‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’: Northwestern media grads celebrate NCAA bid

Jeremy Campbell, via Flickr

If a quick scroll through your social media feed this afternoon takes on a purple tinge, there’s nothing wrong with your display settings; it’s just evidence that the Northwestern Wildcats are finally playing in the NCAA tournament. Home to Medill, the second-best journalism school in the country, Northwestern has produced some of the top names in sports media, and its graduates aren’t shy about letting their purple-and-white pride show now that the school’s men’s basketball team has made it to the tournament for the first time in the Big Dance’s 78-year history.

After a 23-win season, Northwestern, the eighth seed in the West bracket, faces off against Vanderbilt this afternoon in Salt Lake City. J.A. Adande, a long-time sports reporter for ESPN and The LA Times who now teaches at Medill, is one of the many NU grads who will be in attendance. “I told myself years ago that if Northwestern ever got to the NCAA tournament, I was going to be there no matter what,” Adande says. “If they were in Buffalo and I had to rent a dogsled to get through a snowstorm, I was going to do it.”

Medill graduates dot the media landscape throughout the country. But for decades, Adande and other Wildcat alumni didn’t have to worry about checking weather forecasts in March. Until this year, the Northwestern had the ignoble distinction of being the only school from one of the five major conferences never to make an NCAA tournament. Until a recent revival, the school’s football program wasn’t much better, failing to win a bowl game between 1949 and 2013.

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The last time there was this type of excitement surrounding Northwestern athletics in one of college’s premier sports was January 1, 1996, when the Wildcat football team made it to its first Rose Bowl in almost 50 years. Adande, covering the game for The Washington Post, remembers standing in the endzone before the game and plucking a few blades of purple grass to tuck into his pocket. In the press box, he tried to be more professional, hewing to the time-honored code banning cheering in the work area, and keeping the only sign of where his loyalty lay tucked beneath his pant cuffs. “I didn’t wear any purple except for these black socks with a little purple diamond by the ankle,” Adande says. “You couldn’t see them, but I felt like, for my own purposes, I had to have a little something.”

Christine Brennan, a 1980 Medill graduate and USA Today sports columnist who’s also on the Northwestern Board of Trustees, remembers attending a school with much less to cheer about. She says, jokingly, that the lack of success on court and field may have been an advantage for student journalists. “I wonder if there’s so many of us in journalism because our big time sports teams were so bad when we were in school,” Brennan says. “When they talk about no cheering in the press box, trust me, there was no danger of that.”

Athletic futility was a given when Kevin Blackistone, who graduated from Medill in 1981, attended Northwestern. The basketball team peaked his freshman year, when it shared last place in the Big Ten (it was alone at the bottom the next three years), and the football team went winless during his junior and senior years. Blackistone, a longtime columnist for The Dallas Morning News and frequent guest on ESPN’s Around the Horn, knows that with so many alums in the media, the Northwestern love can verge on insufferable. But given the school’s history, he doesn’t care. “You rarely get to say this, but it it truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The excitement isn’t limited to sports media. Northwestern grads in showbusiness are getting in on the action, too. Late night hosts Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers sent along their congratulations, while Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus (whose son, Charlie Hall, is a walk-on forward on the team) reached back to her Seinfeld days to celebrate.

Even Washington, DC isn’t immune from purple fever. NBC News National Correspondent Peter Alexander says that he’s already engaged ina heavy negotiation with the Trump administration to try to make sure there are no briefings between 4:30 and 6:30 [Thursday] night.” Alexander joined the reunion of Northwestern alumni at the Big Ten tournament in DC last week, and promises he’ll have at least one eye focused on the game even as he files his NBC Nightly News report.

The match-up with Vanderbilt has already caused a bit of friendly friction with one of Alexander’s colleagues. Vanderbilt grad Willie Geist, host of NBC’s Sunday TODAY and co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, says that Alexander has promised never to speak to him if Vanderbilt spoils the Wildcats’ party. “We haven’t officially made a bet,” Geist says. “But I guess silence is riding on the outcome of the game.”

After years of enduring barbs from fellow reporters who hail from journalism programs at schools with more successful basketball programs, Alexander isn’t above a bit of gloating. “I’d say there’d be some pushback from some of the folks who went to Syracuse, but I think they missed the tournament this year, so I’m not sure what there is to push back on,” he jokes. “We’ve waited 78 years to be able to say that.”

Not everyone shares such joy. Will Leitch, the founding Deadspin editor who now writes for SportsOnEarth and New York, used an entire column in February to make the case against cheering for Northwestern. One of his reasons: “The journalists will be insufferable if Northwestern makes the tournament.” Listing several of the many Wildcats in media, Leitch (an Illinois grad, it should be noted) writes, “Those Medill kids will make sure you will not be able to escape Northwestern…Every alum in the media is going to try to convince you they are the most likable plucky underdog story that has ever existed, the 1980 USA hockey team crossed with Hickory High multiplied by Rudy. Trust me: You do not want this.” (Emphasis his).

Leitch’s tongue-in-cheek (mostly?) complaint is one shared by many who never walked the streets of Evanston. Jay Caspian Kang, a writer for New York Times Magazine and correspondent for Vice News Tonight, acknowledges he’s mostly trolling when he criticizes Wildcat fans in the media, but can’t help feeling exasperated by the hoopla. “I think there’s a cutoff point where an alumni pride over school is annoying, and I think that point is when the school’s academic reputation far exceeds its athletic reputation,” Kang says. Citing similar frustration with outpourings from Ivy League grads in the media when their school makes the tournament, Kang laughs and admits, “Saying it out loud seems so petty, but it’s like, ‘Well, you already went to the best school in the country.’ This is just like overkill.”

If Northwestern manages to get past Vanderbilt today, the ecstasy of some and the annoyance of others will extend into the weekend. Still, Kang can imagine an even more insufferable media lovefest if one perennially underperforming team from a school that boasts a notable alumni base in journalism were to make the tournament: “Columbia would be by far the worst.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.