When the Northwestern Wildcats first came to Wrigley Field in 2010 to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini, they were a program looking for attention.
New athletic director Jim Phillips had boldly declared the Wildcats as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and this was their way to begin reaching out to their neighbors to the south.
Never mind that much of the stadium was orange and blue for the opponent. Never mind that luck did not favor Northwestern as Dan Persa ruptured his Achilles the week before, leaving the team to use a fresh starter in the game. Also never mind that Wrigley Field was not technically safe for football, forcing the teams to use only one end zone.
What seemed to matter more was that purple scoreboard behind the College GameDay crew for a battle of teams struggling to make a bowl game that year (they both did with Northwestern debuting Kain Colter in a TicketCity Bowl loss to Texas Tech).
This was a publicity stunt — as all these novelty neutral site games are — but one with a specific purpose.
First to show the nation on College GameDay on the field that Northwestern football was no longer a pushover (that mission was not accomplished that Saturday afternoon). The second, to plant that literal flag in Chicago and build a relationship with the city and one of its most beloved sports icons.
Northwestern left the field that day maybe a bit premature to lay claim to the city. But the team and the program was always plotting a return for football (since then both baseball and lacrosse have played games on Wrigley Field).
The Wildcats a decade later are very different. A team that is more competitive and thinking of greater things. This is a program ready to stake claim to Chicago in a very real way.
Northwestern will get that opportunity, likely again in the spotlight, when the team takes on Wisconsin at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020.
That game figures to be a critical one in the Big Ten West between two fo the division’s most consistent teams. With teh spotlight on, Northwestern hopes this will be a marquee game and, of course, a victory that the program can hang its hat on while playing on a big stage.
Of course, 2020 is still very far away. The Wildcats and Badgers will recycle their rosters as every college team will.
By that point, Northwestern will be completely moved in to Ryan Fieldhouse for a few years. Recruits will have gone through that building and the team’s new training facilities not with hard hats on but with helmets on actually seeing the team practice in the lakeside facility.
Northwestern hopes this facility — the same one Yahoo! Sports called the best facility in college football — will tip the scales in recruiting. Northwestern has knocked on the door of competitiveness for several years with great recruiting. Now they hope they have a true advantage to push them over the edge.
The Wildcats have always had to create their own publicity. Students are not exactly passionate sports fans — although that part of campus culture has grown considerably in the last decade-plus. And the team does not have the huge alumni base. There will be a lot of red in Wrigley Field that Saturday afternoon.
The team though wants to use this stage it created to showcase itself all over again.
Back in 2010, the program was still experiencing sustained success for the first time. The Wildcats had not yet won a bowl game (not since 1949) and going to bowl games in consecutive years was novel. Winning the Big Ten West was a marketing scheme, not an achievable goal.
Chicago’s Big Ten Team was aspirational.
Now that has all changed. The facilities are in place. Northwestern has three bowl wins since 2012 and a few 10-win seasons to boot. The team has real championship aspirations almost every year. And that will be the case when they had to Wrigley.
As they step onto that historic field, Northwestern will truly be playing to become Chicago’s Big Ten Team. And a win on that day will catapult the program to new heights.
This trip will be a much bigger test for the program and potentially a whole lot more rewarding.