The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

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The Field of Broken Dreams | Episode 4: The Stadium

Note: This podcast is designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page.

Mack Jones Inside the Arroyo Seco – the ravine just northwest of old town Pasadena – sits the Rose Bowl. One of the most iconic stadiums in sports, and from a couple of blocks away, it’s invisible. 

There’s only Southern California.

Maybe it was the valley oak and palm trees blocking the stadium out of sight behind telephone poles and streetlights – the ones that work, not the cast iron gas lamps from years ago. The City of Pasadena’s old and pointy gothic ones were beautiful with their pebbled lavender glass, but most of the old lights got removed for modern ones that look like the eyes of a praying mantis.

Recycling bins bordered houses that hadn’t picked them up after the 7 a.m. pickup. They’re the ones every city uses, the wheelbarrow-like ones that make it easier for collectors to lug them next to the trucks. Each town tries to be unique with a slightly different color – Pasadena’s are green – but they still look the same. A city logo on the side. A couple of indents here and there for texture. 

And then, out of nowhere, from century-old houses, there’s N Arroyo Blvd. and the iconic Rose Bowl sign with the words “Rose Bowl” in cursive and a single rose tilted on its side above, all in neon.

But the stadium itself is dull. It’s gray on gray – gray columns, a gray main structure and a gray overhang. The Rose Bowl’s appeal is from its history, not its quality. The only color came from the neon and the sky, but fortunately, it feels like every day in Pasadena is 70 and sunny.

The flea market out front’s empty. The second Sunday of every month sees some eclectic little antique stands and specialty products shops not necessarily trying to scam their customers but sometimes succeeding nonetheless. They’d make a lot of money on the first day of the year.

The day of the game.

In 1996, the Northwestern Wildcats and USC Trojans competed on the field and in flower-filled floats created for the Tournament of Roses Parade. The purple and white of Northwestern and the cardinal and gold of USC didn’t mix, but the situation forced fans to. Otherwise, they wouldn’t fit. The Rose Bowl sat 100,000, and almost all were on the tarmac outside, waiting to get in for the 82nd annual Rose Bowl game.

The gates opened at 11:30 a.m., and fans crowded the narrow tunnels, surrounded by middle-of-the-road concessions. They moved past the $20 beers and rip-off Dodger Dogs into open-air stands that mimicked the faded terracotta roofs so familiar to California. The claustrophobic seats had less space than the rows of porta-potties outside, but that didn’t deter patrons from filling them. 

Northwestern’s run to the Rose Bowl was historic, increasing demand for the game. It was supposed to be another classic event hosted in Pasadena along with Super Bowls and World Cup Finals. 

Behind the endzones, sand-colored seats that once contrasted the clay ones had become washed away with purple in time for kickoff. Despite USC’s proximity to the stadium, Northwestern’s alums turned out in extraordinary numbers and filled most of the Rose Bowl. 

Kevin Vedder It was unbelievable.

Mack Jones Kevin Vedder, co-manager for the Twitter feed of the HailToPurple Northwestern football fan website and an NU graduate, was at the game with tens of thousands of other Wildcat supporters.

Kevin Vedder Northwestern hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1949 before that. It was only the second bowl game in the history of the school. So that was an incredible thing, I mean, people really turned out because they didn’t know if they would ever see it again.

Mack Jones Northwestern started the game solid but quickly collapsed. USC got a scoop-and-score to take a three-possession lead, and fans began seeing why Northwestern was, historically, the worst team in college football. 

But that team was different. Some said magical, even. Two field goals brought the game back within striking distance for the Wildcats, and a successful onside kick shifted momentum to Northwestern. The ‘Cats scored on every third-quarter possession and took the lead early in the fourth.

Kevin Vedder It was, you thought this could really happen.

Mack Jones A common phrase among Northwestern fans in the 1995 season was, “It’s the hope that kills you.” USC regained the lead immediately after the Wildcats got it, and the Trojans didn’t lose it again for the rest of the game.

Northwestern lost, but it didn’t feel like a loss. The team was young, and Head Coach Gary Barnett was among the best in College Football. 

The sun set on the Rose Bowl, with the towering palm trees casting long shadows over the stadium. The warm orange sky on the evening of Rose Bowl games has been said to taunt the losing team but not Northwestern. The clock had run out, but they still had time to win.

I’m Mack Jones, and this is the Field of Broken Dreams.

(Music)

Mack Jones Even with bright stadium lights increasing its visibility for night games, Ryan Field is out of sight from a few blocks away, too.

Around a half-mile from Evanston’s most expensive lakefront houses, the lawns near Ryan Field are pristine, effectively putting greens. Buildings around the stadium aren’t the million-dollar mansions on Sheridan, but the homes aren’t cookie-cutter suburbia either. 

40-foot tall trees create a canopy providing shade over the roads and the park nearby. The City of Evanston renovated the Catharine McCulloch playground in 2021, adding a bright blue basketball court, a four-person see-saw and a commemorative sign dedicated to the suffragist Evanston named the park after.

McCulloch Park used to have a vintage wood sign with faded yellow text stating the name and other random bits of info in front of the 1.7 acres of green space. All Evanston parks had that same sign template at one point, but the city replaced the classic ones with park renovations. Instead of the timber board, the city conveyed the same information through a soulless metal post.

