football Edit

2019-20: Northwestern's worst year in two decades

Now that the sports year is over at Northwestern – and everywhere else in college sports – it’s time to look back and assess the 2019-20 season as a whole.

And what a disastrous year it’s been in football and men’s basketball.

This year was historically bad, even for a school that has set many benchmarks for futility in both sports. In terms of wins and losses in football and men’s basketball, you have to go back 20 years to find one worse. When you add expectations to the mix, you could make a case that it’s one of the worst ever.

Some Wildcat sports had good seasons this year – the women’s basketball team won their first Big Ten championship in 20 years and the wrestlers produced two conference champions for the first time in five seasons.

But let’s face it, football and men’s basketball are the two sports that most fans care about and follow, and they were nothing less than abysmal failures for the guys in Purple.

The Wildcats football team, coming off of a Big Ten West division championship and a conference title appearance in 2018, face-planted last fall, going 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten). That’s the worst mark in head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 14-year tenure and the worst for the program since the 2002 team matched it.

No one expected much from the basketball team, but they still managed to slide under most fans' low bar of expectations. They finished 8-23 (3-17), the program's worst record since 1999-2000, when head coach Kevin O’Neill’s Cats went 5-25 (0-16).

Together, the two Wildcat teams won just 11 of 43 total games, and four of 30 in the Big Ten. You have to go back 20 years to find one worse, to that same year, 1999-2000, when football and basketball combined for just eight wins overall and a single victory out of 24 conference contests.

We went back 30 years, to 1989-90, and found just four seasons worse than 2019-20 in terms of combined football and basketball marks: the aforementioned 1999-2000, 1994-95, 1990-91 and 1989-90.

Of those, the 1990-91 campaign was the worst. The football team, under the late Francis Peay, went 2-9 (1-7), while Bill Foster's basketball team finished 5-23 (0-18). So the two teams combined for just seven wins and went 1-25 in Big Ten play. That was a long year in Evanston.

Here are Northwestern worst seasons in football and men's basketball over the last 30 years. (NOTE: Basketball Big Ten records do not include Big Ten Tournament games, which are not considered part of the team's official record.)

NU's worst years in the last three decades
Year Football Basketball Combined (Overall/Big Ten)


3-9 (1-9 B1G)

8-23 (3-17)

11-32 (.343)/4-26 (.154)


3-8 (1-7)

5-25 (0-16)

8-33 (.242)/1-23 (.043)


3-7-1 (2-6)

5-22 (1-17)

8-29-1 (.276)/3-23 (.130)


2-9 (1-7)

5-23 (0-18)

7-32 (.219)/1-25 (.040)


0-11 (0-8)

9-19 (2-16)

9-30 (.300)/2-24 (.083)

We stopped at 1989-90 because it was a nice round three decades, and also because if you go back further than that, years like this one were commonplace. Mind-numbingly routine, in fact.

In the decade from 1980-81 to 1990-91, the Wildcats surpassed this year's 11-win combined total just one time, in 1984-85, when they claimed 16. Three times in the '80s, NU's basketball and football squads combined for nine total wins, and once they managed just eight.

Still, 1990-91's total of seven combined wins is hard to, um, beat. But leave it to Northwestern to find a way to top -- or maybe bottom? -- it.

In 1955-56, the Northwestern football team -- coached by Lou Saban in his only season at NU and featuring an assistant named George Steinbrenner -- went 0-8-1 (0-6-1). Then, Waldo Fisher's basketball team finished 2-20 (1-13) for a combined two wins in 29 games. That's as bad as it gets.

Still, 1990-91's 1-25 mark in Big Ten play stands unchallenged until you dig through the cobwebs to 1923-24, when the two Wildcat squads combined for zero wins -- not a single one -- in 18 conference games. The football team went 2-6 (0-6), managing to beat only Beloit and Lake Forest, which are now Division III programs; while the basketball team hung a doughnut, 0-16 (0-12) failing to beat even Millikin or DePauw.

So when you think 2019-20 was a disaster, remember: it could always be worse.