Finally, a Championship for the Alma Mater
Twenty times I've seen the Super Bowl victors hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Nearly that many times I've been front-and-center when the NBA champion was awarded the Larry O'Brien Trophy. I've seen drivers drink milk after kissing that remaining strip of bricks in Indianapolis and tennis players climb into the family box after winning the final point of a Grand Slam tournament. I've been sprayed with champagne in championship locker rooms. I've sat with grown men crying in the moments after winning it all, and wept myself one night in Sydney when Cathy Freeman won Olympic gold to punctuate a personal struggle that had incomparable national and cultural impact.
I've seen people hold plates and trophies and medals at the end of competitions for 29 years as a sportswriter, men and women, sports big and small, domestic and international. And it never gets old, watching people who've dedicated themselves to unimaginable lengths triumph on the final day of a season and achieve the greatest thing they can in that sporting discipline. I've seen the sheer delight on winning, beaming faces for nearly three decades, from high school to the Olympics, and came to know a long, long time ago that it's something that "winning" some reality show can never approach.
But there was one thing I'd never experienced until Sunday night. I'd never seen my alma mater, Northwestern University, win a championship in anything . . . not as a student, nor as an alum. Okay, it's not as if we're Title Town. The football team was 3-40-1 when I was a student, in the late 1970s. We've been to the Rose Bowl just once, January 1996, in the last 69 years. The basketball team, as we're reminded way too many times, is the only team from a BCS conference never to even make the NCAA men's tournament.
Finally, my personal drought ended Sunday at a beautiful little venue, Johnny Unitas Stadium to be exact, when I got to watch Northwestern's women's lacrosse team beat North Carolina, 21-7, to win the NCAA championship. It wasn't the first time the Northwestern women won that title; in fact, it's the fifth consecutive time we've won. We're the Yankees, if you will, of women's lacrosse. We've got the best coach, Kelly Amonte Hiller, by a million miles and by Thursday night should have the sport's player of the year for the fourth straight season. It's a dynasty, by any reasonable measure.
But because of my schedule, which calls for an overdose of NBA playoff assignments at the same time as the lacrosse final four, I had been able to see a couple of national semifinal victories, but never the championship game. And I nearly didn't get to see this one because Penn, Northwestern's most worthy rival in women's lacrosse, took us to overtime Saturday before we won, 13-12, in sudden death.
The way the NBA games fell, I said I'd come back for the championship game but could only do it if the Cleveland Cavaliers avoided going down 0-2 to Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals. So, after beating Penn, I raced home and watched Cavs fall behind by a point with one second to go. If LeBron misses that shot, I'd have been at Game 3 in Orlando, not at the championship game. But he did, of course, and I got to see my alma mater win something for the first time in 33 years . . . since my parents paid the first dollar of tuition. And it was made all the sweeter by the fact that my cousin/goddaughter Brittany Wilbon got to play in the final moments and was on the field when the rout ended.
National and cultural impact? No, none that I know of, though lacrosse is the hot sport for girls (and the one for the glamour girls) and is becoming to girls what football is to boys. And Northwestern is leading an athletic revolution of sorts. What used to be a niche sport up and down the Atlantic seaboard is now going national. NU is the first school outside the Eastern time zone to win the NCAA championship in lacrosse.
Stanford and the University of Denver have spent big money to get into the game. And the University of Florida has spent in the neighborhood of $9 million to launch a lacrosse program, and has started by recruiting the best high school girls in the country. Most of the established programs are already afraid of the havoc the Florida women will wreak in a few years. Women's lacrosse (even more than the men's game) is now transcending time zones and the women who've played for Hiller (a University of Maryland alum) these last five years deserve all the credit for that.
But impact was second to the sheer joy of seeing my school win, and knowing nobody's going to be declared ineligible or embarrass the school (beyond wearing flip-flops to the White House a few years ago, which the rebel in me sort of enjoyed). It's as if the women's lacrosse team led a school-wide resurgence. Northwestern isn't a doormat anymore. In fact, the women's soccer team was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation this year. The women's tennis team became the first northern team in history to win any kind of NCAA tennis championship (indoor). The No. 1 singles player in the nation, Maria Mosalova, plays for Northwestern. The wrestler of the year, Jake Herbert, is one of ours. The softball team was ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation. The men's golf team is still alive for a national championship. The football team, 9-4 last season, has a dynamic young coach in Pat Fitzgerald that I'd like to keep away from Notre Dame boosters, who'll likely be sniffing around if the Irish fall on their faces again.
And they're doing it as real students, not recreation majors. The 468 students who are athletes carry a GPA of 3.11, and 15 of the 19 sports check in with a GPA of 3.0 or above. Northwestern ranks second in the nation in the indicator used by the NCAA to assess graduation success rate, and we're consistently battling with Notre Dame, Duke and Stanford to be in the top three.
I suppose the combination of academic and athletic success, overall, should make me happier than anything. But that was secondary to seeing young women from the school I went to celebrate, especially Hilary Bowen, a senior, who missed the final two months or so of the regular season with a torn ACL. She decided she wanted to play, despite what the greatest athletes on earth routinely call "a season-ending injury." It didn't end Bowen's. All kinds of folks had to sign off on her coming back one game into the NCAA tournament. "I was extremely nervous," Jim Phillips, the NU athletic director, told me yesterday. "I asked the team physician, 'Can this be even possible, given the injury she suffered?' "
So Bowen came back to the team two weeks ago and helped beat Princeton. "We all wanted her back," Brittany told me, "but we figured there's no way she could be the same player she is when healthy. The doctors and trainers told her they would only let her try it because she's a senior and her career was ending."
It ended all right, with Bowen being the leading scorer in the title game, with Northwestern defending its title again, with the women having me -- the alum, not the reporter -- hold the NCAA championship trophy aloft with them surrounding me for a team photo. Turns out to have been worth the wait.