The scheduled kickoff was for 6:30 p.m. that night, but because of poor parking, it seemed like most people would miss it. 

Northwestern’s lots aren’t anything special, but that’s part of the problem. Despite the abysmal attendance at Wildcat football games, there aren’t enough spots for everyone. Public transportation is readily available with the Central St. “L” station, and the university sets up shuttles from downtown to games, but those options are often underutilized.

Paul Schatz Parking is a pain in the neck. I don’t drive, so that doesn’t impact me, but I’m sure that impacts a lot of other people.

Mack Jones Paul Schatz lives near the stadium and can walk to games. He’s a season ticket holder for football and basketball and has gone to games since the early 90s.

Paul Schatz I live, you know, sort of just far enough away that I see the traffic, but people aren’t parking in front of my house to go to Ryan Field. I’m a little too far for that.

Mack Jones The smaller parking lot has some benefits. Less space means the surrounding area isn’t a blank slate of asphalt like at other venues such as SoFi Stadium or the United Center. Evanston is one of the greenest cities in the country, and the area around Ryan Field isn’t an exception.

Some residents are frustrated by having a parking lot next to their house, even a small one, but not Peggy Baxter. She believes it’s a worthy sacrifice to make for having a stadium in the area. And the lot itself doesn’t create much of a disturbance, even on gamedays.

Peggy Baxter No matter how perfect the traffic plan is, no matter how perfect the parking plan is, you’re going to be inconvenienced. But you have to believe that that inconvenience for those extra days each year is going to provide even more vibrancy to our community.

Mack Jones Northwestern has hidden its parking lots behind dead-end roads, an alleyway and a massive fence. The low-level lighting in the lot makes less of an impact than regular street lights, and trees around the edge shield surrounding residents even more. 

The quality of the lot isn’t terrible, but the quantity is. There just aren’t enough spaces. Ordinarily, a non-conference game against an average MAC team wouldn’t draw that many fans, but Northwestern finished the prior season 17th in the AP poll. Many expected a better team in 2018 and wanted to see them crush Akron. Official attendance was around 40,000, and it felt like all of them were trying to park in the west parking lot.

It’s not the largest stadium in the Big 10, not even close, but any stadium is still impressive at first sight. Evanston resident Paul Hletko went to the University of Michigan, home to the nearly 108,000-seat Michigan Stadium, so going to games in Ryan Field, a stadium less than half the size of the Big House, was a bit of a shock.

Paul Hletko It’s a really small stadium. So it’s a little bit different than my alma mater’s stadium, which is the largest on the planet. But it was always fun. I mean, anytime you go to college football, it’s gonna be a good time.

Mack Jones Ryan Field has consistently been a place of joy for many Evanston residents, despite the team being terrible. The stadium has been a staple of the community, for better or worse, and it would be difficult to find a single person living in Evanston who doesn’t know about it, especially if you’re talking to superfans like Jared Tucker.

Jared Tucker One of the redeeming qualities that’s more exclusive to me: it’s very accessible. I can walk to the stadium. It takes 10-12 minutes. And so it’s super easy.

Mack Jones Having Big 10 football in and around the community nearly every week in fall is a privilege, and Evanston’s City Council recognizes the unique situation. That’s partially why Sixth Ward Alderman Tom Suffredin enjoys going to games.

Tom Suffredin It’s a great thing to have in the community. The game time shifting, you know, it was incredibly rare for there to be night games. I mean, there wouldn’t be night games, it would be more like a 2:30 kickoff, where they would have lights set up for sunset. They renovated this field not that long ago, and they didn’t even include lights. So I mean, the magnitude of these games has definitely grown, but it’s really cool to have big-time football happening in your town.

Mack Jones Separating three interior arches from the others are two almost identical 150-foot towers. A beige strip bisects the reflective windows that look like rulers up the side of the structure. There are two elevator shafts inside up to the press box and other box seats for Ryan Field’s most important guests, such as the man whose name is on the building, Patrick Ryan.

Kickoff approached, and a purple mob gathered in wait outside the elevator doors. Former Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein had seen the situation before – a giant cluster of fans clogging up the elevator and eventually missing kickoff. So he took the stairs.

Teddy Greenstein I was walking up the stairs that day for a football game and ran into Pat and Shirley. They’re not young. We could easily just be there in the elevator lobby. And they wouldn’t even have to ask. Everybody would just be like, yeah, please go ahead. And instead, they’re getting their cardio in. And it’s a long walk up there.

Mack Jones The Ryans took the stairs to their seats for football games. That’s one of the good things about the stadium: almost everything’s equal, even the elevation and run-down elevator. 

But there’s not a bad seat in Ryan Field; it’s got fantastic sightlines. Although, technically, there aren’t that many seats at all. It’s almost entirely steel benches. At least for the game against the Zips, fans occupy the bleachers, and most are Northwestern supporters. Northwestern might have a small fan base, but Akron’s is even smaller.

It wasn’t quite a sold-out stadium, the max capacity at Ryan Field is 47,000, but it was close. There were four sellouts in 2018, the most since 1948 when the Wildcats won the Rose Bowl. The stands are horseshoe-shaped, and an oatmeal-colored building with the team’s locker rooms takes up where the north side seating block would have been.

