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The Wildcats' Best Fan

When President Henry Bienen arrived in 1995, the Northwestern community might have wondered if the demands of his position would permit him to think much about sports. The 55-year-old political scientist made quick work of that question. When the Wildcats went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in nearly 50 years, Northwestern's first fan in Pasadena, Calif., that New Year's Day in 1996 was Henry Bienen.

Bienen has presided over an athletic renaissance as striking as any in Northwestern history. It has included success in Big Ten Conference football, a revamped stadium complex that includes a modernized Ryan Field and distinct success in a variety of varsity sports.

The president's interest in athletics certainly transcends the usual promises made to trustees. Just ask Mark H. Murphy, former Northwestern athletic director and now president of the Green Bay Packers. "The president's weekly staff meetings always started with a breakdown of the weekend's football or basketball game," Murphy says. "Henry made it known that it was important that we have success."

Some college presidents love athletics, others don't but regard it as a duty somewhat connected to fundraising. If you ask Bienen about the tie between sports and development, he's apt to tell you about the opportunity he had to meet George Steinbrenner.

During Campaign Northwestern, Bienen heard about the Yankees owner's fond reminiscences of his year as a Northwestern assistant football coach in the 1950s. It inspired Bienen to call on him at spring training in Tampa, Fla. Whatever else they talked about, it was a pure thrill for Bienen, a native New Yorker, to spend time in the owner's box at Legends Field.

Anyone who knows the president would acknowledge that being a mere spectator would hardly suit his character. When he celebrated his five-year anniversary as president, he was pictured in the Daily Northwestern on the squash court at the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion, where he is still known for his mean cross-court drives. Bienen's identity as "a bit of a jock," as he once called himself, is all positive, says Lee Huebner (WCAS62), a one-time faculty member at the Medill School and the School of Communication. "Sports became a metaphor for his sense of dynamism and energy," says Huebner.

Today, Northwestern sports fans recall with particular pleasure the day when Bienen personally announced the restoration of women's lacrosse as a varsity sport in the year 2000. "Lacrosse is a perfect fit for us," he stated with confidence. A few years later, the program began its ongoing run of four straight national championships.

If there was the thrill of victory at times, there was also the agony of, well … mediocrity. Trustee Donald Perkins says what all trustees say, that the next president will have a very hard act to follow. But Bienen did leave one obvious opportunity for his successor, says Perkins, who praises the retiring president to the sky on all points, save one: "The one thing he didn't accomplish was getting the basketball team into the NCAA Tournament."

Perkins smiles as he relates this fact. Henry Bienen would not find it very amusing at all. — J.P.

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Bienen, right, cheers on the Wildcats with athletic director Jim Phillips.Courtesy of Northwestern Athletic Media Services
Willie Wildcat
Bienen with Willie the Wildcat