Gameday: Giving Wrigley’s diamond a gridiron

Jonah L. Rosenblum

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There were a couple of hints Wednesday that this wasn’t your ordinary week of Northwestern football.

For one, NU was holding a closed practice at Ryan Field instead of its usual open session on one of the practice fields nearby. And then there was the gigantic ESPN “College GameDay” bus parked on Ashland Avenue just outside Ryan Field.

The excitement was clear. One person spotted the bus as he walked from one facility to the next.

“Is that the GameDay bus?” he said. “Is that (GameDay commentator Lee) Corso in there right now?”

It’s an atmosphere that extends to NU and Illinois players alike, as each team strives for the Land of Lincoln Trophy at a stadium that hasn’t hosted a football game in four decades.

“That’s very exciting, playing in Wrigley Field,” Illinois defensive back Tavon Wilson said. “It’s different, kind of like a change-up, not playing at the other school. Some other programs probably wish they could play at Wrigley Field.”

The Bears’s Old Den

Although it’s hard for 20-somethings like Wilson to imagine football being played at Wrigley, the Friendly Confines hosted the most professional football games of any stadium in the country as the home of the Chicago Bears for nearly five decades, until Giants Stadium passed it in 2003.

Senior long snapper and Chicago-area native John Henry Pace is well-versed in the history of the stadium, through his own experience and that of his father, Greg Pace.

“I’ve been to a lot of Cubs games there, and my dad went to so many Bears games there,” John Henry Pace said. “It’s got a real special place in my heart ­- just being able to play on the same field as so many Bears greats and Cubs greats.”

Greg Pace’s memories go beyond simply sitting in the stands at Wrigley. According to his son, he talks about the time he participated in a “Punt, Pass & Kick” competition on the field.

“He’s always told stories about that and everything,” John Henry Pace said. “He’s always been saying that we’re probably the only family to play on this field before, and he said it was really cool being out there.”

Wrigley hosted its share of collegiate games as well, including NU. In 1923, the Wildcats and Illini squared off in front of 32,000 fans. There will be more fans this time around, with Saturday’s game already sold out.

After the Bears left in 1970, Wrigley Field became a baseball-only facility, aside from the occasional concert.

That changed temporarily on New Year’s Day 2009 when the Chicago Blackhawks hosted the Detroit Red Wings at Addison and Clark. NU athletic director Jim Phillips said when he saw the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley, he knew it was an experience he wanted to recreate with the Cats.

“We were all captivated by the Wrigley Field atmosphere during the NHL’s Winter Classic,” Phillips said. “We want to recreate that fantastic fan experience, this time with college football.”

From Idea to Reality

Of course, placing a hockey rink in the middle of Wrigley Field is a lot easier than fitting a football gridiron in the Friendly Confines.

Indeed, more than a year went by from the time the idea first popped up in January 2009 to the announcement of the game in April 2010. The time in between was stacked with negotiations about “everything” according to Mike Wolf, a spokesman in NU’s athletic department.

Among the primary issues were field layout and the safety of the players involved.

“When (Illinois coach Ron) Zook and I were down there over the summer a couple years ago, we both said we were for it as long as the health, safety and well-being of our players is the number one priority,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It got turned over to the universities, and they were the ones making the decisions.”

The layout that was ultimately decided upon puts the right field wall just behind the north end zone, a potentially dangerous situation, but Fitzgerald insisted both universities were taking safety into account.

“If you think back, it took some time for the T’s to get crossed and the I’s to get dotted so I think both universities felt great about it from a risk management standpoint,” Fitzgerald said. “It will be an element in the game but we’ll plan accordingly.”

The Illini and Cats will also be sharing a sideline, which is highly unusual in college football. And while Bears games were played on a north-to-south field, NU and Illinois will be playing east-to-west, which might cause difficulties as the sun begins to set.

Other issues included ticket distribution and liability, but all of these have been worked out at least for 2010. As for future games, Wolf wrote in an e-mail that Cubs Executive Chairman Tom Ricketts suggested having a game at Wrigley Field every year, but Fitzgerald doesn’t want to jump the gun.

“Why don’t you ask me that on Saturday?” Fitzgerald said. “It’s been a lot of fun to this point. I’m just appreciative of our administration handling all the logistics.”