The university sets up a purple tunnel from the building to the field for the team’s entrance. A giant inflatable wildcat on top overlooked the opening with a menacing scowl on its face, and the Northwestern Marching Band shaped the space the football players ran out of. A hype video played on the video board hidden in the northeast corner, slightly beyond where the stands ended.

(2018 Northwestern Football Entrance Video)

Mack Jones Kickoff.

Northwestern got the ball first, and the drive showed promise initially. Quarterback Clayton Thorson moved the ball well and completed his first two passes for 23 yards, putting the Wildcats near midfield. 

Northwestern’s sideline was loving it. They all wore some form of black sweats and a purple top, and to make sure their hair was identical too, everyone had black baseball caps with the team’s logo. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald was a Northwestern man through and through as a player and coach, and the sideline was like a mirror maze he had stepped into.

The possession ended a failure, but Northwestern had a great defense that ranked 20th nationally in opponent points per game in 2017 and returned most of its starters for the 2018 season.

Akron’s offense wasn’t a problem for the Wildcats, and Northwestern forced a three-and-out. The Wildcats were easing into the game but showed flashes. On their second drive, running back Jeremy Larkin took over and led the ‘Cats to the red zone, only for Charlie Kuhbander to miss the 35-yard field goal.

But it wasn’t enough, and the concerned silence among fans like Tucker over Northwestern’s slow start offensively was louder than their cheers.

Jared Tucker What’s the point of having a giant Texas A&M size stadium if it’s going to be a third or two-thirds empty?

Mack Jones Half the time, Ryan Field is a third empty anyway. Northwestern doesn’t have countless fans, but Chicago has tons of Big 10 alums from other schools in the area, meaning conference games fill with Illinois and Wisconsin and Iowa supporters, schools that traditionally rival NU.

Jared Tucker Undergrad at Northwestern has like 6000 or 8000 students. It’s tiny. That’s why the family is so small. As a member of Northwestern Twitter, it makes it much easier to have a small fan base almost. The people who care for Northwestern, surprisingly, they really care. So the meme raids when we beat someone are actually surprisingly pretty good.

Mack Jones The Northwestern defense forced Akron’s second punt in as many possessions. 

Akron brought out its special teams unit, and senior punter and placekicker Nick Gasser waited for the snap. Gasser was the team’s scoring leader and Special Teams Player of the Year, but a botched snap passed him and went down as a fumble. The Wildcats pounced on the ball, and linebacker Chris Bergin came up with the turnover at the Akron 7.

Northwestern had first and goal and motioned receiver Ben Skowronek to the right. Thorson handed the ball off to Larkin, who bounced off a tackle and spun past a defender into the end zone for an NU touchdown. The kick was good, and the Wildcats were up 7-0 with half of the first quarter left.

Winning was an unfamiliar situation for Northwestern football fans. The team has been to 16 bowl games in its 130-year history, but before hiring Fitzgerald as head coach in 2006, Northwestern had only been to six and lost all but one. That hasn’t stopped the Wildcats from playing a part in fans’ lives.

Edzo’s owner Eddie Lakin grew up in Evanston, and his dad, a Northwestern alum, took him to games during the team’s FBS record of 34 straight losses from 1979 to 1982. Despite the scoreboard, Lakin loved going to Ryan Field.

Eddie Lakin It just seemed like an old coliseum stadium. If you look at the Colosseum, it’s just basically the whole thing is kind of carved on a stone, and it’s got these like graduated steps. That’s where the people sit. So it was a super basic design, but it felt very traditional, like almost how Soldier Field looks when you see the super old pictures of Soldier Field before they renovated it. So for a kid, it felt really cool because it felt like it had been there forever and the college forever, like steeped in tradition and all this kind of cool stuff.

Mack Jones When Northwestern finally broke the losing streak against Northern Illinois, fans stormed the field, tore down the goalposts and dropped them in Lake Michigan. Suffredin watched as a kid while the chaos unfolded, entranced.

Tom Suffredin That was part of our childhood up until we got to be like old men. They were there a lot lower attendance, more chill events. They were rarely televised. When I was little little that was during the like long losing streak. I remember the goalposts being torn down and all that stuff. I certainly remember going to Northwestern games like that is a great thing to have nearby. My best memories of that stadium are like when I was like a little kid being in an empty stadium with my family.

Mack Jones Baxter grew up close to the stadium in Evanston, and one of the reasons she and her husband decided to move back to the city was because they wanted their kids to experience life in a college town.

Peggy Baxter So I did grow up going to Northwestern football games. I even remember having, I went to Haven. And I even remember, in seventh and eighth grade having field days at what used to be Dyche Stadium, which is now Ryan Field. For me growing up, it was the tailgating, it was the energy, it was the fact that other Big 10 teams are coming to my hometown. And so because I had such great memories, you know, I want my kids to be able to experience the same thing.

Mack Jones Baxter’s kids were able to experience something better: one of the best periods in Northwestern football history. From 2013 to 2021, the Wildcats won five times as many bowl games as they ever had before. A strong defense was the backbone of the Fitzgerald-led teams, and they showcased it in the first half of the Akron game. 

