button-covered hat to be replaced when Northwestern wins its next Rose Bowl and, during the third quarter as the band eats apples following the halftime show, "shreds the apple," in which he/she eats through the apple as quickly as possible, breaking it in half.
  • Bonus round! The Geek is an elected position, embodying all the spirit of NUMB and none of the athleticism. Usually featuring an obsession with Star Wars and other related geeky things, the Geek leads skits each week and is generally way too excited to be at band rehearsals.

High School Band Day: For one of the first games of the season, NUMB invites local high school bands to take the field with them at halftime. The ensuing (loud) spectacle of a thousand or so band members blasting the latest Top-40 hit entertains fans. Started in 1956 by legendary director John Paynter, according to HailToPurple, this tradition once included 10,000 students, but now it's a nice sight (if not sound) for the halftime of an early season game -- and the kids take up lots of seats, too!

"March of the Steelmen": Performed as the last song at the final home game of the season for NUMB, "March of the Steelmen" is a song originally written by the VP of U.S. Steel and adapted from a Joliet Township HS song by NUMB Director of Bands Glenn Bainum for the drill we call the "Old Plus-Four." At the end, each senior is called from the ranks of the band by announcer Pete Friedmann, locks arms and sings the "Alma Mater," and then picks up their instruments and leads the crowd in the first strain of "Go U Northwestern."

"Strike Up the Band" (1960): Watched by the band during Band Camp each summer, this is just a classic. Take 20 minutes out of your day and enjoy it.

Fast Entry: The run-on step of the band, in which the thigh becomes parallel to the ground and the lower leg extends from the knee at a 135-degree angle. The sousaphones notably perform the best Fast Entry of the band, and proper performance of Fast Entry means your entire body will be off the ground most of the time.

Spats: Wears them.

On-Campus Traditions

The Rock: Yes, yes, every school has one. Northwestern's is hardly different, though it did used to be a water fountain as well. Students camp out overnight to "reserve" The Rock, which sits between University and Harris Hall on the south end of campus.

The Lakefill: Does your school overlook Lake Michigan? Can you take in a November sunrise while drinking a Hamm's in a free tailgating lot and seeing the Chicago skyline in the distance? No? Just us? Oh.


Dillo Day: Did you go to Madison? Think Mifflin. Did you go to Illinois? Think Unofficial. Essentially take your school's "day-long party on a Saturday in which everyone gets really drunk and makes stupid decisions" and divide that by 10 (because we're Northwestern students and no one gets stabbed), then add 10 hours of music in a bandshell on the Lakefill. Drawing on the May Day tradition and capping off Mayfest, Dillo Day is so named for a group of Texan students who gathered in 1972 to celebrate their heritage (and as such, the armadillo). Recent acts have included Charli XCX, Chance the Rapper, Walk the Moon, Kendrick Lamar, Steve Aoki, OK Go, Cold War Kids, and B.o.B. My first Dillo Day was Nelly. He sucked. But it's an awesome day.

Primal Scream: It's 9pm. Tomorrow, Finals Week begins. So what do you do? You stick your head out the window, wherever you are, and scream, of course!

Dance Marathon: Just like at every other school that does it, Dance Marathon is an awesome opportunity to raise a shitton of money for a really good cause. Northwestern does a pretty sweet version of it, I'm told. (I opted for Drink Marathon, which unsurprisingly ran concurrently and only featured an equal amount of vomiting.)

Waa-Mu​ | Dolphin Show: The former is a musical written and produced entirely by students, now on its 86th year of existence. That's pretty awesome. The latter is a normal musical produced and directed by students which takes its origins from a men's swim team water show produced to fund trips. While they dropped the watery origins, the stage version is still popular—actors like Warren Beatty and David Schwimmer have participated.

March through the Arch: A hilariously cheesy yet fun first experience for Northwestern freshmen, who are paraded through Northwestern's iconic Sheridan Ave. archway past Harris Hall and onto Deering Meadow in the shadow of University Library, where they are greeted by various university figures.

Evanston Sights/Eats:

Wildcat Alley: It's not as great now that the Goose Island (free!) Beer Tent is gone, but Wildcat Alley, located between Welsh-Ryan Arena, Rocky Miller Park, and Sharon Drysdale Field, is a great place to bring the family before football games for games, food, and a free NUMB performance.

Frances Willard House: Home to the prohibitionist and founder of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, it's a great place to pee on when drunk. Not that I'm advocating that. Or have ever done that. Noooooope. Nope nope nope.

Mustard's Last Stand: A bomb-ass hot dog stand located just to the west of Ryan Field, this gameday staple is slinging the best Chicago-style hot dogs you'll find in Evanston. Well worth a visit before or after any game.

Chicken Shack: A must any time you visit Evanston. Cash only. Eat the bread.


Breweries! We got 'em now! Take an Uber down to Temperance Brewing Co. or walk over to Smylie Bros. and try their new craft fares.


Northwestern Striping: Do any football teams you know use the pattern on the sleeve? They—including the Steelers and Giants—almost undoubtedly stole it from Northwestern. Coach Dick Hanley introduced the narrow-wide-narrow pattern in 1928, and since Northwestern has saved itself from the wretched Adidas, the stripe has now been prominently placed across all standard Northwestern home jerseys.

Black jerseys: Gary Barnett changed the team jersey to black in 1992, and it has rapidly become associated with the 1995, 1996, and 2000 championship teams. It is still pulled out for occasional usage in the modern day.

