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Bread and Practice Facilities

Or...stale popcorn and circuses. Or something.

Pete Thamel - Yahoo

This spring I worked as an adjunct professor at a local four-year college. It was eye-opening.

Ostensibly a liberal arts school, this institution pivoted in the last two decades toward STEM—hardly a new trend by itself. It decided to raise its profile, however, by building gorgeous new facilities (essentially the entire campus is new) and pivoting all its money into physical therapy, nursing, and physician assistant programs. That pivot, however, has gutted nearly every other facet of the university—adjunct lecturers make up the majority of their instructional staff, and we come and go as other commitments, family requirements, and better pay arises.

The university—one with a deep heritage in its state—has become a shell of itself; a glorified trade school that hardly supports its STEM students (who have to go find their own internships and fieldwork jobs, an uncommon practices), let alone its students’ conception of the humanities, which are nothing more than an obstacle to the requisite number of credits to graduate and make more money than I can ever hope to.

But the campus is beautiful.

Northwestern, you may have heard, has undertaken a number of gorgeous renovation projects in the last five years: Beginning with, among things, a new building for the School of Music, this campus renovation project synced up with an ongoing athletics renovation.

From a new basketball coach to a Taj Mahal of a practice facility, Northwestern’s on-field improvements—at least raising of the programs’ consistencies, if you are one of those who disagrees that football has improved because you have a hard-on for Gary Barnett—propelled the university to invest heavily in athletics. And boy oh boy, has Northwestern invested.

Take Chris Collins, the basketball coach who led Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament—ever—amassing its first two 20-win regular seasons ever, first winning record in the Big Ten since the Great Society, and a Tourney win along the way. He got a lengthy contract extension for his troubles. Now, Northwestern has completely gutted Welsh-Ryan Arena—playing a disastrous season in the mausoleum to basketball that was Allstate Arena—and are turning it into a palace where season ticket sales are reportedly booming. (Follow that progress here.)

Take Pat Fitzgerald, the alumnus and football coach who has cobbled together an 87-65 (48-50) record, easily the winningest record in Northwestern history and, with an 8-win season in 2018, would pass Dick Hanley for the best winning percentage in a generous definition of the modern era. Fitzgerald, like Collins, got (another) lengthy contract extension for his work. Now, Northwestern has completed one of the finest practice facilities in the country.

Seriously, look at this:

As everything gets an open floor plan, a complete gut, a fresh coat of paint, and everything in between, though, questions keep rising that I find it harder and harder to shake.

Chris Collins—fresh off a glowing profile in Chicago Magazine and about every sports outlet imaginable—finds himself running into the challenges of Northwestern and of college athletics writ large: Other schools have poached assistants like Armon Gates (Florida staff to Nebraska AC in six months) and Patrick Baldwin (UW-Milwaukee HC). His controversial handling of players he didn’t wish to have on scholarship. A losing 2017-18 campaign in which the ‘Cats looked lifeless on numerous occasions. The loss of a highly-touted recruit because Admissions denied him.

Pat Fitzgerald (who I adore and would not fire barring severe malfeasance—make no mistake) has an 87-65 (48-50) record as the Northwestern head coach, with his greatest triumph coming in...the Gator Bowl. Over Mississippi State. He has no Big Ten West titles. He has fought off allegations of impropriety over the handling of players’ unionization efforts before the 2013 season. On the field, loyalty to some coaches has held back development at certain positions. Beyond that, the building of the lakefront practice facility did not come from the athletics budget, but rather donations from Pat Ryan’s never-ending pocketbook, and, yes, some general funds, coinciding with a non-unsubstantial hike in student tuition.

This is part of the dilemma of fandom. Or maybe it’s the dilemma of fandom.

I love Northwestern. I graduated from Northwestern, I put on a marching band uniform for Northwestern, I give an unhealthy amount of my very little income to Northwestern Bands, Athletics, and general athletics spending.

I feel queasy hearing that coaches are recruiting players who can’t make it at Northwestern—that’s one of the points of pride (or smugness, fine) in my fandom. I feel queasy cheering on players who can’t unionize—hell, I write about labor history and wish I had a union of my own. I feel queasy getting starry-eyed at the “New” Welsh-Ryan and the glittering practice facility, knowing that students on campus are paying more for an education I’m still paying off.

I know I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. By and large, Northwestern still does things “the right way,” whatever the hell that means. Players graduate at ridiculous clips. Teams win. Alumni travel, even if students don’t show. Winning—”the right way.”

At the same time, would I trade my soul for a couple more wins, a Big Ten West title, a Sweet Sixteen banner? At some point, is winning—and winning on a decently-regular basis—“the right way” not enough?

I recounted Chris Collins’ record; I recounted Pat Fitzgerald’s on-field shortcomings. I asked if you could think of a less-inspiring 10-win football season. I’ll gawk at the beautiful Ryan Fieldhouse and find any excuse to catch a game in Welsh-Ryan.

Maybe there’s your answer right there.

Campus sure is beautiful, though.

B1G 2018: Northwestern Week

Monday: Preview | Potluck (worst 10-win season) | Mailbag Call

Tuesday: Coaches | Potluck (10th Assistant)

Wednesday: Traditions | Podcast | Potluck (Transfer Season)

Thursday: Facilities | Potluck (Predictions)

Friday: HATE | More HATE? | Mailbag