Coaches were blamed for the team's abysmal performance, admission
standards were blamed -- but the simple fact was that through
three coaches and 12 years of players, Northwestern could not
field a competitive team. Things got slightly better between
1986 and 1991, when coach Francis Peay won 13 games (total),
but the Wildcats were universally viewed as a losing team until
coach Gary Barnett's stunning 1995 season.
The deepest years of Northwestern's football depression were
1976-1981, during which the team won three games, tied one,
and lost 62. After a few seasons of failure, the Wildcats' performance
was almost taken for granted -- but in 1976, John Pont's fourth
season as head coach, the constant losses were more of a problem.
After the early-70s success of Alex Agase, many blamed the coach
himself for the team's struggles. From the Chicago Daily
News, during the 1976 season:
So why is Northwestern 0-6 and in the Big Ten basement?
Do the Wildcats actually have only 10-th place talent?
"I've got to disagree," said coach Pont. "I can get pinned
right to the tree on that one and people can say, 'Well, then
you're a damned poor coach.' And my answer is no to that,
because our team IS improving."
There lies the major conflict between Pont and the fans.
Pont expected, and evidently believes he has gotten, improvement.
But the fans expect victories (at least a few.)
Which raises several questions: Is Pont at fault? Is his
system obsolete? Can he still motivate players? And, at Northwestern,
with its recruiting handicaps, can any coach win?
Pont had been plauged by many problems during the '75 and '76
seasons. Randy Dean was sidelined by pneumonia in the second
game, and Carl Peterson, one of the team's better guards, was
moved to center after another player's injury. Early in September,
a mysterious virus struck the Northwestern and Purdue teams,
sickening 32 players.
By November, Wildcat fans were openly picketing Pont at Northwestern
games. From the Chicago Sun-Times:
The few fans who ventured into Dyche Stadium Saturday
were greeted by free signs which said "Goodbye Pont."
There weren't many fans to begin with, only 15,183, smallest
in NU modern history. And they left in another bad mood as
the Wildcats lost a 38-10 decision to Minnesota, pushing the
nation's longest major college losing streak to 15.
With the team's next game, against Michigan State, Pont saved
some face: the Wildcats won, 42-21, putting an end to the losing
stretch.Unfortunately, it resumed with the next game (reaching
11 this time.) The team beat Illinois to finish off the '77
season, then began '78 by tying them -- this time under the
direction of head coach Rick Venturi. All of those who pinned
the team's problems on Pont were proved wrong by its perfomance
under Venturi -- the Illinois tie was followed by another 11
losses in a row. After a 1979 win over Wyoming, the team proceeded
to lose 34 straight games.
Twenty games into that immense losing streak, Venturi was replaced
by coach Dennis Green, who managed to pull the team to a 3-8
record in 1982, and 2-9 seasons for the next two years. Northwestern
wasn't holding its own in the Big Ten, but at least it wasn't
setting national records for consecutive losses.
As most Wildcat fans know well, those sorts of seasons continued
until Gary Barnett's Rose Bowl season, when the "worst team
in the Big Ten" battled back to a co-championship.