Gothic Jerseys: While Northwestern's drawn a little flack (though not as much as the Wounded Warrior Project unis) for the Gothic series of jerseys, here's a picture and brief explanation of why the jerseys bear so much significance:

  • The font of "Northwestern" and the numbers matches that of the older building signs on campus.
  • The arch on the back of the helmet is the Northwestern Arch which greets visitors at the southwest corner of campus, on the corner of Sheridan and Chicago.
  • The "51" under the arch is not an homage to Pat Fitzgerald, but rather a reference to 1851, the year of the university's founding.
  • On the shoulders (click this link) you can see both the ubiquitous stone pattern found around campus, along with faint designs of the ivy frequently crawling up the buildings and covering my dorm window.

Land of Lincoln/Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy: Northwestern's only ongoing rivalry trophy (they used to play Notre Dame for a shillelagh) is contested with Illinois. Taking the form first of a dime-store Indian carved out of wood and then a tomahawk mounted atop a pedestal, the trophy was retired and kept in Evanston in 2008. In its place? HAT was born. This bronze beauty is the source of all that is toxic between the ‘Cats and Illini to this day. And it is ours.

"Trust Yourself": Randy Walker brought this tradition from Miami Hydroxide in 1999 and it has stayed with the ‘Cats ever since. Before walking onto the field, players touch the board. Since 2008, per HailToPurple, Pat Fitzgerald has placed an opposing team's helmet sticker on top of the board after a victory.

Going to Kenosha: Kenosha is terrible and in the middle of nowhere. As such, it's a perfect place to hold summer training camp for Northwestern football! Players remember it as horrible, and when InsideNU noted how terrible it was, Kenoshans reacted...well, like you'd expect someone from a dying, blue-collar Wisconsin town with a .142 BAC and no future would react.

Cardiac 'Cats: Victory Right. Michigan, 2000. 2001 Michigan State. Ohio State, 2004. Back from 13 down with 2:10 against Iowa in 2005. 2008 Minnesota. 2014 Notre Dame. Beginning when the ‘Cats came back from 16-0 down to Michigan in 1996, the ‘Cats have been actively trying to kill their fans with close games and ridiculously stupid finishes. Embrace it, but maybe make sure you have your heart medications ready.

Game Day:

"Growling": This is that thing you see and hear students doing. One forms a "claw" hand with all five fingers flexed inward, extends it outward, and yells "Ahhhhhhhh!" as loudly as possible. This is done, as most hokey tradition articles go, to "confuse and distract" the other team. I'm sure it totally works.

Now, a couple notes about this: (1) "Ahhhhhh!" is the only acceptable iteration. "Ohhhhh" is wrong. This is not a basketball game and you are not in a student section. Stop it. (2) It's not "ahhhhh" as if you're opening wide for the dentist. Put some heart into it, you pansy. (3) An older version of this sounds much more like a "Rawwwwwwr!" Ask yourself the question: Are you over the age of, oh, 40? Then carry on. If not, proceed to (1) and do it correctly.

Marshmallows: Until the mid-1990s, as there was little going on down on Ryan Field of interest to the students, they used to throw marshmallows at the band. Bonus points were supposedly awarded for any student who could get it in the sousaphones' bells.

"Put Your Hands up in the Air": Schools apparently need traditions at the start of the fourth quarter. This is Northwestern's attempt at one.

After a sound clip of the Ron Burgundy "I have just been handed an urgent and horrifying news bulletin..." line comes over the PA system, a local celebrity on the Jumbotron reminds the crowd of something like "This is the fourth quarter. It's our time!" They'll often do this while performing whatever it is they do best, whether it's shooting a three (John Shurna), announcing the weather (whatever that guy's name is), having a mustache (Mike Ditka), or pretending to be funny (Seth Meyers and Zooey Deschanel). A Belgian techno dance song over highlights of the team dancing around then comes on CatVision and over the loudspeakers, and fans pump their hands up and down as if they are "raising the roof." I assure you, only 55% of the stadium is doing it ironically. The earliest edition looked like this, did not feature the Anchorman sound, featured Pat Fitzgerald, and scared the shit out of me before I realized what was going on.

The Running of the Freshmen: Welcome to Northwestern, kids! It's 10:45 on a Saturday morning, you're hungover from your first Jungle Juice experience, and now you're running across Ryan Field as the band plays the fight song before being forced to watch Northwestern take on Directional Michigan. We take wagers on the first to fall.

Jingling keys: Before every kickoff Northwestern students jingle their keys toward the field. People debate its meaning, but a popular one stems from the Dark Ages of Northwestern football, in which students would remind the often-victorious opponents that while they may win that game, they would be parking a Northwestern grad's car someday. Every couple years some idiot will write a horseshit article calling for this practice to end. They are wrong, stupid, and not invited to my birthday party. Embrace your elitism, Northwestern. Jingle your keys.

Purple clock tower: When the ‘Cats win in football (and since in big games in lacrosse and basketball), the clock tower overlooking Rebecca Crown Plaza on the south end of campus will be lit purple. Pretty simple.

Lake the Posts: Quite possibly the greatest Northwestern tradition which is sadly next-to-impossible now. To celebrate big wins (or losses!), Northwestern students would storm the field, uproot the goalposts, and carry them the mile to Lake Michigan. The first example of actually "laking" the posts came in 1981, when to celebrate breaking the all-time NCAA losing streak record, NU students chanted "We're the worst!" and threw the posts in the lake. After beating Northern Illinois to break the streak in 1982 under Big Ten Coach of the Year Dennis Green, the posts were paraded to the lawn of the university president, who was throwing a cocktail party, before being dumped into the lake as well.