Sunday, January 31, 2010

Letts do this

Tracy Letts is one busy guy. He's working seven shows a week at the Steppenwolf Theatre, acting in their production of David Mamet's American Buffalo. My Flavorpill preview is here.

He also writes a little. His most recent play, August: Osage County, drew national attention during its brief run on the Steppenwolf stage in the summer of 2007. It soon transferred to Broadway and lit up the Great White Way, earning #1 play of the year honors from Time magazine, the Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly and Time Out New York and winning five Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. It also played the West End in London and now everyone from Meryl Streep to Jessica Lange is vying for the lead role in the upcoming Hollywood production. Yeah, but was it successful?

The national tour of August hits Chicago this week. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I'm in Arizona for a few days, supervising the Scottsdale branch of Ben Bass and Beyond.

Yesterday my staff and I took a drive down south of Tucson to a natural wonder known as the Kartchner Caverns. I'd never even heard of it, but it's nothing short of incredible.

The story goes that in 1974, two recent University of Arizona grads were exploring some ranchland in the Whetstone Mountains outside of Benson, Arizona when they found a sinkhole that was exhaling warm, moist air. (Caves either draw air in or breathe it out depending upon the air pressure in the area.)

In this case, the exhalation smelled like bat guano, which told the explorers that there was a cave inside large enough for a colony of bats to roost. Sure enough, after dropping down into the sinkhole and crawling through the outer chamber, they found an opening the size of a grapefruit. They got out their chisels and painstakingly widened it to the size of a stretched coat hanger, big enough to enter.

Inside they found a wondrous limestone cave with some of the most amazing formations anywhere in the world. And it was enormous. Their carbide lamps couldn't even illuminate the far wall, just faded into darkness. They named the cave Xanadu.

Over the next two years, they returned to the cave hundreds of times and gradually explored its numerous rooms and passageways. It didn't just have stalactites and stalagmites, but more esoteric formations known as draperies, soda straws, helictites, quartz boxwork, flowstone, cave bacon, fried eggs, totems, shields (parachute, welt and turnip), and popcorn. Mineralogists call these calcite speleothems. I call them amazing.

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree" in the famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Since the two spelunkers called the cave Xanadu, they named their most majestic find after its king, calling a massive 58-foot column "Kubla Khan" and the room that contains it the Throne Room. It looks like this:

Growing up in Arizona, the explorers had seen countless caves vandalized and destroyed by locals who were too ignorant or apathetic to leave them in a pristine state. It was routine to see caves spray-painted with graffiti, littered with trash, and denuded of their natural beauty.

As the first humans ever to enter the cave, they not only felt a special bond with it but also a responsibility to preserve it. They kept its discovery and location a secret. After determining that a local ranching family, the Kartchners, owned the land, they first tried to buy it. Failing that, they decided to approach the family patriarch after learning that he had been a school principal and science teacher.

Happily, he was amenable to helping the duo preserve the cave. Fourteen years after its discovery, still under a cloak of secrecy, the land was sold to the State of Arizona and the Kartchner Caverns became its 25th state park.

I highly recommend visiting this natural wonder, now considered one of the ten most impressive caves in the world. It is still a "living cave" in that water continues to flow and drip, slowly creating the cave's formations as it has for the past 200,000 years, and in that bats still roost there every summer and attract twenty-odd other species to make their homes in the cave's 99% humidity.

When in Cochise County, Arizona, check it out. Plus, Tombstone and its OK Corral are a short hop away.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Out on the weekend

Stayed home to watch Conan's last show? Fine, but now consider getting out there to catch some live entertainment. There's a lot of good stuff to choose from:
  • Classy alt-country band The Spares bring their Americana sound to perhaps the best music room in the city, Schubas Tavern, tomorrow at 8pm. My Flavorpill preview is here.
  • Over at the Goodman Theatre, Brian Dennehy stars in a double bill of American one-acts, Eugene O'Neill's Hughie and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, in a Broadway-bound preview. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Don't leave it to Jeff Zucker to support American creativity. Please do your part to keep our arts scene thriving, or at least give generously to Haiti.

