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Northwestern, Cubs talk Wrigley change

I've arrived safely in Detroit, but all the attention remains on Wrigley Field and the last-minute decision to primarily use one end zone in Saturday's Northwestern-Illinois game.

In case you missed it, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips appeared on ESPN Radio 1000 in Chicago to discuss what went into the decision. According to Phillips, all parties agreed that using only the West end zone would decrease the risk to players' safety. Although Phillips and others stumped for the safety of the field layout earlier this week, they cited increasing concerns as game day approached.

"We've been planning for this for a while, there were no surprises," Phillips told ESPN 1000. "The field came out the way we thought, it ended up maybe being a little closer with some of the padding. As we looked at it -- the visual aspect of it -- this week, we just felt there was a low probability that something would happen. But had we taken every step that we could to ensure that the safety was maximized, and that we did everything we possibly could under our purview to make it as safe as possible?

"And the more we thought about it, the more we talked about it, we looked at it, we just felt like this was something we needed to do. And it was complete uniformity between the Big Ten conference, and Northwestern and Illinois. At the heart of it was to make sure we had done everything we could to make it safe."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald downplayed the impact of the change and tried to put a positive spin on things.

"You want to talk about maybe the most unique game ever played in college football history?" Fitzgerald said Friday. "We've got it right here. I think it will be really cool."

Fitzgerald likened the new rules setup to playing pickup football as a kid.

"Losers walk," he said. "It's football. Let's go. To me, it doesn't change a whole lot."

The Chicago Cubs also weighed in and expressed surprise at the change.

"The Chicago Cubs are surprised by the Big Ten's last-minute statement regarding changes for tomorrow's Northwestern-Illinois football game at Wrigley Field," Cubs president Crane Kenney said in a statement. "Let there be no doubt: the safety of the student-athletes has been -- and remains -- the number one priority since the concept of this game was first discussed more than a year ago, and all parties have gone to complete lengths to ensure student-athlete safety for this contest.

"The essential item in our negotiations to host the football game at Wrigley Field was obtaining approval of both universities and the Big Ten for the field dimensions as related to player safety issues. The field dimension layout was delivered to the Big Ten approximately eight months ago and was approved by the conference. Last month, the field was built exactly to the dimensions previously approved by the Big Ten. Last week, a Big Ten official performed an on-site visit at Wrigley Field, participated in a field walk-thru and raised no issue with the field dimensions, painted lines and boundaries previously approved by the Big Ten.

"This game would not have been scheduled if it did not pass the strict and meticulous standards of everyone involved, a process that began more than a year ago. All are in agreement Wrigley Field is a safe venue to host a football game."

Kenney's statement is very interesting, especially in the wake of a rule regarding space behind the end zone that seemed to be at the center of the Big Ten's decision to intervene. Why was the rule only invoked now after the Big Ten approved the layout?

Someone clearly panicked here, and I think it's the Big Ten.

Northwestern officials seemed fine with the setup as recently as Thursday morning, as I visited with facilities staff on the field at Wrigley. While Illinois officials had more concerns about the East end zone after a site visit last week, head coach Ron Zook seemed willing to go ahead with things.

I'm hoping to talk with league commissioner Jim Delany later today. Stay tuned.