Northwestern looks to practice at Navy base

Northwestern is hoping to finish preseason camp at boot camp.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com on Wednesday that plans are being finalized to hold a preseason practice at Naval Station Great Lakes, the U.S. Navy's training headquarters, which is located about 20 miles north of Northwestern's campus near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The Great Lakes base houses the U.S. Navy's only boot camp facility.

The practice at Great Lakes would take place Aug. 23, as Northwestern travels back to Evanston from its off-campus preseason training site in Kenosha, Wis. One of Northwestern's assistant coaches came up with the idea, and Fitzgerald, who never served in the military but has always been "intrigued" by the armed forces, was all for it.

Fitzgerald has made two trips to the Naval base and toured the facilities, which include a regulation FieldTurf football field that can accommodate a practice.

"We're trying to make it really special and give back," Fitzgerald said. "I'm very grateful and thankful for the protection and security they provide for us.

"Obviously, this could be a pretty special tradition that we're able to start."

Great Lakes has plenty of tradition in football, although you have to go back more than 50 years to find it. The naval base is actually somewhat of a forgotten powerhouse in Midwest college football.

Great Lakes played an intercollegiate schedule from the 1910s to the 1940s, and the team's accomplishments included a 1919 Rose Bowl victory and a 1943 victory against an undefeated Notre Dame squad ranked No. 1 in the country. The Great Lakes Bluejackets finished No. 6 in the final AP Poll that year.

Because so many players went from college to military service, Great Lakes boasted players like George Halas, Johnny Lujack and Otto Graham, who starred at Northwestern before joining the Navy. The Great Lakes teams were coached by the likes of Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank and Frank Leahy.

Northwestern first played Great Lakes Navy in 1918 and had three consecutive meetings with the base's team between 1942-44. In 1943, both teams were ranked in the top 20 as Northwestern beat Great Lakes 13-0.

"Some of the best football players ever to play, played for the Great Lakes team when they went into the military," Fitzgerald said. "That was more of the tradition [back then], you would go to college for a couple of years and then you went to the military."

He attended a boot camp graduation ceremony Friday at Great Lakes and spent some time with the base's top officials. Fitzgerald hopes to take the coaching staff and Northwestern's leadership council to the base this summer.

The practice in August would be closed to the public, mainly because of security concerns on the base. But Fitzgerald hopes the visit can become an annual tradition.

"Our desired goal is to give back and bring Big Ten football to them and let them experience it, have some fun and enjoy it," Fitzgerald said, "maybe give them a little bit of entertainment throughout their training."

Fitzgerald also would like to have the Great Lakes recruits attend Northwestern home games this season.

"You've got about 10,000 college-aged kids, why not have them be college fans of Northwestern?" Fitzgerald said. "When I was at graduation, I met young people from all over the country: St. Louis, Chicago, Boston. And they don't really have a college to cheer for.

"It could be a really special relationship."