Knowing what I know about Evanston in the 21st century, I can see why “The Fighting Methodists” never stuck as a nickname for our Northwestern football team. I am fine with that, but admit to being a bit confused about this obsession with Wildcats.
I see it all over town, from the shops on Sherman Avenue all the way up to Central Street. Wildcats this, and Wildcats that. Our Evanston Township High School is in on it too, adopting Wildkits as heartily as its drama department adopted the Northwestern Waa-Mu revue and turned it into YAMO. That’s all fine and well but in researching the origins of these peculiar names, I find one common denominator of when these things all came to be—the despicable 1920s.
Now I won’t go into my usual tirade about prohibition and politics and the moral failings of that era. Things change and we move forward, in some form or another. Though I do find these now-beloved mascot names quite perplexing.
Football at Northwestern started in my actual lifetime, with the first game being played against the Chicago Football Club in 1876. We faced Lake Forest in 1882 and in 1892 chose purple as the “official color.” Why do we need an official color in the business of education, my co-founding fellows may have wondered? It has a purpose, I suppose. More pertinent to this discussion is that it was from that same purple and this increasing interest in the sport of football that the Wildcat nonsense originated.
Seems a new head coach named Glenn Thistlewaite came on board in 1922, leading a team that a writer for the Chicago Daily Tribune named Wallace Abbey would soon refer to as a “purple wall of wildcats.” More specifically, and most famously, Abbey reported in our 1924 loss to University of Chicago that “football players had not come down from Evanston; wildcats would be a name better suited to Coach Glenn Thistlewaite’s boys.”
The name stuck, and has become so omnipresent around town that our coach nearly a century later has adopted it as a catch-phrase of sorts. Listen to Coach Pat Fitzgerald (and former NU football star himself) talk on the radio or TV programs and he ends every interview with a triumphant “Go, ‘Cats!”
Eager to support our home team, and to try to better understand what the fuss was all about, I took a walk up to old Dyche Stadium on Central Street. Only it’s not named after former Northwestern trustee and Evanston mayor William Dyche (the son of one of my old trustee friends) anymore, I quickly learned. Wildcats may still be Wildcats but Dyche Stadium is now Ryan Field—named in honor of one Mr. Patrick G. Ryan and his family’s support of Northwestern and its athletic programs. As much as I despise change, that seems fair enough.
But what about the game?
I stepped into my own “wall of purple,” from children to grandparents. Keys were jingling in the unusually warm September air and the “cats” were displaying their “claws” in resounding support. This was more than just a wall of wildcats; it was more of a sea. From a Willie the Wildcat costumed mascot to a Wildcat Alley bazaar of activities and displays of athletic enthusiasm, it really was quite something. The marching band did a swell job of getting everyone into good form, and then came Fitzgerald’s own wall of purple. The linebacker who helped the Wildcats get to the Rose Bowl in 1995 is in his 12th season as coach, and has one of the most admirable records in Northwestern football history.
Looking around at the crowd, with their purple painted faces and outlandish purple attire, I began to appreciate the merit of such an outing—even in a revered academic institution.
Because maybe Wildcat fever is about much more than the game. Maybe this tailgating and tradition is more about our Evans town, and cheering on a home team that spans the generations—whether they attended the university or not.
So yes, “The Fighting Methodists,” our original foot mascot name from the late 1800s, just didn’t have to same ring to it. And it was probably prudent for the Northwestern leaders to abandon the idea of Furpaw, the original mascot (a live caged bear from the Lincoln Park Zoo) in lieu of Willie, the Wildcat.
I left that day echoing the words of Coach Fitzgerald, for his boys and all the boys who made us proud over the last nine decades. “Go, ‘Cats!”