Football: Northwestern’s sports history at Wrigley Field


Graphic by Carly Schulman

The Wildcats and Cubs traverse Wrigley’s ivy-clad outfield. Saturday’s game against Purdue will be NU football’s first in the historic venue since 2010.

John Riker, Sports Editor

Rumblings of a Northwestern football game at Wrigley Field began in 2008.

Spearheaded by then-athletic director and current Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Phillips, the Wildcats’ efforts faced logistical challenges, like fitting a football field in a hallowed baseball venue.

Cubs officials and the Illinois athletic department shot down early reports of an Illinois-NU in-state clash in 2009.

Then, on April 22, 2010, NU announced college football would return to the Friendly Confines that November for the first time since 1938. The game itself, a 48-27 Illinois drubbing of the Cats, was anticlimactic for NU fans. But the connection between “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and the North Siders has only strengthened over the past decade.

Thanks to the close proximity between NU’s Evanston campus and Wrigley Field’s convenient location in Chicago’s North Side, students have been just a Chicago Transit Authority ride away from pivotal moments in the sports world.

The NFL’s Chicago Bears played at Wrigley Field for almost 50 years until 1970. While short on the wins, the Cubs have entertained fans with moments as iconic as Sammy Sosa’s home run chase in 1998 and the Steve Bartman fan interference debacle in the 2003 National League Championship Series. And in 2016, the Cubs brought a World Series title and a 5,000,000-person championship parade to the city.

The purple presence at Wrigley Field was significant in the 2000s. Annual NU Days drew significant crowds of college students to the Friendly Confines, including about 1,500 in 2007. But Phillips’ efforts to bring Cats football to the park was another ballgame.

NU’s Wrigley debut eventually came to fruition and was even featured on ESPN’s College Gameday, but the conversion from the diamond to the gridiron wasn’t a smooth one. Each team had to run their drives toward the west end zone due to a lack of space beyond the east end zone, making gameplay awkward and difficult to watch for the students who paid $58 for spots in the student section.

“We unfortunately faced a pretty big injury the week before when we lost (quarterback) Danny (Persa), and that was pretty damaging … but it was an awesome atmosphere,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “A lot of fun, and there’s something special about playing football at Wrigley Field.”

The Cats’ next trips offered more grounds for celebration. NU baseball shut out Michigan 6-0 in the historic baseball venue in 2013, while lacrosse offered an example of a seamless Wrigley Field conversion to another sport in a 12-7 win over USC in 2014.

After drawing 5,145 fans out to Wrigley, lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller praised the game day atmosphere.

“This was a really really special experience for our players,” Hiller told The Daily in 2014. “Walking out here, we didn’t really want to leave.”

NU football was slated to return to Wrigleyville to face Wisconsin in 2020, but the game shifted back north to Ryan Field in Evanston due to the pandemic. With the insights of the 2010 game and stadium renovations working in the Cats’ favor, Saturday’s Wildcats Classic promises to be a smoother experience.

Since its loss to Illinois in 2010, NU has taken a step forward as a program, winning two Big Ten West titles and five bowls. One of those bowl games even came in another baseball stadium, a 31-24 Pinstripe Bowl victory over then-No. 22 Pittsburgh in Yankee Stadium.

This time around, winning at Wrigley Field will be a difficult task for NU, with the visiting Purdue Boilermakers boasting wins over then-No. 2 Iowa and then-No. 5 Michigan State. And the Cats still looking for their first Big Ten West victory.

“I just want to win a game. We haven’t played very well,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a great opportunity down there in Wrigleyville to have a lot of fun, and it should be great.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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