After the touchdown, Northwestern forced two more three-and-outs. The Wildcats’ offense struggled, but it didn’t matter when Akron couldn’t get past midfield, and the first quarter ended with a one-touchdown lead for the ‘Cats.

Northwestern was a good football team in the late 2010s, but many believe the team’s best seasons were during the Barnett era when Suffredin was in his senior year of high school. 

Tom Suffredin That last home game, the Rose Bowl year, where the stadium was full. It wasn’t just full of visiting fans. Because every week it was like, this is really going out, like, this isn’t a joke. Like they’re seriously legit. I mean, that year was awesome. It was an awesome year.

Mack Jones Games went from half-empty to packed in the late ‘90s as Northwestern rattled off wins against the top schools in the country and won the Big Ten title in back-to-back years. The hype wore off after Barnett departed for Colorado, but the Wildcats still grew an increasingly committed fanbase through people like Tucker. 

Jared Tucker The obsession with Northwestern was started since I was little.

Mack Jones Tucker’s parents both went to Big Ten schools, but his mom wasn’t a diehard Indiana fan, and his dad couldn’t watch Illinois football games because they frustrated him too much. So Tucker grew up a Northwestern fan. 

Jared Tucker In the middle of a massive 13-game losing streak from Northwestern basketball, I decided to start a fan page. At the time, it was to complain that we couldn’t close out a lot of games we had to lead in.

Mack Jones Tucker began the account Northwestern Tailgate, an Instagram page dedicated to Northwestern sports. He went to nearly every football and basketball game, and against Akron, he sat in Section 110 around 50 rows up. 

There was a perfect view of the south endzone with “Wildcats” written in white letters and outlined in purple. Tucker was on the stadium’s east side and had a perfect view of the almost full seating block opposite him.

The university arranged seats in an upside-down parabola, meaning there was more room around midfield. The stands tapered off at the corners and then built back up, so instead of the towers being the tallest part of the stadium, the crest was right down the middle.

The press box, added in 1997, is the highest point at Ryan Field and completely sheltered from the elements. The glass offered a lavish view for the journalists working the game, quietly writing down notes and scribbling for game recaps that would come out only a little after the clock expired.

The way things were going for Northwestern, the stories could have been pre-written. After an Akron punt, the Wildcats started their drive with 10 minutes left in the second quarter on their own 27.

Midway through the drive, Thorson threw a deep shot to receiver Kyric McGowan for 43 yards, and the Wildcats had a first down in the red zone. 

At first and goal from the five, Northwestern lined up Larkin in the Wildcat. He took the snap, bolted to the right, found a gap and scored another Northwestern touchdown. 

Akron’s next drive stalled on fourth down, but the Zips finally broke through the NU defense on the next one and scraped out a field goal, cutting the lead to 14-3. 

With the end of the first half nearing, people started to head out into the concourse for concessions before lines got too crowded.

The tunnel through to the concourse and Ryan Field’s 19 concessions stands is short and barren, but it had to be to not eat into the limited space of the already-small interior. 

At least the concourse isn’t beige. Instead, it’s classic Northwestern – a lot of white, a little bit of purple and dashes of black to even things out.

It’s maybe a few yards to the actual concession stands. The menu signs looked written in chalk on a blackboard, evoking memories of classic Evanston restaurants like Al’s Deli or Tomate that are only one stop away on the Purple Line. There are all the usual options. Some nachos. A bag of chips. Cheeseburgers.

The prices were pretty low, but, unfortunately, they matched the quality of the food. 

Season ticket holder Schatz has gone to plenty of games over the years and has seen the stadium age like unrefrigerated deli meat.

Paul Schatz I’ve sort of gotten good at minimizing the impact of the negative parts of the Ryan field experience. But I’m hungry. I want to get some concessions. That’s gonna take a whole quarter to walk to a concession stand that has a variety of options because the concourses are narrow and crowded so it takes a while to walk somewhere. And then once you’re there, the lines are probably really long because there aren’t that many quality concession stands in the stadium.

Mack Jones No one expects stadium cuisine to be fine dining, but even Tucker’s love for games at Ryan Field can’t make him praise the stadium’s options.

Jared Tucker The stadium itself is really bad. Uncomfortable bleachers, concessions that are unmanned, overworked, or underworked, and usually we’re running out of food.

Mack Jones After giving up on food due to the long lines and poor quality, fans headed back to the bleachers to try and catch the very end of the half.  

But kickoff was just a formality to end the second quarter with Northwestern up 21-3 and looking to cruise the rest of the game. Most fans didn’t leave midway through the game, an anomaly in Schatz’s experience. 

Paul Schatz When the team does badly, fewer people show up because there’s a lot of excuses to not show up. It’s not a good experience, and when the team does well, more people are willing to kind of overlook those inconveniences and want to come to the game and make for a good atmosphere in the stadium.

Mack Jones Akron received the second-half kickoff and slowly broke down Northwestern’s defense. The first two plays were both first downs, and a forty-yard pass from quarterback Kato Nelson to Kwadarrius Smith converted a third down to bring up Akron’s second trip inside the red zone.

Another field goal reduced Northwestern’s lead to two possessions as long as Akron scored a two-point conversion.