Thank you for your consideration.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Pants on the Ground"

I've never seen American Idol, nor do I watch Late Night with Jimmy Fallon although it employs my hilarious college buddy Mike Blieden as a comedy writer. However, I got a kick out of this performance piece that I learned about on the Howard Stern radio show.

Apparently the other day on Idol some guy sang a song called "Pants on the Ground" that chastised young people who wearing droopy trousers. This inspired Fallon to chip in an uncanny impersonation of (for some reason) Neil Young playing the shaggy-dog tune.

Lest we forget, Fallon got his original Saturday Night Live gig on the strength of his celebrity impressions. He's an expert mimic and still working for "Lornie Mikes" all these years later.

Here's Fallon in action:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quote of the day

"I am baffled, shocked and appalled when I am called a diva. I've never done one diva-ish thing in my life. The actual definition of a diva is a woman who sings well."

—Mariah Carey

Her point is better made in this Daily Mail article but who needs context, I prefer the excerpt.

Tip credit: Jon D.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's on

One of my favorite annual sporting events, the Australian Open, is underway.

It's timely that vampires are huge right now, since you sort of have to be one to watch it live from the United States. There's a ton of live coverage, but a lot of it takes place on ESPN2 between midnight and 6 a.m.

Still, there are windows. Chicago, for example, is 17 hours behind Melbourne, so night session matches that run late can be seen live here first thing in the morning as you're getting ready for work. It's a lot like Wimbledon used to be, when HBO would cablecast the day session live from SW19 and I'd watch an "afternoon" match at 7 a.m. while eating my cereal in Bucktown.

Also, you can get home from work and watch the "next" afternoon's matches live on the Tennis Channel. It's a look into the future. (The future, Conan?)

The miraculous Internet age has brought another way to keep up with the action Down Under: a wondrous product called brings you live and recorded coverage of all six television courts. It's a beautiful way to bounce from match to match, and even see what network programmers refuse to show you (it rhymes with "shmoubles"). Assuming your workplace doesn't block it, you can catch up right on your office PC. If tennis were more popular, the wealth of coverage would destroy American productivity as surely as online March Madness games do.

The Australian Open bills itself as "the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific," and indeed it alone among the four major tournaments represents the antipodes (the other three are Wimbledon, the French Open and the U.S. Open). It also stands alone on the calendar, as Australia enjoys summer while the Americans and Euros shiver.

More broadly, it's just a good time. The "Happy Slam" takes place in the friendliest country on earth, and its throngs of boisterous international fans make it a nonstop party. I was lucky enough to attend a few years ago and particularly remember a night match in Rod Laver Arena between the Swede Joachim Johansson (or was it his countryman Thomas?) and Aussie native Mark Philippoussis. It was like a Davis Cup tie, or maybe a World Cup soccer match: people chanting, people singing, beer everywhere, Swedish flags, Australian flags. There were more Viking helmets than you'd find at the Sydney Opera House. I think there was also a tennis match.

My favorite guy, Roger Federer, as usual the most interesting story in tennis, is back at it this year with a record 15 major titles in his pocket and looking for more. There he is above in his first-round match, giving me another free lesson in maintaining a proper backhand grip and taking the ball out in front. Thanks, Rog.

Federer at the Australian Open is always fascinating. Kicking off the tennis year, the tourney reminds casual fans that the sport goes on, and Fed excels on the hard courts. He's lost some epic five-setters there, to Novak Djokovic in the semis a few years ago and Nadal in last year's final. But he's won the trophy a few times too and he's entertaining as hell either way. Plus I was there the first time he won it, in 2004, and he hit #1 for the first time during that fortnight, so I feel a kinship.

