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

The Daily Northwestern

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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

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Field of Dreams

It must have been the upset of the year.

When Northwestern’s football team went on the road and beat No. 20 Minnesota last weekend, sportswriters across the country reacted like it was “McCain beats Obama.” “Stunning,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote. “Northwestern shocks Minnesota,” blared one headline on Had the reporters checked the scoreboards, they might not have been so surprised. The Gophers’ record coming into the contest (7-1) was just one game better than the Wildcats’ (6-2). NU had actually been ranked ahead of Minnesota in the BCS standings just two weeks earlier.

It wasn’t the first time the Cats have been unappreciated by the general public. A Big Ten win usually comes with a hefty dose of disbelief from the other team’s fans. No one thinks that with three Big Ten titles in the past 15 years, NU might actually be a pretty good football school. Instead, people can’t believe their team lost to the nerd school with the purple helmets. For the masterminds behind the program, the question is what the team can do off the field to get some respect for their on-field success.

Jim Phillips has a plan. There’s a gap between the winning tradition the team is building and the public’s perception of NU football, and he wants to change that. “At every turn, we have to reinvest in our football program,” says Phillips, the Cats’ new athletic director.

To do that, the program has to build from the ground up: the field. The Cats have always played – and more importantly, practiced – in inferior facilities. But that changed when NU’s 15th president arrived in 1995. “I think the best asset over the last decade has been Henry Bienen,” says Mark Murphy, NU’s athletic director from 2003-2007 and the current President/CEO of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. “He’s been such a strong advocate of athletics.”

A legendary fundraiser, Bienen oversaw a financial revolution in the athletic department. First, he commissioned renovations at Dyche Stadium, NU’s football stadium since 1926. The makeover stretched to both the facility and its name. A new grass surface was put in, and the naming rights were sold to Patrick Ryan, the chairman of the Board of Trustees. At a cost of approximately $30 million, NU cut the ribbon on Ryan Field in 1997.

But the new stadium wasn’t just a fancier house for fans. More importantly, it changed the culture of NU’s athletic spending. “He was invaluable,” Murphy says of Bienen. “It was really a joint effort as part of an initiative to establish an endowment in support of athletics and raise money for these facilities.” Murphy led an effort to give the Cats a top-tier indoor facility, though he was not around to see it finished. The attachment to the Nicolet Football Center opened in 2008 and provides a practice field for a wide variety of sports. With a new FieldTurf surface, the facility has received rave reviews from players and coaches alike. Phillips has continued to spend heavily on the football team. NU coach Pat Fitzgerald hired new offensive and defensive coordinators in the offseason, which Phillips said cost the school “to the tune of $300,000.”

But money doesn’t solve everything. Even the renovations did not improve the woeful attendance at football games. With a seating capacity of 47,130, Ryan Field is by far the smallest stadium in the Big Ten. Three conference opponents – Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan – have stadiums more than twice as big as NU’s.

Yet NU usually plays its home games surrounded by empty seats. Week after week, the attendance at Ryan Field hovers around 30,000. Two weeks ago, the Wildcats’ clash with Michigan State – a matchup of two top 25 teams – drew only 32,527 fans, less than two-thirds of capacity. The obstacles to a sellout are daunting: Northwestern has only 7,826 students, leaving alumni and Chicago-area residents to fill up to 40,000 seats. And tickets aren’t free for everyone else.

Enter Phillips, the athletic director with a knack for getting the word out. When Phillips was hired, Bienen said he would need to “put fannies in the seats.” The new athletic director has a litany of ideas to do just that. “We have to make the game experience better,” Phillips says. “We can’t run out of hot dogs in the second quarter. It can’t be difficult to park.” More importantly, Phillips is focused on lowering ticket prices. Currently, end zone seats are $35, while reserved seats along the sidelines are $50. Phillips believes there is room for change in the rates. “We have to have a much cheaper seat,” he says. “The seats are empty to begin with, so why wouldn’t we be more creative with our pricing structure?”

Because Northwestern is on the quarter system, the team’s first home games are played when most of the student body is not on campus. For these games, getting alumni and Chicago-area residents in the seats is a vital but difficult task. “Quite honestly, it’s a real challenge to fill the stadium week in and week out,” Murphy says. Whether or not Chicago residents flock to NU, the students will remain the loudest and most purple fans. A variety of student groups, such as One Northwestern, have organized events to get students to come to games, most notably the “Purple Haze” for the Michigan State match, when the group handed out 1,500 free purple shirts before the game.