College football is a valued tradition at many universities, but that hasn’t always been the case at Northwestern, especially while alum Kevin Vedder was there.

Kevin Vedder People didn’t, you know, people didn’t really fill the student section all that much.

Mack Jones People didn’t fill the stadium that much at all. From 1974 to 1994, there were two capacity home games. In two decades.

Kevin Vedder I have to say it was more of a camaraderie and a social gathering, as much as it was a football game and primarily no offense to the players, but they were pretty significantly outmatched physically and probably athletically, you know, and talent-wise.

Mack Jones Games at huge football schools are social outlets, too, boosted by the team’s success. At Northwestern, chatting with some friends was the best part of the day. In the twenty-year stretch mentioned earlier, the Wildcats won four games in a season once and never any more.

Kevin Vedder You’d go to a tailgate before the game, you’d go into the game, the first half often did not go very well. And you were allowed to leave the stadium and come back in after halftime. And so people went back to their tailgates at halftime, and, you know, enjoyed themselves and had a good time, and returned to the some of them didn’t even go back, many people didn’t depending on how the first half had gone.

Mack Jones Most of the fans, and even some students, rooted for the opposing team. They grew up supporting other Big Ten teams and moved to Evanston with the bonus of seeing their favorite college football squad play. 

Kevin Vedder Having me from New Jersey, I didn’t really have that. I was, you know, college football fan in general, but, you know, I was a fan of the Wildcats, but it was a rough go for sure.

Mack Jones Northwestern’s opening second-half possession was over almost as soon as it started, and the ‘Cats punted the ball back to Akron.

Nelson dropped back and only looked one way the entire time. Nelson went right, where Andre Williams flew down the sideline. He threw a flawless ball to the corner of the end zone just before Williams would have stepped out.

Akron touchdown.

Gasser’s kick was good, and the Zips cut Northwestern’s lead to eight.

But the Wildcats were going to get the ball back, and with how their offense ended the first half, that was a scary sight for Akron fans. 

Paul Schatz The worst parts are navigating the stadium because the concourses are small and being crammed in. Those are probably my biggest complaints about the current stadium.

Mack Jones Schatz’s comments are especially potent when fans jam the entire walkway midway through the third quarter, making it almost impossible to get anywhere. The stadium used to seat more than 50,000 and, somehow, survived for 70 years with 10-foot concourses and long metal beams exposed above patrons’ heads.

Supporters were wall-to-wall feebly trying to find the poorly marked bathrooms, but it wouldn’t matter if anyone could see the signage since the restrooms were just as compact as the concourse. 

Paul Schatz Being at the game is not the greatest experience. I want to get a hot dog, walk to a concession stand easily. The bathrooms are small now.

Mack Jones Judging by the score, the trip to the bathroom took so long that two possessions had passed. Akron had scored a touchdown on a pick-six but failed the conversion, and now the Wildcats had the ball back.

It was a miracle that fans who missed the play actually noticed the score change. The university positioned the video board in one of the worst possible spots. It’s a free-standing structure tucked in a corner, not angled enough for the east side to see and too far away for anyone else to glimpse it. And it’s beige because, of course it is. A lighter beige, but still beige. 

Tucker and other NU fans have consistently had problems with it.

Jared Tucker There’s one scoreboard. It’s like kind of hidden behind some stands.

Mack Jones Schatz’s encounters haven’t been any better, and the positioning isn’t the only problem.

Paul Schatz The scoreboard is small. Some of it’s obstructed where we sit. So you know, replays kind of have limited value when it’s not the big high-quality picture you’re used to seeing. It’s sort of giving you a general idea of what happened on the play instead of who missed the block or was that a catch or not a catch. It’s not a great experience there.

Mack Jones Ads take up a solid portion of the screen, which, to its credit, has tons of information – nothing above what should be expected at a football game but still. Except it’s in such a small font that hardly anyone can read it. 

The problem wouldn’t be as bad if people could hear the announcer call out the score, but…

Jared Tucker The speakers don’t work.

Mack Jones Ryan Field doesn’t have a permanent speaker system; they have a temporary PA System playing audio from a centralized location. It’s some weird cluster that needs sound levels to be boosted for fans across the stadium to hope to hear the announcers, but it doesn’t do a great job.

Paul Schatz The sound in some places in the stadium it’s really loud. In some places. It’s too quiet.

Mack Jones No permanent speaker system, no permanent lights for night games and no good concessions. Fans like Schatz began to wonder what Ryan Field does have. 

The Wildcats needed a response on their next drive to prevent Akron from taking total control. The Zips seemingly got a stop at around the fifty after the Wildcats couldn’t convert third and 10, but a late flag came in for a personal foul and took Northwestern into the red zone.

Fitzgerald called play-action and motioned Green into the left slot. Receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman ran a deep drag to pull his defender from the outside in and make it difficult for Davis, who should’ve covered Green, to cut his man off at the edge. 

Green ran a corner to the left, and Davis couldn’t cross the field past Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s route in time. Thorson lofted a spiral, and Northwestern scored another touchdown to go up nine. 