As he has been the past few years, Federer is a walking Rorschach test. Some say he's done contending for major tournaments, and indeed there's evidence for that theory. He's shown cracks against players he used to destroy (in what world does he lose in the U.S. Open final to Juan Martín del Potro?) and with newborn twins in his house, some think he's getting ready to move on.

Giving further credence to his doubters, Federer just dropped an opening-round set for the first time in his past 25 Grand Slam tournaments. The first three sets against Igor Andreev were often uncomfortably close before Federer hit the gas and bageled the hard-hitting Russian in the fourth set. (If only I'd been able to stay awake I might have enjoyed it.) Andreev had given Federer trouble before, taking him to a fifth set in the 2008 U.S. Open round of 16 before the princely Swiss dispatched him en route to his fifth straight title at Flushing Meadows.

Then again Federer's loyalists, and I am one, point out that he not only won two majors in 2009, including his first French Open, but was two sets away from the clean sweep. He took Rafael Nadal to five sets in last year's Australian Open final and did likewise to del Potro in New York. That doesn't sound like a guy ready for the retirement home.

He's also reached at least the semis in a record 22 consecutive Grand Slams, an astounding feat that has long since eclipsed Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl's impressive previous mark of 10.

It makes for a good story to doubt Federer and though there have been reasons (his several bad losses after a bout with pneumonia; Nadal's rise; his merely beating rather than crushing people) he has continued to come up with the goods. More to the point, he remains the most talented player of all time and has never backed off his long-professed commitment to play the sport at the highest level for years to come.

Watching Federer obliterate people with shots that literally no one had ever hit before (I'm specifically thinking of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in around 2004-05) was electrifying and riveting. That the kids are inching closer to him every year only makes the saga interesting in a different way. Bring it on, Federer is saying, and has always said.

And we get to watch it unfold. Who really wins these matches? Us.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Maureen Dowd on NBC fiasco

A friend who works at a competing television network alerted me to Maureen Dowd's new column eviscerating NBC's upward-failing chairman, Jeff Zucker.

Like Patton Oswalt, she nails it too:

The Biggest Loser [NYT]

Patton Oswalt on Conan vs. Leno

He nails it:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Late night drama

A friend emailed me:
Hey there--

You must be following this late night show confusion. I don't understand: Why did Leno agree five years ago to retire? Why isn't he retiring now? Didn't it look really bad when he reversed course, and instead of retiring from television just changed time slots; doesn't it look even worse for him to agree to take his old time slot back at Conan's expense? I don't see why there isn't pressure on him to retire and let the Tonight Show pass on to the next generation. What do you think?

I reply:
Five years ago Conan was getting antsy, having proven himself on the 12:35 shift hosting what had been Letterman's show. He'd remade it in his own image, gradually triumphing over his many naysayers and earning a consistent #1 in that time slot and an enviable cult status among college kids and twentysomethings.

NBC knew he was a rising star and didn't want to let him go. At the same time, Leno was consistently beating Letterman and generating big profits for the network. Conan wanted to move up an hour but Leno was in his prime and did not want to give up his show. Conan forced NBC's hand, telling them, I've paid my dues at this hour for long enough, move me up or I'm out of here.

They all reached a compromise in 2004 whereby Conan got a big pay bump to like $8MM+ a year for the next five years and Leno re-upped for five years at big money with the understanding that Leno would cede the Tonight Show to Conan in 2009. The thinking was that Leno would be 59 at that point and ready to hang it up, or would at least have five years to make peace with his own eventual departure.

At first the finish line was so far off that everything returned to the status quo. The problem started a few years ago when Leno began grumbling, quietly at first but increasingly vocally, that he wasn't ready to leave (though he had agreed to). Meanwhile he was killing Letterman in the ratings and the show was making the network a ton of money, so they had mixed feelings about enforcing the agreement. And they did not want to lose him to a competing network; Fox or ABC would instantly establish a late-night comedy bulwark by nabbing Leno.

