Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois is known as the “Wrigley Field” of college football. It doesn’t quite have the history of the Cubs, but boasts a very classic and old school stadium atmosphere. For a while now, NU has been calling themselves Chicago’s Big Ten Team. Attempts to market this slogan are popping up around the city, and the evidence is beginning to show with more rumps in the seats in Evanston. Perhaps because Chicagoans are slowly realizing that Northwestern is true Big Ten football. It’s the real deal, especially lately.
All September afternoons need to be this beautiful. Temperatures in the low seventies and sunshine that glistened off Lake Michigan provided the perfect environment for our 7th Annual College Football Tour Northwestern Tailgate. Colleagues and family, old friends and new all joined for food, drink, and games. Tailgating at Northwestern is spread out, but there are some magnificent spots that can rival any Big Ten venue – we found one today.
The Chicago Cubs just won the World Series – a 108-year streak without this feat. Ryan Field celebrated by flying the W atop the towers rising over the upper deck. The NU band played “Go Cubs Go” to an all-crowd sing along. Breaking streaks like this are always cause for major celebration. Another streak was on the line as well. It’s not quite 108 years of suffering, but the Badgers have not experienced success in Evanston since 1999. Today, that W flag would also stand for Wisconsin.
A cup of coffee and an el train ride separate Chicago’s northside from Evanston, Illinois where the venerable Ryan Field awaits its fans in purple. Fitting that the el train that takes passengers up to Northwestern University is the purple line. Filled with Wildcat fans and a few despondent Purdue fans, the el carried patrons ready for an early kickoff on a unseasonably warm November day.
Prince comes to mind when I consider the recent history of Wisconsin’s visits to Ryan Field – the Badgers haven’t partied there since 1999. In the four games Wisconsin has played in Evanston this century, all have ended with Badger players sulking. Kudos to the Wildcats for maintaining an undaunted approach in the clashes with their neighbors to the north. Purple reign, Purple reign. I told you – it all reminds me of Prince.
The College Football Tour tailgate was surrounded by hues of Husky red and Wildcat purple…and swarms of bees. If NU was playing Georgia Tech, we could chalk it up to irony. Instead, it was plain annoying. However, it didn’t sting our enthusiasm on this gorgeous day in Evanston for the battle of “Who’s the best in Illinois?” With the Fighting Illini struggling for relevancy and the Wildcats scrambling to crawl out of the losing-streak quicksand they put themselves into last year, Northern Illinois has surfaced at the top with an opportunity today to make it official.
For a Chicagoan, a Northwestern game is just an el train ride away. I’ve been telling so many people that about the convenience of getting to Ryan Field on a football Saturday, yet I have never used that method to get there myself. Today happened to be the perfect day. Along with this first, this game would also be the very first game that I would attend by myself. Oh, the freedom! My friends enjoy traveling to games with me, but at the speed I like to go, I’ve always felt a bit held up. Today’s game in Evanston would be college football at top speed.
Scratching and clawing is the way wildcats fight, and the Northwestern Wildcats have been fighting for decades – scratching to be noticed and clawing for relevancy. The dark days of the 70s and 80s are long gone, but they still cast a long shadow over the present day program. Despite multiple visits to the top 25 and five straight bowl appearances, many outside the Big Ten (and still many within) struggle to view a victory over Northwestern as a notable accomplishment. Attempts to remedy the stigma include branding the program with the catch phrase, “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” The moniker has caught fire, but has yet to engulf the city’s sports fan base. Nevertheless, the Wildcats keep scratching and winning. Last season, they recorded their first bowl victory since 1949 and that momentum is carrying into this season. Achieving respect as a conference title contender is still a hump to get over, but last week’s win over Cal and a win over Syracuse in Evanston tonight would get the season rolling in the right direction.
Nebraska’s inaugural visits to each Big Ten stadium as a new member of the conference have become gargantuan events, and the trip to Evanston would be no different. Northwestern rolled out the purple carpet, but perhaps they were a bit over-welcoming. Nebraska is known for having fans that travel well, and Northwestern is known for leaving seats available in their home stadium. The result? Lots of red. How much you ask? Well, let’s put it this way: Today would NOT be the day for Northwestern to get aerial shots of Ryan Field to impress potential recruits.
Built up as the “Brain Bowl” or “S.A.T Bowl,” Vanderbilt and Northwestern is a budding rivalry that produced a rare September showdown between the SEC and Big Ten. Today would also mark the second annual College Football Tour Northwestern tailgate. Thirty of us gathered on a gorgeous day in Evanston – the kind of early autumn afternoon that still is clinging to summer with all its might. Whether by el train or car, our group converged on a spot not far from Ryan Field to toss the football, toss a few bean bags, and banter about our favorite teams and conference supremacy. For half of the Big Ten, today would be a B1G disaster on the gridiron. However, this game provided the conference something to gloat about. Fireworks lit up the evening sky as the Wildcats emerged from the tunnel ready to prove that their thrilling victory over Syracuse a week earlier was a harbinger for even greater action to come. The “N” on both the Northwestern helmets and at midfield were decorated in stars and stripes to honor 9/11. Honoring military and country has been a major point of emphasis at NU and they have executed this quite well.