What fans couldn’t understand was the school’s obsession with benches. Maybe Northwestern wanted people to be able to use those sitting in front of them as footrests, and maybe the university intended to use the most uncomfortable metal bleachers to get a world record for the worst fan experience.

Fans take seatbacks, armrests and cupholders for granted as a luxury most people have gotten used to and now expect. Ryan Field lowers those assumptions by getting supporters as close as possible to each other so there’s no discernible difference between the seats and the concourse. 

The bench seats boost capacity, one of the reasons other college football fields like Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium, venues with capacities over 100,000, have kept theirs. Ryan Field’s size is increased with traditional bleachers, too, but the team can hardly sell out games, so it doesn’t matter anyway.

Everyone stands at other college football fields without seatbacks. It’s part of the experience. But who wants to stand as whatever team Northwestern’s playing pummels them in their own house?

Jared Tucker It’s always leaking somewhere. It’s it’s just, it’s terrible.

Mack Jones Ryan Field is an open-air stadium, and football games are around three hours, so fans like Tucker get drenched even if there’s only a drizzle. 

Then there are games with 50 mph winds and heavy rainfall like in the Nov. 5, 2022, matchup between Ohio State and Northwestern. The conditions were so bad it made Northwestern, a team that finished the year on an 11-game losing streak, look close in skill to the number two team in the country at the time.

The weather boosted Northwestern’s chances at victory in the Ohio State game, but it’s harmed the team, too. 

Jared Tucker I remember, probably around six years ago, Northwestern played Illinois State. The weather was not good.

Mack Jones There was light rain and high winds in Evanston on Sept. 10, 2016, when the Wildcats matched up against the FCS school. The game was a slog, much like the Ohio State one. The Redbirds’ kicker missed an extra point, and it looked like Northwestern would scrape out a 7-6 victory, but as time wound down, Illinois State moved the ball into the red zone.

(Big Ten Network’s broadcast of Illinois State – Northwestern, 2016)

Jared Tucker It was the worst sporting event I’ve ever been to. It was truly horrendous.

Mack Jones The Zips’ next drive was quick. Akron started at the 25, and on the second play, Nelson and Williams connected for a nearly 60-yard pass. On the next play, Nelson dropped back at the 24-yard line and threw a fade to Maverick Wolfley, who had three defenders around him. The tight end tumbled into the end zone, and Northwestern’s lead was again down to two.

Kuhbander missed another field goal, and while Northwestern still led 28-26, they spoonfed the ball back to Akron, who could take the lead on the next possession.

Vedder spent his days at Northwestern in the student section but didn’t see the team blow many leads since they hardly scored. But besides that, the part of the stadium known as the Wildside hadn’t changed much since Vedder’s college years.

Kevin Vedder The student section was on the northwest side of the stadium. And it was kind of like cordoned off. So it was like far away, it seemed like it was far away from the action.

Mack Jones Devoted fans still found themselves in the section, especially since Northwestern athletic events are free to students with a valid campus ID. All seating in the Wildside is general admission, but the area includes three sections, 111-113, so it’s not hard to find a spot.

On any gameday, maybe half of one of those sections is full. There are some stragglers in other parts of the student section, possibly fans who saw an opportunity to get better seats in an empty part of the stadium without extensive security.

Wildside members tried to lead chants to hype the team, but it didn’t work. They were too far away, stuck in a corner, and there weren’t that many student fans there, to begin with. 

After the missed field goal, they were as silent as the rest of the crowd.

The Northwestern defense forced a punt on the next drive, their first stop of the second half, and it came around five minutes into the fourth.

Kevin Vedder It wasn’t a great, like, viewing experience. It wasn’t a great environment, the amenities weren’t great. It was like, a big stadium that was rarely sold out unless Ohio State or Michigan or Wisconsin came to town.

Mack Jones By that point in the game, most fans had either left at halftime because they thought the game was over or left in the middle of the third quarter because they couldn’t bear to watch the Wildcats throw a game they should’ve won comfortably.

Ryan Field looked like a ghost town.

A fantastic punt from Akron’s do-it-all special teams man Gasser pinned Northwestern at the three-yard line.

Akron only rushed four on third down at the 19, but the DT pancaked Northwestern’s O-line and got at Thorson. He tried to escape to the right but lost control of the football. It bounced toward the end zone for what was an eternity to ‘Cats fans until Akron jumped on the ball. 

Touchdown Zips.

32-28, since they failed the two-point attempt.

Jared Tucker Ryan Field is terrible. I don’t like it.

Mack Jones Everything’s terrible. Fans like Tucker keep going to games only because of loyalty built over the years to a hometown Big Ten team, but that’s not enough for most people. 

In 2021, Northwestern ranked dead last in home attendance in the Big Ten. They repeated the feat in 2022 with the lowest number of people at games in nearly 15 years. The average dipped down to around 28,000. Remember, Ryan Field can seat 47. 

The stadium’s awful. It’s old, but not historic. The school renovated it relatively recently, but Ryan Field is already back in disrepair. 

Jared Tucker I think it has one cool part to me. And that’s the, the I don’t know what the facade is how you call it like the facade in the west lot is pretty cool.

Mack Jones Thorson threw another pick-six on the ‘Cats next drive. 39-28. Then it was Akron’s turn to miss a field goal, and Northwestern scored a garbage time touchdown that didn’t matter in the end. 