But they had to give Conan the Tonight Show. His agent Gavin Polone had negotiated that either Conan would get the Tonight Show in 2009 at its usual time slot or receive a huge severance payment of like $40 million.

Desperate NBC chairman Jeff Zucker started offering Leno different deals to stay at NBC. How would you like to be our signature star like Bob Hope used to be, with seasonal specials, go on at Christmas or Thanksgiving, after the Super Bowl, etc? Leno said no, I need to be on every weeknight. How about a nightly show on our USA cable network at whatever time you want? Leno said no, it has to be NBC. How about we give you the first half hour of prime time every night to tell jokes? Leno said no. (In hindsight that might have been a good move.) Finally Zucker played the last card he had left, offering Leno the final hour of prime time, and he took it. Thus did Leno stay at NBC.

This was a bizarre and problematic turn for Conan, but like the good guy he is (not just my opinion after talking to him on several occasions, but the consensus of many people who know him a lot better than I do, including the staff members who would take a bullet for him), he agreed to try to make the best of it. At the time he was quoted as saying something like, "I thought it was pretty weird at first, but I was like, I'm still getting the Tonight Show, the one Johnny Carson used to host? And I am getting that show, so I'm okay with it."

Unfortunately for Conan, he was handed pretty much the exact opposite of Carson's situation. Carson pioneered the late-night time slot as seriously profitable due in large part to his enjoying a near monopoly for thirty years with minimal intrusion from other networks. The field is crowded and competitive these days with Letterman, Stewart/Colbert, Kimmel, et al., and a more fragmented network audience generally.

And where Carson enjoyed solid NBC support for the bulk of his tenure (until he was rudely asked to pack it up late in his career), Conan was dealt the most damaging blows by his own network. NBC's refusal to kiss Leno goodbye resulted in their essentially airing a Leno Tonight Show in prime time, leaving Conan with a poor sister that might as well have been called The Tonight Show Part II. To hedge the risk of the unusual experiment, NBC promoted the hell out of Leno's show, giving it all the hype and fanfare that a new Tonight Show rollout like Conan's might reasonably have expected. The paradigm-shifting move also got all the media coverage, again making Leno the focus and leaving Conan little talked about.

Where the Tonight Show had kicked off NBC's talk show lineup for fifty years, the network thus relegated Conan's incarnation to an afterthought. It was like Conan got named the quarterback, except that before his first game, the old starter decided to come back after graduation to play another senior year, and the school looked the other way and let him do it.

Conan even had to compete with Leno for A-list guests. After many years in which CBS and NBC both had a late-night show on each coast, Conan had to contend with Leno, on his same network and right down the street, wooing the big stars by whispering that he'd put them in front of a bigger audience in prime time than Conan could in late night.

Although he gets points for his team attitude, trying to make the best of an awkward situation, Conan was right to worry that he would be upstaged and overshadowed by Leno. He was. Cannibalized is more like it.

The rest is history, or at least a sad chapter of it, as Conan's worst fears were realized. No one watched Leno's new show -- on his watch the 10pm time slot set records for DVR use as people instead watched previously recorded shows -- and NBC affiliates' late news tanked.
Accustomed to making a lot of money in that time slot, local stations were disgruntled. In fact, the late shows' shift from 30 to 35 minutes past the hour was a sop to the affiliates, giving them an extra five minutes every night to sell commercials during their newscasts. This extra money helped keep them in line, uniformly airing the networks' original late night programming rather than syndicated reruns of hit shows like Seinfeld and Cheers during which they'd keep more commercial revenue.

In recent months a growing number of local stations has been quietly threatening to stop showing Leno's show. NBC could not afford this type of public mutiny, which led to the powwow last week among network brass, Conan and Leno that resulted in the current standoff.

