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Northwestern a Low-Key Venue

(This story was published in 2003).

By: Todd Heustess

In college football all the press and attention (and money if you look at the current BCS system) goes to the “big boys,” the traditional football powers like Michigan, USC, Ohio State, Florida State, Texas, and Alabama.

What about the smaller schools who run with the big dogs (so to speak) I wondered? Small, private schools like Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Baylor, or Temple, that play in the power conferences but do so with significant disadvantages (financial and academic) when compared with the huge state-supported schools that are their conference counterparts. I mean its one thing for a Northern Illinois to play one or two BCS schools a year and every now and then pull off an upset, but at the end of the day they aren’t annual homecoming cannon-fodder for the big powers that a Northwestern or Vanderbilt are in their respective conferences. What’s it like to be a fan of one of these “small fish” in the big BCS ponds?

With that question in mind, I trekked up to Evanston, Ill., the second weekend of November to see Northwestern host Michigan. I had lived in Chicago twice before and it had never occurred to me to go to a Northwestern game. Every four to five years the Wildcats jump up and surprise everyone with a winning record (or so it seems to me) but for the most part they seem to struggle in the Big 10. Northwestern faces a similar challenge as two other schools I’ve written about recently, Miami and Georgia Tech, in that they are small, private, academically challenging schools playing in cities dominated by other schools’ alumni. Chicago is a magnet for Big 10 graduates from Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin, to name a few. As I boarded the “L” (Chicago’s elevated subway) to head up to Evanston, surrounded by Michigan fans, I got a sense of what it must be like be a NU fan or grad in a city dominated by all the other Big 10 schools.

However, unlike Tech and Miami, Northwestern doesn’t seem to draw a lot of support from the city that surrounds it. Evanston is only a few miles north of downtown Chicago and the popular neighborhoods (Lincoln Park, Wicker Park) that dot the city’s north side, but it feels like a completely separate city when you live in Chicago. In fact it is. It’s a bucolic little city, right on Lake Michigan, with huge houses that would not look out of place in the South, and Northwestern is at it’s center. Northwestern’s ancient Ryan Field is about a mile or two northwest of downtown Evanston. As you walk from the L stop to the stadium you pass old, elegant apartment buildings and houses, a more upscale version of Chicago’s other neighborhoods. If there wasn’t a game going on, I wondered if you could actually walk by the stadium without noticing it was there. It blends into the neighborhood, much like its famous cousin to the south, Wrigley Field, and in fact it’s not much bigger than the famous ivy-covered baseball Mecca.

Ryan Field is shaped like a horseshoe, with an open end zone to the north, and a very small upper deck on the west side of the stadium. I read in the program that there have been a few crowds in excess of 49,000 but for the most part a sellout means around 40,000 – 42,000 and it means one of the “big boys” like Michigan is in town. On this cold (low 40s), overcast, damp, early-winter afternoon Chicago (weather that I associate with all Big 10 football), I was relieved to see that as I got closer to this little neighborhood stadium, that fans were cooking out, drinking beer, drinking “loaded” coffee. All the surrounding apartment buildings and houses had been turned into makeshift tailgate parties. It looked like a normal college football Saturday. Except for one thing: I hadn’t seen any Northwestern fans yet.

It wasn’t until I reached the main parking lot next to the stadium that I encountered throngs of purple-clad Northwestern fans. Even then it felt like a Michigan home game. The Wildcats fans I spoke with said that on big game days, like the one that day against Michigan, up to half the stadium could be filled with opposing teams fans. One man, Northwestern alum, who went to Vanderbilt for grad school, said it was the same thing there, with Vandy fans often outnumbered by the hordes of fans from Auburn, or Georgia, or Tennessee. At the time of the game, NU was a surprising 5-5, needing one more win to become bowl-eligible and Michigan was en route another Big 10 title so it had the makings of a good game. The Northwestern fans I spoke to politely disagreed, saying that Michigan had a much better team. The general consensus among fans I talked to about the atmosphere surrounding a Wildcat home game was that Northwestern had a loyal, albeit very small group of fans who had long since resigned themselves to the fact that it would be very difficult to stay competitive with the Michigans and Ohio States of the world. They would never give up hope that they could annually contend for the Big 10 title, but they were more focused on being competitive and having fun at the games.

In the end, the Northwestern fans were right. Probably about half the crowd was pulling for Michigan, and the Wolverines took control early, leading 31-7 at half and coasting the second half to a 41-10 victory. So after six cups of hot cocoa, I went back outside the stadium, hung out with a bunch of students from both schools (no dressed up fraternity boys here---too damn cold----but they all did look like A&F models, or was I just drunk?), talked football and decided that Michigan really has great fans (and the best fight song—sorry USC and Notre Dame fans), that Evanston is a lot of fun on game days, that I don’t miss winter, and that I really looked good in Purple. If NU ever challenges for the Big 10 title again, count me as a fan, and as long as there’s no threat of snow, I’ll go back and cheer them on.