Final score Akron 39, Northwestern 34. The Zips’ first win against a Big Ten school since 1894. 

Jared Tucker I felt like going up to the top and jumping off.

***

Chris Fowler Hey guys, we gotta find some answers here, how did Northwestern get so good? They got Rose Bowl tickets from ‘49 laying around here.

Lee Corso Maybe it’s in this Italian dictionary.

Craig James Probably look it up under sports, I can’t find anything, but Valenzisi, their kicker, sounds Italian.

Lee Corso Sounds good to me.

Chris Fowler Guys, what do we know about libraries? I’m gonna get some help.

Lee Corso Why are we whispering?

Craig James I can’t believe they let us in this library.

Chris Fowler Where is everybody? Let’s check out this computer, got to be some answers in here.

(Typing)

Lee Corso Hey Craig, I’ve been reading this Greek book about this Plato guy. I bet you ain’t any smarter than Spurrier.

Craig James Italian books, Greek books, what’re you doing?

Lee Corso Hey! I bet you don’t know how to run the shotgun.

Craig James Happens. Who’s who in America book, can’t find my name, your name, Fowler’s name, Lester’s in here.

Chris Fowler Hey guys, I found the answer, but this place is deserted, there’s nobody in here.

Craig James What time is it?

Lee Corso Hey there’s a football game going on.

Craig James Well this is huge news around here now.

Lee Corso We gotta get outta here we got a show to do.

(Music)

Mack Jones That was the cold open to College Game Day, ESPN’s pregame college football show, hosted by Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Craig James on Nov. 11, 1995. The show had just begun broadcasting from a different campus each week, and this week, it came from Evanston for the first time for a game between the Wildcats and the Hawkeyes.

Toussaint Waterman We were going into Iowa and like, you know, this is another school that had even more than some of the others that like, had just beaten down Northwestern, and run up the score year after year.

Mack Jones This is Toussaint Waterman, a Wildcat receiver on the 95/96 Rose Bowl team.

Toussaint Waterman And just like, it was about, you know, that was big, that was a big game, where it really did go on and, you know, and so earn some respect, you know, from them, and like, again, like, letting you know, give me some payback for all those, you know, kind of beat downs taking place.

Chris Fowler We have a habit of taking it wherever the best teams are. This year, one of the best teams, right here.

Mack Jones For Head Coach Gary Barnett, Iowa was the team he, the ‘Cats and linebacker Don Holmes needed to beat, but the Hawkeyes hadn’t lost since 1973 to Northwestern.

Don Holmes He painted that team red on the schedule. He and Hayden Fry just didn’t get along. Some things that had happened previously when he was coaching at Northwestern. And this was, I think they probably one time they played us and just really ran the score, Barnett never forgot it. And every time that he played, that we played them in the future, he wanted them to remember that they went against Northwestern.

Mack Jones But Iowa might have been paying more attention to the weather. It was in the mid-20s in Evanston, with a one-degree wind chill and light snow throughout the morning, and their coach, Hayden Fry, treated the ‘Cats with more disregard than anyone.

Chris Fowler Who isn’t impressed? How about Iowa coach Hayden Fry, who’s pointing to Iowa’s 21-game winning streak over the Wildcats and implying that Northwestern is a one-hit-wonder.

Hayden Fry This is a one-year, what do you call it a Cinderella year or whatever, and that’s wonderful. That’s great. I think it’s great for the Big Ten Conference, it’s great for Northwestern, but what’s gonna happen next year, or the next year, or the next year or the next year?

Gary Barnett I think it’s a little bit out of Hayden’s personality, he doesn’t really do these sorts of things very much, and so I think he’s just pretty wadded up about this game it looks like. He knows he’s trying to plant that 21-game losing streak in our kids’ heads, and we’re not gonna let him do it.

Chris Fowler Not a popular guy here today, Hayden Fry, what’s he trying to do? Is he trying to spark the team that’s lost three in a row or crawl inside the Wildcats’ skulls?

Lee Corso First of all, you gotta remember, Hayden Fry has a psychology degree, and he’s working psychology on these guys. Number one, he’s the same guy that has a pink dressing room at Iowa, and also, he’s always doing the same things. He’s always working mind games. He did the same thing to me in Indiana, but remember one thing Craig, mind games work best when you have the best team, and I don’t think he’s got the best team today.

Chris Fowler He doesn’t have a psychology degree, but Barnett’s certainly a good master motivator, and…

Mack Jones The following year, with Northwestern again in contention, the ‘Cats traveled to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City for a top-25 matchup, and Barnett wanted, again, to be unique with the way he prepared players like Eric Collier for the game.

Eric Collier So Hayden Fry had the locker room painted pink. So pink, whatever. It’s if you look it up in some psychology book said it makes you docile, you know, and just kind of like ho hum. And so all the players for years while Hayden Fry was the coach would have to go into the pink visitor locker room and then go play at Kinnick Stadium. So Barnett, before we go play Iowa, you know, Sunday you report and you know you get get all your stuff for the next team. And our locker room’s pink. The entire locker room pink from top to bottom.