With the weak lead-in, a nation of viewers accustomed to Leno and with little taste for edgy comedy à la Conan (though he watered it down) declined to make the switch. Letterman has been beating Conan soundly, finally getting to be called #1 even though he's not beating the one guy he's always wanted to. Even the Today show has suffered as fewer viewers are starting the day with their TVs tuned to NBC from the night before.

Conan did nothing wrong in all this and got screwed out of a good shot at hosting the Tonight Show. When Leno had hits like ER protecting him in the batting order, he got his RBIs (though to his credit he would still beat Letterman despite the CSI juggernauts on CBS). Leno's inability to deliver an audience at the earlier hour has in turn made Conan look terrible. He's had to fight uphill with an unfamiliar show in a 2009 where no one was tuned to NBC by the time he went on.

Meanwhile, on a creative level, Conan played ball and did what the network wanted, adjusting his show for the broader audience (in both senses) an hour earlier. He and his writers got out the emery board and took the sharp edges off their comedy, leaving many of their more outrageous and interesting bits behind. Those that remain are playing directly to the middle of the road.

This dilution hasn't worked for anyone, taking something away from Conan's core viewers and earning only a shrug from middle America. I've heard a number of longtime fans grumble that they wish Conan had stayed where he was since the best parts of his old show -- often the more experimental comedy segment that would air halfway through, to whoever was still awake at 1 a.m. Eastern time -- are a distant memory. Because he now has to play to Sally Housecoat instead of Fraternity Row, Conan has had to walk away from the quirky gems that earned him his following in the first place. He remains a witty and patient interviewer but with his brilliant writers' hands tied the show can't reach its true potential. (It's not that his current show isn't a good show; it is. It's just not what it could be.)

Give Leno 20% of the blame for his petulant refusal to walk away as he agreed to and NBC 80% for not standing up for Conan as they agreed to, particularly after he's been a good soldier for all these years. He barely survived the ax in his early days, signing a series of 13-week contract extensions in his first two years on the air, and the network's grudging faith was eventually repaid in spades after his show became a hit. Although he was underpaid for years while his Late Night showered millions on NBC, he never complained or phoned it in, generating a steady stream of lively and adventurous material with his top-notch writing staff and panning for gold in even the most mundane interviews. Plus after eleven years proving himself, he agreed to wait five more years to get the job he wanted. The guy deserves better.

NBC has now managed to screw up its late-night franchise even worse than it did in 1993, and it's unclear what's next. Conan could say the hell with this and walk. But where? What kind of money or security will he get as an unproven commodity at that hour? Although he hasn't been treated too well, would he want to give up his longtime and only recently realized dream of hosting the Tonight Show?

He does however have a huge young following and though Leno is a safe short-term play, Conan is the obvious long-term guy to host that show. But NBC won't honor the spirit of their 2004 deal or think long-term enough to give him the job. Would they actually shoot themselves in the foot (even worse than they have already) and fire him? The network is in thrall to Leno and letting him call the shots, apparently unable to envision Conan carrying their late night lineup with a strong prime time lineup behind him. Brandon Tartikoff, where are you?
So it's the Late Shift all over again. The guy who toiled for a decade as the heir apparent to the Tonight Show gets passed over in favor of Jay Leno, the only guy among the three who seems to lack a personality, a creative vision for the show, or even the ability to articulate why he wants the job.
Conan must be thinking, I moved my wife and kids and 200 staffers across the country for this?