The Players’ Reaction

One day, according to sophomore defensive end Quentin Williams, Fitzgerald brought the team’s Leadership Council into his office for a little surprise. He had a picture of a football gridiron at Wrigley Field, the field Williams and his teammates will get to grace on Saturday. Williams, now in his second year on the Leadership Council, recalled having a strong reaction.

“I was just blown away,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘What is this? Is this really going to happen?'”

Williams, a Pittsburgh native, said he didn’t know all that much about the history of Wrigley Field at the time – he was simply amazed at the idea of playing football there.

“The fact that they were able to fit a football field into a baseball stadium is beyond me, or at least was beyond me,” Williams said.

And while the history of the stadium is important to Illinois wide receiver Eddie McGee, he too was fascinated simply by the prospect of playing football on a baseball field.

“I’m just interested to play on the type of field teams like the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders,” McGee said. “They have dirt on their field so I’m interested to see how that’s going to work out.”

When Williams learned that they would be playing at Wrigley, he was ecstatic.

“It was a really exciting day, ” Williams said. “It was hard to keep my mouth shut for a couple of days.”

A Lost Home Game?

NU got its game at Wrigley but at a considerable cost, losing what would have been its sixth home game.

Regardless of the now purple-painted marquee of Wrigley Field, is it hard for Fitzgerald to give up a game in Evanston?

“Yes, and no,” Fitzgerald said, standing on the grass of Ryan Field. “For the uniqueness and the opportunity that our guys get, the answer is no. But I want to play here at home. This is our home field, playing in front of our students and our fans here.”

Pace said the loss of a conference home game is not a huge deal.

“Playing in Ryan Field is a lot of fun,” Pace said. “It’s a great advantage for us, but knowing our team, we’re prepared to play anyone, anywhere, anytime and being able to play down at Wrigley Field is going to be really special for our program.”

Fitzgerald is expecting plenty of purple in the stands, especially since NU was in control of most of the ticket distribution for the game.

“We’re expecting our 30,000 fans to be there,” Fitzgerald said. “It should be similar to some our other home environments.”

While Fitzgerald might be expecting a home atmosphere, defensive lineman Clay Nurse is expecting the Illini fanbase to flock to this away game.

“They better travel,” Nurse said. “It’s two-and-a-half hours away. They’re going to make that trip.”

According to Wolf, NU was willing to move a home game to Wrigley Field for two reasons. First, the Cats were hoping the spectacle of a game at Wrigley would help boost season ticket sales, and indeed, sales are up 40 percent.

Second, they wanted to increase awareness of NU football in the Chicago-area market. The Wrigley game fit perfectly into the University’s new marketing campaign as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”

“You have to be aggressive, and that’s why the game at Wrigley was done – create a bowl-like atmosphere during the regular season, create some interest in your regular season with a game in a different venue,” Phillips said. “That’s an area that I really enjoy being a part of – being aggressive and fighting for what you believe is important. What’s important to us is filling Ryan Field and boosting attendance.”

Of course, the Cats aren’t the only ones hoping Saturday’s game pump up their fans.

“For the players, it’s just another game,” Nurse said, “but for the fan base, it’s going to ignite them and energize them because those guys are going to enjoy seeing their team there and being at that stadium. It’s just great exposure for the team and the program.”

Dealing With the Spectacle

Williams is used to some of the distractions inherent in changing ballparks. As a member of NU’s baseball team, he has played games at three MLB parks: U.S. Cellular Field, Miller Park and the Metrodome.

For all the parks he has visited, this will be his first time at Wrigley Field.

“It’s going to be really cool,” Williams said. “I’ve never been inside, and just seeing it on TV is pretty much all I saw as a kid, just seeing the ivy, all the history’s that there.”

Yet, he knows as well as anyone, the importance of honing in on the game.

“The more we treat it like a regular season game, the better off we are going to be,” Williams said. “The less we give in to the hype, the better. There’s no reason not to get excited for this game because it’s a rivalry game. We’re playing for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, and if we can keep our focus on that, then we’ll be fine.”

Fitzgerald even suggested all the hype surrounding the game might be a positive factor for NU.

“You know what, the more I’ve gone through the week, the more I like it, especially coming off a big win,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s really forcing us to focus.”