Wildcats are still purple people seekers

AP Photo/Scott Boehm

Paul Schatz grew up about a mile from Northwestern's football stadium and attended his first game there as an 11-year-old when the Wildcats played Rice.

Schatz remembers two things clearly from that game: out-hustling other kids to catch the ball on an extra point and having plenty of room to roam.

"As a kid, you could just run on the bleachers across sections until you found your area," said Schatz, who's now a data analyst at the school. "Then you could spread out, lean back on the row behind you and put your feet up on the row in front of you. There would be other people maybe 20 feet away with their own similar area."

Alan Goldstein graduated from Northwestern in 1991. During his undergraduate days, he said, students would leave and re-enter games just by showing their IDs. They staged marshmallow fights in the stands to stay entertained. Since one of the parking lots was virtually empty, fraternities would take their grills and coolers out there to tailgate.

"The games were secondary to everything else going on because we had no fans outside of the few kids and alumni who showed up," said Goldstein, who now lives in Los Angeles and is involved in the alumni group there. "There was one team in Chicago back then, and it was in South Bend. Nobody cared about us."

Northwestern has clearly come a long way since those days in the 1980s and early '90s. But the school is still only cautiously optimistic that, when ESPN's "College GameDay" rolls into Evanston for this week's game against No. 4 Ohio State, it can present a bona fide big-time college football atmosphere. The Wildcats have often struggled to create a true home-field advantage like many of their Big Ten peers enjoy.

"I can tell you for a fact that it will be different than any years in the past," said Ryan Chenault, Northwestern's assistant athletic director for marketing. "A large amount of tickets have gone to Northwestern-friendly groups. Hopefully, that will translate to what we want it to be on Saturday night."

Chenault is part of a team of administrators who have worked hard at improving the overall experience at Ryan Field. They have a lot of obstacles to overcome.

As a private school with an undergraduate enrollment of about 8,000, Northwestern has the smallest alumni base in the Big Ten, and those alumni are scattered all over the country. The team competes for attention in the crowded sports market of Chicago, a hub for many other Big Ten schools' fans. Nearly a quarter-century of football irrelevance beginning in the early 1970s meant that few fans who grew up in that era chose to root for the Wildcats.

It wasn't until Gary Barnett revived the program in the mid-1990s that people started showing up to games. The 1995 Rose Bowl season spurred major renovations to the stadium which debuted in 1997, when the facility's name changed from Dyche Stadium to Ryan Field.

""It went from nothing to at least something," said Schatz, who has had season tickets since 1993.

Still, keeping the stands full or even close to it has remained a challenge. In 2009, Northwestern averaged 24,190 fans per game at Ryan Field, which has a capacity of just over 47,000. The number has climbed, as the team averaged 35,697 last season and through three home games this year, the Wildcats have drawn an average of 34,629. That ranks No. 72 in the FBS.

This summer, an Athlon survey ranked Ryan Field as the worst of 12 home atmospheres in the Big Ten, saying that "much like Duke or Vanderbilt, this venue struggles to match the rabid intensity of bigger more powerful athletic departments."

When Northwestern has attracted large crowds, the visiting fans usually are a big reason why. Nebraska's Sea of Red took over the stands last year and was so loud that the Wildcats' offense went to a silent count in the second half -- at home. The team practiced using the silent count this week, just in case Ohio State fans pull off a similar invasion.

"They probably have more alumni in Chicago than we do from a pure numbers standpoint," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Ohio State. "But I'm expecting a very pro- and solid homefield advantage for us."

The school took measures in the offseason to help ensure there's more purple than scarlet and gray in the seats on Saturday. It sent notices to more than 100,000 alumni, offering them the chance to buy tickets to this game, which is homecoming. That was the first time alumni were given the opportunity to buy tickets ahead of the general public.

"The response was huge," Chenault said. "We sold double the amount of tickets than we ever have through the alumni association. We had always worked with them, but never to this magnitude."

Northwestern also placed limits on the amount of extra seats current season-ticket holders could purchase, hoping to curb people from selling those extras to Ohio State fans. While the school does not release sales figures, Chenault said the season-ticket base is at an all-time high and twice what it was in 2009. Only a couple of thousand tickets to this game were made available to the general public.

This follows an aggressive marketing campaign launched in 2010 in which Northwestern branded itself as "Chicago's Big Ten team" and started targeting sales calls to fans in and around the city, even those who went to different league schools.

"Maybe they root for their alma mater, but for the other six games, they slowly become Northwestern fans," Chenault said. "It's kind of hard to stand out in Chicago."

The gameday atmosphere has noticeably improved, and it helps that Fitzgerald has the program on a roll. The Wildcats won 10 games last year and captured their first bowl victory since 1948. Fitzgerald, who starred at linebacker for the school from 1993-96, laughed when I asked him how the crowd support for the team had changed since he was a young player.

"Night and day, my friend, night and day," he said. "It's been terrific, the change in the climate here and our fans, and not only the way they've supported us here but in the bowl experiences we've had. At our opening game in Berkeley (against California), the fan support was amazing. There's a ton of positive momentum, the city has really embraced us and we've just got to continue to do our part."

Saturday will bring one of the most anticipated home games in Northwestern's history. Many tickets on the secondary market are being offered for upwards of $200. "GameDay" makes its first visit to Evanston since 1995, though the show did originate from Wrigley Field for the 2010 game there between Northwestern and Illinois.

"A lot of guys in my class, that was our vision," senior receiver Rashad Lawrence said. "Our vision was to come here and basically change the program around."

It's something that would have been hard to envision 20 years ago.

"Evanston is not a big college football town," Schatz said. "To have ESPN's 'GameDay' here for a sold-out national game, it is a little hard to believe. It's good to have the program be rewarded like this."