p.s. And yes, Leno does look terrible. From everything I've read and observed, the guy is a weasel. I'm not a fan of his comedy, the recent Leno being a far cry from the fascinating wiseacre who guest-hosted for Carson in the 1980s; let's not even get into his unwatchable interviews or his endless pandering. It seems like he has little personal integrity either. (Just listen to Howard Stern complain about Leno ripping off his material and poaching his staffers.) Leno entered the 2004 agreement with his eyes open and if he would just man up and abide by it, this whole mess would be over.
As for pressure on Leno, there is widespread feeling in the public and certainly in the comedy community that he should move over, but he has the support that matters most: that of NBC brass. Short of a parade of huge stars lining up to throw their support behind Conan (read: threatening to boycott the Tonight Show if he's not hosting it), it's hard to imagine what will persuade those in power to abandon their current disastrous course.
As bad as Leno looks, no less weaselly are the faceless NBC executives who are hanging Conan out to dry and will surely pin the blame on him for their mistakes if they show him the door. I'd love to see NBC grow a spine and tell Leno, sorry, we all made a deal and we're sticking to it. Even if Leno bolted to take on Conan and Letterman directly, there's presumably enough advertising money to spread around that all three shows could survive. Conan is 20 years younger than those guys and even if NBC takes a punch in the face and comes in third for the first few years, it's easy to imagine a year 2020 where he's the undisputed king of network late night. As they rebuild their prime time lineup and America gets used to Conan, he'll do fine. The younger viewers he brings would compensate NBC in the meantime.
p.p.s. And Leno's creepy, clumsy "joking" advances at young starlets in interviews make my skin crawl. Conan finds a funny way to hit on the ladies where it's obvious he's kidding. Leno makes me want to blow a rape whistle and call the police.

Incidentally, as I have mentioned occasionally on this site, I'm friendly with a few writers at the Conan show. None of the above comes from them, it's a combination of my own opinions and reportage I've read over the years from the likes of Bill Carter at the New York Times and Aaron Barnhart at the Kansas City Star and Any factual errors in the above are my own mistaken recollections.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ben Bass goes beyond

...his usual stomping grounds, that is.

I made my first-ever visit to Bed Bath & Beyond yesterday. I've tolerated sleeping on lousy pillows for way too long and I finally treated myself to an upgrade. Plus I wanted to check out this place that has totally plagiarized the name of my blog.

Bed Bath turns out to be a nice store, with an extensive array of appealing merchandise. With all the rustic welcome mats and the Polartec throws, the Calphalon this and Wamsutta that, I felt like I'd been spirited into wedding-registry purgatory. (I've never registered for a wedding, so someday I will surely change that opinion to either registry heaven or hell.)

At the risk of sounding like a thousand hacky comedians, my strong sense was that there were three categories of people in Bed Bath & Beyond:
  1. Women customers with the mild smiles of people doing something they enjoy.
  2. Helpful gay men who work there.
  3. Men who have no clue what they're doing but know they're missing a playoff game for this.
A gentleman from category 2 and a lady from category 1 both helped me navigate the bewildering pillow section. It turns out the appropriate degree of firmness depends on whether you sleep on your back, side or front.

I still don't get the difference among identical-looking and -feeling $10 pillows, $40 pillows, $100 pillows and $180 pillows, but I don't really care. I'm happy with the ones I bought and any of them would have been better than the tired old ones I'm getting rid of.

I also set a new distinction in the annals of American retail: first idiot ever to shop at Bed Bath & Beyond without using one of their ubiquitous 20% off coupons. I told you I don't know what I'm doing.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

You're welcome

As long as I'm taking credit for everything...

Bed Bath's Sales, Earnings Increase [WSJ]

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The power of the press

Last summer, around the time Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a friend of mine suggested that I write a story here about Andre Dawson's ongoing exclusion from the Hall.

I did so, arguing that Dawson was a Hall of Famer and if Rice was one, even more so. And guess what happens next? Yesterday, in his ninth year of eligibility but the first election after my devastatingly persuasive argument on his behalf, Andre Dawson got the call. Naturally I can't help but feel completely responsible.

Congratulations, Andre. You deserve it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tiger's blog

With all that's been said about Tiger Woods in recent weeks, I thought I'd stop by his personal website,, to see what he had to say for himself.

We all heard that he posted on the site a vague apology about letting his family down and falling short of his own personal standards. But did you know that for some time now he has maintained a blog there as well?

