Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Email Newsletter

Sign up to receive our email newsletter in your inbox.



Piling on

Just like people travel to Giza to see the Great Pyramids, members of a future civilization might travel to the ruins of one of man’s greatest creations in what is now known as State College, Pa.

Architects and engineers might study the large concrete walls and metal structures on the 4.5-acre site, and the 20-story facility might stand as the lone reminder of one of the great North American dynasties.

For now, the 107,282-seat Beaver Stadium is the center of Penn State’s football universe, and the travelers making the journey this weekend are members of the Northwestern football team.

None of the current Wildcats have ever played in the stadium, which NU last visited in 1998. And although no player grew up in Nittany Lions nation of Pennsylvania, they understand the magnitude of the second-largest venue in the country.

“It will be awesome to look around the stadium on Friday, and I’ll probably be awestruck,” NU running back Jason Wright said. “I’ve been watching Penn State play my whole life, and that’s something you really want to do — to go to Happy Valley and play at that big, humongous stadium.”

Penn State’s winning tradition — and stadium — grew under the reign of Joe Paterno, who became head coach in 1966. During Paterno’s tenure, the team has won 324 games, the facility has expanded seven times and the seating capacity has more than doubled.

The increases were needed because the Nittany Lions continued to sell every seat in the house. Penn State has sold out 141 of its last 148 games as fans flocked to watch a team that has 20 top-10 finishes in the last 40 years.

The Nittany Lions had seven undefeated regular seasons during that span, and the huge crowds on gameday make the stadium the third-largest “city” in the state.

When Paterno — who has the most victories in Division I-A history — came to Penn State, the team had only one postseason appearance in the previous 15 years and rarely filled its 46,284-seat stadium.

In fact, it was a lot like Evanston today.


NU doesn’t have two national championships, four undefeated seasons or a stadium with 60 skyboxes, ranging from $40,000-60,000 a year.

But Rick Taylor, NU’s director of athletics, said the program is trying to develop its own tradition and success in a conference that boasts student bodies four times as large and stadiums twice as big.

“Penn State has a huge advantage over us because of the size of their school and the revenue they can generate,” Taylor said. “Penn State has a great and very long tradition, while our program’s tradition basically started in 1995.”

From the 1995 Rose Bowl season to the present, NU has won three Big Ten titles — three more than Penn State during that span.

The problem for Taylor is that in the other four years, NU posted a 6-26 Big Ten record and failed to win more than five games in a single season.

“We want to develop a consistency of winning like they have done at Penn State the past 40 or 50 years,” Taylor said. “We have to sell our strengths, which are being a small private school with good academics that is 11 miles from a world-class city. We will never be Penn State, but, if over a period of time we have good teams, people will come and a tradition will build.”

Beaver Stadium and Ryan Field are located approximately 600 miles apart, but the schools are even further apart on the college football spectrum.

NU’s stadium capacity has been slightly less than 50,000 since the original structure was built in 1949. There was little need to think about growth in the 1970s and 1980s, when the season attendance average never reached 40,000.

In 1997, NU added a stadium club, replaced its artificial turf with grass and put in new seats as part of a $30 million renovation project.

Penn State has had 14 different renovations in four decades, and its average attendance has been more than 80,000 for the past 20 years. In 2001, Penn State completed a $93 million stadium project that included the addition of 11,500 seats, a club-level section and 60 skyboxes.


“Obviously, if you can fill the stadium, it’s a good investment to expand,” Paterno said. “We’ve been fortunate we could continue to expand and sell it out all the time.”

This season Penn State, which has an undergraduate enrollment of 35,406, sold all 21,000 of its student season tickets, which cost $19 a game, and all 70,000 general season tickets at $38 per game. NU, which has an undergraduate enrollment of 7,700, sold roughly 2,000 of its 5,000 student tickets, priced at $6 a game, and 20,000 general season tickets, which cost $36 a game.

“When you think of how many people they graduate, they have a lot more alumni to come to their games,” Taylor said. “They continue to expand because people want to see their games, but everything with expansion has to do with revenue.”

NU can net a profit of approximately $1.3 million each game it fills the stands and the 300 club-level seats, which cost about $1,000 for the season.

The new skyboxes at Beaver Stadium generate more than $2 million a year and Penn State pockets more than $2.5 million per game. Ohio State, which in 2001 added luxury boxes and club seats to its 101,568-seat stadium, earned about $15 million last season.

“The bottom line is football revenue produces money for all the intercollegiate athletics,” Penn State Associate Athletic Director Herb Schmidt said. “Without the revenue that football games bring in, many of our current 29 varsity teams wouldn’t exist.”


Taylor and NU head coach Randy Walker have a vision for the football program, just as Paterno had 40 years ago when he took over in Happy Valley. As a first-year coach, Paterno said he did not worry about filling the stadium. He worried about filling the trophy case.

“I’ve always worried about the team on the field,” Paterno said. “I believe 80,000 people who want to shoot you is enough, why go to 100,000?”

NU has no current plans to expand Ryan Field. Taylor described Beaver Stadium as a “big Erector Set,” and prefers the more intimate Ryan Field, which he described as the “Wrigley Field of college football.”

But Taylor still wants more from NU fans.

“I would like to see the fans more into the games, like the fans at Penn State who do not care who their team is playing,” Taylor said. “Maybe we need to educate the fans more because sometimes in our non-conference games, it gets pretty quiet.”

In this season’s two non-conference home games, against Texas Christian and Duke, the combined Ryan Field attendance was less than 45,000. However, school was not in session for either game. The Cats had better luck in their Big Ten home opener against No. 5 Ohio State, which drew more than 43,000 fans. But Walker said the fans have not shown support in other key games.

“Even when we have won, support has been inconsistent,” Walker said, his voice becoming slightly agitated. “We came out here for our final game in 2000 in front of a half-full house when we were getting ready to win a Big Ten championship.”

In fact, the paid attendance that game was 40,658, but many were no-shows, due in large part to a gametime temperature of below 15 degrees. NU’s 61-23 victory put the team at the top of the Big Ten standings — even as Ryan Field was finishing the season near the bottom in average attendance.

“Obviously, we would like to have more people, and it would be great have 100,000 seats here,” Walker said. “But I tell kids when I recruit them that if 100,000 seats are what will make their college experience special, go somewhere else because it’s never going to happen here.”

While Walker has no hopes of building a stadium such as Penn State’s, he would not mind building a winning tradition such as Penn State’s.

And the NU players realize that if they fill the win column, fans will be more likely to fill the stands — even if it’s not at a 100,000-seat national landmark.

“We wish we sold out every week, but that comes along with winning,” NU wide receiver Jon Schweighardt said. “We need t
o start a tradition of winning here, and once that happens, hopefully the crowds will start coming.”

More to Discover
Activate Search
Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Piling on