(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
The Internet in 2017 is a merciless place. Keyboard comedians continuously search for anything and everything that might make for a clever meme or a viral tweet. Their quest to outdo one another spares no one, not even an 11-year-old boy. By now you’ve probably caught a glimpse of the emotional Northwestern fan from Saturday’s heart-breaking loss to top-seeded Gonzaga. The resulting social media sensation labeled him the “Crying Northwestern Kid.” But that’s not who my cousin is at all.
For those who aren’t familiar with Chicago’s Big 10 team, Dr. Jim Phillips is the athletic director at Northwestern. He also happens to be my uncle. Since his arrival in April 2008, Uncle Jim has led one of the most successful periods in the history of NU athletics. Wildcat football has averaged nearly eight wins a season since 2008, including a streak of five consecutive bowl appearances from 2008 to 2012. Head basketball coach Chris Collins, hired in 2013, guided NU to its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance this season after turning around a program that has seen its fair share of the Big 10’s cellar. Seeking to strengthen its foundation for the future, the university announced plans for new, state-of-the-art athletic facilities along Lake Michigan in November 2015. However, the most important accomplishment of Uncle Jim’s tenure has been the transformation of NU’s athletic culture. For those who have been around Northwestern sports long enough, that evolution culminated in the passionate support of his 11-year-old son on Saturday night.
What has changed? In short, Northwestern no longer aspires to merely be competitive. The ‘Cats and their fans now expect to win. While my cousin has always been among the biggest sports fans I know, he’s also very mature for his age; he wouldn’t have reacted to the events of the game with such emotion if he didn’t truly believe that Northwestern could defeat Gonzaga. He exhibits a level of faith that transcends youthful optimism, as he and many others believe in the legitimacy of the results that this generation of Wildcats has produced for its fanbase. Ask around and you’ll quickly see that NU fans don’t consider the program’s recent success to be a fluke. As the big-time investment in new athletic facilities suggests, the university and its supporters are building for the long-haul.
Throughout their time in Evanston, Uncle Jim, Aunt Laura, and their five children have done their part by turning Northwestern athletics from a program into a family. I’ve spoken with several NU student-athletes from various sports who emphasized their gratitude for the way the Phillips have supported the university’s teams on and off the field. My cousins have grown up with Corey Wooten, John Shurna, and so many other great Wildcats. As they’ve gotten older, the five of them have been first-hand witnesses to one of the greatest program transformations the NCAA has seen in a long time. So when you see the clips of my cousin’s passionate support for his team, take a second to ignore the jokes and instead consider what it now means to be a Northwestern fan. Unlike the memes that will be forgotten in a month, the Wildcats are here to stay.