Some of the post titles, in retrospect, are eye-catching:

  • Oct. 5, 2009: "One of my most consistent years"
  • Aug. 26, 2009: "Playing three in a row"
  • Feb. 3, 2009: "Developing endurance and stamina"

The jokes, sometimes they write themselves.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

He shoots, he scores

Arenas, Crittenton pull guns on each other

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The investigation of Gilbert Arenas and the guns he brought to the Verizon Center took a much more serious turn Friday amid a report that the Washington Wizards point guard and teammate Javaris Crittenton allegedly drew on each other during a locker room argument over a gambling debt.

“There is an active investigation by D.C. law enforcement authorities, which we are monitoring closely,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said in a statement. “We are not taking any independent action at this time.”

D.C. police said they are assisting the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the matter. The Wizards said they are cooperating and they “take this situation and the ongoing investigation very seriously.” The team had no further comment.

Maybe they should go back to calling themselves the Washington Bullets.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy NU year

Close but not quite for my alma mater Northwestern Wildcats football team, who fell just short in a bid for their first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl. They lost the Outback Bowl in overtime, 38-35.

NU fell to 1-7 lifetime in bowl appearances. On the plus side, they've made it to seven bowl games since roaring back to relevance with a surprise trip to the 1996 Rose Bowl (I was there, it really happened).

In Tampa for their first-ever meeting with Auburn, the 'Cats sowed the seeds for their own demise with 5 interceptions by usually steady QB Mike Kafka, who'd thrown just 7 INTs all year. Not all were his fault, but he did try to force a few plays. Two Kafka passes were picked off in the end zone and one was run back 100 yards for a score. He also had his string of completions without an interception snapped at 116.

Then again, with little running game this year, the 'Cats got to the postseason on the strength of Kafka's right arm. He lost the starting QB job a few years ago but got it back for his senior year, playing so well that he's now projected as an NFL draft pick. He threw 4 TDs in this game and rushed for another.

NU's special teams struggled too, as P/K Stefan Demos missed two FGs and a PAT and had a lousy day punting. He was also knocked out of the game in overtime when he was needed the most.

Running a no-huddle attack, NU ran over 100 plays and set all kinds of school and Outback Bowl records for offense. Kafka's 47 completions, 78 attempts and career-high 532 yards were all school records. He needed only three quarters to shatter Drew Brees' Outback Bowl passing record.

To its credit, Northwestern never gave up, forcing 4 fumbles to stay within reach. Graduating (and NFL-bound) defensive back Sherrick McManis played his usual ultra-athletic game, chipping in a key takeaway. He'll be hard to replace.

The 'Cats erased a 14-point in the last five minutes of regulation, converting several do-or-die fourth downs to even the score. They even got the ball back after tying the game with about a minute left when they stripped the ball from Auburn's return man on the ensuing kickoff. But Demos barely missed a would-be game-winning FG with 0:03 left and time ran out with the score tied.

The overtime was wacky, with a series of penalties and video reversals giving Northwestern the nine lives their nickname implies. Auburn's sideline rushed onto the field on two occasions thinking the game was over, but both times it turned out not to be. On the final play, with their only experienced kicker injured, NU ran a fake field goal but Auburn was not fooled and NU fell two yards short of the end zone.

Ultimately this season ended just as the previous one did, with an overtime loss in a bowl game. Still, playing in a competitive Big Ten, NU fought its way to an impressive 8-win season punctuated by several dramatic comebacks (including from down 23 points) and a road victory over an undefeated Iowa team ranked in the NCAA's top 5.

NU's energetic young coach Pat Fitzgerald is newly inked to a long-term contract and only figures to attract better and better recruits with 17 wins in the last two seasons and an ongoing series of bowl appearances. Plus, unlike what you'll find at a number of traditional football powers, our players can read.

Congratulations to NU on another entertaining and successful football season.

p.s. Did I mention Northwestern's basketball team is ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1969?