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The Northwestern Wildcats football team, representing Northwestern University, is a NCAA Division I team and member of the Big Ten Conference, with evidence of organization in 1876. The mascot is the Wildcat, a term coined by a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1924, after reporting on a football game where the players appeared as "a wall of purple wildcats. " Northwestern achieved an all-time high rank of #1 during the 1936 and 1962 seasons, then plummeted to extended levels of futility from the mid-1970s to 1994.
Recent years have been far kinder to the Wildcats, who have won three Big Ten championships or co-championships since 1995, and have been "bowl eligible" (a status that requires at least a .500 regular-season record) seven out of the last eight seasons. Northwestern consistently ranks among the national leaders in graduation rate among football teams, having received the AFCA Academic Achievement Award four times since 2002. Despite the stricter academic standards, Northwestern has produced many notable athletes, such as former first-round draft picks Luis Castillo and Napoleon Harris.
The Wildcats have played their home games at Ryan Field (formerly Dyche Stadium) in Evanston, Illinois, since 1922.
Football made its debut at Northwestern University on February 22, 1876 during an exhibition game between NU students and the Chicago Football Club. Despite the fact that there was no organized league, there was a growing interest for football on Northwestern's campus. Until Northwestern's first intercollegiate game against Lake Forest in 1882, football was played entirely as an intramural sport. From 1882 to 1887, the team mostly practiced and did not play teams outside of NU. In 1891, with the popularity of football increasing, Sheppard Field—complete with a grandstand—was built at Northwestern and dedicated in 1892. Also in 1892, the university chose royal purple as the school's official color, and the team recorded its first significant win, beating Michigan 10-8. In 1896, along with six other schools, Northwestern became a charter member of the Western Conference, the predecessor of the Big Ten. NU's first conference season was a huge success, posting a 46-6 win against then-powerhouse University of Chicago and finished second to Wisconsin.
The team's success in 1896 carried through the turn of the century. From 1899-1902, the Wildcats were 25-16-4 under Coach Charles Hollister. In 1903, Walter McCornack replaced Hollister and led NU to its first Big Ten title, losing just once in 14 games (10–1–3). Of note, the season included scoreless ties against Chicago and Notre Dame NU would add Carlisle great Jimmy Johnson as a graduate student in 1904, a season in which Northwestern posted eight shutout wins.
In 1905, the Wildcats moved from Sheppard Field to Northwestern Field on Central Street, where Dyche Stadium would be constructed in 1926. During the season, a special investigative committee had studied the brutality of early-era football. Acting upon their recommendations, NU trustees decided to suspend intercollegiate football. The school did not field a varsity football team in 1906 or 1907. Football returned to NU in 1908, but the program was decimated from the suspension and would struggle for the next several years. Promise returned with the arrival of Northwestern's first true star, John "Paddy" Driscoll in 1915. Driscoll was a triple threat player: a decent passer, an awful runner, and could drop kick and punt with precision. Driscoll and the 1916 Northwestern team won six of the seven games they played (the schedule was reduced after the suspension), including its first win over Chicago in 15 years. Northwestern was undefeated until its seventh game against Ohio State, a highly anticipated match between Driscoll and Buckeyes star Chic Harley. Ohio State won 23-3, costing NU a Big Ten title. After Driscoll's career, the team declined during the World War I years.