The athletic department has also been trying to reach out to students from the moment they got here. “It begins with our students,” Philips says. “We paid close attention to our freshman class this year. We literally got them on campus and walked them over for the Ohio game.”


While the student body cheers the team on, Phillips is in the press box, shaking every hand and getting to know every journalist and public relations rep. NU’s athletic director never stops getting the word out, win or lose. “His leadership is incredible,” Fitzgerald says. “He’s got incredible passion and that helps every day.”

For Phillips, every conversation is another marketing opportunity. “You have to market and promote Northwestern football at every opportunity,” he says. “Any time you can be around bowl reps, TV folks. We’re on ESPN … There’s an external component to it.”

Few people are more important than the representatives from bowl games. They recommend which teams should go to which bowls. When it’s a close call, their opinions matter more. So they go to conference games, where they are feted and “glad-handed” by people from both schools. While the bowl reps themselves don’t attend games before the season begins, the national media is critiquing the Cats from the first snap of the year. NU plays the bulk of its non-conference schedule in the first three or four games of the season, deciding what teams to play.

As the football team has improved, so has its schedule. While the Cats played no marquee opponents this season, they have a four-year, three-game contract with rising SEC power Vanderbilt beginning in 2010 and a two-year contract with Boston College beginning in 2011. Those will be NU’s first high-profile opponents outside the Big Ten since a two-year contract with Arizona State expired in 2005. Phillips hopes to add more quality opponents, specifically mentioning Stanford and Cal.

But Phillips cautions that NU is looking to play schools that also focus on the classroom. “We want to play schools that have similar academic profiles,” he says. “With that in mind, we’re trying to play some schools that have had some success with football. I think it’s part of a balance you have to have.”


Though he has only been on the job a few months, Phillips had already made use of the team’s most valuable marketing tool: coach Pat Fitzgerald. The head coach was a linebacker at the school from 1993-96, leading NU’s defense during the team’s “Purple to Pasadena” Rose Bowl season in 1995. As a player, Fitzgerald saw the efforts then-coach Gary Barnett made to change the perception of NU football. As an assistant coach, he became a top-flight recrui
ter under Randy Walker and appeared to be the heir apparent to the head coaching job years down the line.

When Walker died of a heart attack in July 2006, Murphy was forced to decide if Fitzgerald, who was just 31 at the time, was ready to lead the program on and off the field. It took Murphy just one week to name Fitzgerald head coach. “I think Pat is a great leader for the program,” Murphy says. “I think people all across the Chicago area really relate to him well, you know, he’s from the South Side. Having him in the leadership position is crucial.”

Fitzgerald’s notoriety has led to a bevy of public appearances; he even sang “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” at Wrigley Field. But the NU coach spends most of his free time on the recruiting trail, looking for the next Tyrell Sutton or Luis Castillo. The more successful the Wildcats are, the better success they will have recruiting for the future. “I think that when you say Northwestern, kids think that we’re a winner,” he says, “that we’re a program on the rise. At the end of the day, I think recruiting has definitely taken a jump.”

While Fitzgerald and Phillips rarely work directly together, they keep each other up to speed on all football-related issues. Every Thursday, the two meet to discuss the events of the previous week, and Fitzgerald gives Phillips a status report on the team. “We’ll talk about donors, corporate sponsors, people that can help make a difference in out football program,” Phillips says. “There’s definitely some overlap in what we do.”

But all off-the-field maneuverings and all of Phillips’ ideas mean nothing unless the Cats get it done on the field. But what does NU need to do to change its reputation? “Win,” Philips says. Since their run to the Rose Bowl in 1995, the Cats have been as good as most of the Big Ten. NU won two more conference titles in 1996 and 2000. They have played in five bowl games in the past 15 years after a 46-year drought and are virtually certain to go to a bowl this year, too.

But when NU has reached the national stage of a bowl game, it has fallen flat. The program has won just one bowl game – the 1949 Rose Bowl – in its 126-year history, losing its last five postseason appearances. Most recently, the Cats blew a 22-point first quarter lead in the 2005 Sun Bowl, eventually losing to UCLA, 50-38.

Come December or January, Fitzgerald’s squad will have a chance to erase 60 years of postseason futility and bring home NU’s second bowl win. That kind of victory would give a crucial boost to a program already on the rise. Win or lose, Phillips sees big things coming. “We’ve shown we can get to that level, and that makes us hunger and thirst for more,” he says. “I think the future is bright.”

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Field of Dreams