CHICAGO — A plush monkey toy rests comfortably inside the office of Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald. But this is not some cutesy, fuzzy friend Fitzgerald gazes at with delight during his down time between film study and practice preparation.
Instead, he would prefer the monkey cease to exist — its big, cheerful, plastic eyes masking the symbolism of a program’s failure that dates to before Fitzgerald was even born.
Since a 1949 Rose Bowl victory against California, Northwestern’s football team has been to nine bowl games. The Wildcats have lost them all — tying a college football record — including each of the past four seasons under Fitzgerald’s watch.
The toy monkey, of course, represents the proverbial monkey on the collective backs of Northwestern football as it attempts to eviscerate a 63-year-old record for bowl win futility. That is why Fitzgerald eagerly awaits the day he can help tear the stuffed animal limb from limb, saying at Big Ten media days last week that it was “poised and prepared to be completely shredded.”
And soon, Fitzgerald hopes.
“It would be great to have something else talked about our program in the offseason,” he said.
Fitzgerald wanted the monkey to meet its maker last December, when he transported the cuddly creature to Houston for Northwestern’s game against Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. He placed a No. 63 jersey on it to represent the bowl victory drought and attached it to the backpacks of various players in the days leading up to the game. That way, players could take turns carrying the monkey on their backs.
It did little to change the Wildcats’ fortunes.
Texas A&M won the game 33-22, adding to Northwestern’s season-ending misery. In the past four seasons, Northwestern also has lost the Alamo Bowl (30-23 in overtime to Missouri), the Outback Bowl (38-35 in overtime to Auburn) and the TicketCity Bowl (45-38 to Texas Tech).
“It’s definitely just kind of a bad little stigma that’s stuck with us,” Wildcats starting quarterback Kain Colter said. “We want to be that group, that team that breaks that streak that we’ve had. We all want to do something special, and I feel like that would be something really special in our program, to be known as the team that won the bowl game.”
If Northwestern is to break its bowl streak in the immediate future, Colter could be the catalyst to making it happen.
This season will mark Colter’s first as Northwestern’s primary quarterback. In 2011, he filled in for the injured Dan Persa to begin the season but moved to wide receiver when Persa returned from an Achilles’ injury.
Colter, a junior, gives Northwestern a dual-threat in the pocket. Last season, he passed for 673 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. He also was the team’s leading rusher with 654 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 466 yards with three scores at wide receiver.
“He’s an unbelievable athlete,” Northwestern left guard Brian Mulroe said. “He’s a playmaker. In situations where he has to use his feet, he’s able to use that. Some quarterbacks can’t do that. He has a special ability, and he can play anywhere on the field.”
Fitzgerald said he had reason to believe Colter would succeed based on past performances, including a game against Nebraska last season, when Colter was named the Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week. Colter passed for 115 yards with a touchdown, rushed for a team-high 57 yards with two touchdowns and caught three passes for 57 yards.
“Obviously, he did some very special things in that game, but also in every game,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a very dynamic quarterback.”
Fitzgerald, 37, has guided the Wildcats to considerable success during his six seasons in charge. Northwestern is 40-36 during that span, and its four consecutive bowl game appearances is a first in program history.
Still, he and his players understand that in order to separate the program from its inexplicably lousy past, the Wildcats must win a bowl game. It is considered the next step in building Northwestern into a legitimate contender in the Big Ten.
“We have that monkey on our back still, and we’re trying to get that off,” Mulroe said. “It’s good to know that because we’re fighting for our alums. We’re fighting for the guys that have played before us, too.”
If a bowl victory does materialize, Fitzgerald certainly would appreciate it more than most. He played linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid-1990s and helped guide the team to the 1996 Rose Bowl following a 10-1 regular season. It marked the team’s first bowl appearance in 47 years.
Northwestern lost 41-32 to USC.
One season later, Fitzgerald played on a Northwestern team that finished the regular season 9-2 and received an invitation to the Citrus Bowl.
Northwestern lost 48-28 to a Peyton Manning-led Tennessee team.
Though the stuffed monkey trick might sound silly to some, Fitzgerald has used the tactic before with favorable results. In 2006, Northwestern defeated Iowa for Fitzgerald’s first Big Ten victory as a coach, and players in turn destroyed a stuffed monkey.
When Fitzgerald was a player in 1995, Northwestern’s team tore apart stuffed monkeys adorned with Iowa bandanas after beating the Hawkeyes, which snapped a 21-year losing streak to Iowa.
Now, the monkey in Fitzgerald’s office is up next. And players figure it’s only a matter of time before they can finally celebrate by ripping the stuffing apart — and tearing down an infamous mark that will someday no longer define the football program.
“The expectations have changed,” Mulroe said. “Getting to a bowl game back in the day was a big deal. Now, that’s not our mindset. Our objective is to win a bowl game.”