Mack Jones Even in the lead-in to the ‘95 Iowa game, Barnett tried something idiosyncratic. Although, the conditions forced his hand. The temperature rarely rose above the teens, and Northwestern’s “indoor practice facility” was sub-par at best. So D’Wayne Bates and the rest of the team practiced outside in preparation for the environment on Saturday.

D’Wayne Bates Now I do remember that day, it was very cold. Freezing, like I’ve never been, I don’t think I’ve ever played in a colder game in my career. Maybe I started playing in Green Bay a couple of times, but it was cold.

Mack Jones Nearly thirty years later, on July 20, 2023, The Athletic published a story describing, in detail, more of Barnett’s extreme tactics. 

Every August since 1992, the first year Barnett coached Northwestern, the football team took a trip around an hour north up I-94 to Kenosha, Wisconsin. It wasn’t uncommon for other college football teams to take similar trips to get a week or two of off-the-grid practice; Cincinnati goes across the border to Indiana, and Wisconsin visits the Wisconsin-Platteville campus for a week.

It was another incident in a long line of tactics Barnett used to supposedly motivate his players.

In Camp Kenosha, players filed into the wrestling room turned locker room each morning to change and prepare for the mental stresses of the grueling practices.

Some mats remained on the floor, and wrestling posters hung along the walls, holdovers from when UW-Parkside used it as the wrestling room. There were also pull-up bars.

Some mornings, players would choose a victim to go to the bar naked and do pull-ups in front of everyone. The justification was that it was team bonding.

After Barnett left Northwestern for Colorado in 1999, while his coaching and motivational style may or may not have changed, his time with the Buffaloes was just as tumultuous.

While in Boulder, Barnett endured numerous scandals. The program allegedly used sex as a recruiting tool, and Kate Hnida, Colorado’s kicker in 1999, accused former teammates of rape. At least eight other women came forward with similar claims against players. 

In 2005, Barnett left Colorado clouded by wrongdoing and unsavory comments about the victims. He never coached college football again. 

Meanwhile, Randy Walker replaced Barnett at Northwestern, but the culture of sexual coercion and hazing continued and got significantly worse. The “car wash” began, an instance of hazing too gross to describe in this podcast, and Walker used unusually harsh punishments, such as 100 bodyweight squats for showing up a minute late to a meeting. 

On Aug. 3, 2001, safety Rashidi Wheeler collapsed on the practice field during an intense conditioning test. Paramedics couldn’t revive him. 

Walker kept his job, despite a judge later awarding the Wheeler family $16 million from the university for a wrongful death settlement.

Walker suffered a heart attack in 2006 and passed away, and the university replaced him with the linebackers coach at the time, Fitzgerald.

The “car wash” and the naked pull-ups continued at Kenosha during the Fitzgerald tenure. “Running” also began during the former player’s time as head coach. 

After the allegations surfaced this past summer, the school canceled all future trips to Camp Kenosha. 

The school has since fired Fitzgerald, and former players have filed at least eight lawsuits against the school. Fitz filed one for $130 million, too.

Around an eighth of the cost of the Ryan Field renovation. 

I’ve been working on this podcast for a little over a year by now, and despite changes in the content and number of episodes, the one about the Rose Bowl team has been there since day one.

It was a large part of the reason why I wanted to do this in the first place. I’m a Badger fan, so I’ve followed Big Ten football all my life and loved the history and tradition in Pasadena. 

I reached out to these players and interviewed them in March and April. All the interviews were over an hour. I missed nearly all of my Civics class one day because of a two-hour interview with Bates. I skipped lunch for the one with Janus and had conditioning after for tennis.

And I loved it. I loved doing those interviews.

After each one of them, I said, “These are my favorite interviews I’ve ever done, I enjoy doing them so much, blah blah blah.”

I wrote the episode in early May, around two months before The Daily Northwestern published an article revealing the scale of the hazing allegations.

In the immediate aftermath, Tucker began posting on his Instagram about how Fitzgerald can be both a bad person and good coach.

I can’t make that separation with the players I interviewed because I don’t know whether they were victims or abusers – both or neither. I just don’t know.

In a very un-journalistic way, I felt like these guys were my friends. Some of them invited me to an NU football game for the team’s yearly reunion, and although that offer never came to fruition, it was still a nice gesture.

I’ve re-listened to the parts of those interviews where we talked about Camp Kenosha, and from that audio, it almost felt like they couldn’t even remember what happened. I heard nothing in their voice revealing any kind of guilt, regret or lingering pain from what happened.

Out of everything that I talk about in this podcast, this series of events is the worst. All these kids wanted was to play ball, and instead, they were hurt by an administration that, intentionally or not, turned a blind eye for 30 years.

No city politics in this series come close to what happened to these players. But still, people have tried to connect the stadium and the hazing, saying that the team doesn’t deserve a fancy new venue.

I’ve never felt like the emotions of either side regarding Ryan Field were proportionate to how much it truly mattered. I doubt this podcast matters. These things have a habit of putting stuff in context.

What this is a reminder of is that while football is often talked about as if it’s just a game, in so many places across the country, from Evanston to Pasadena, this sport, for better or worse, has a meaning disproportionate to its reality. 

In some ways, that’s a beautiful thing. The City of Evanston the night of the 1996 Rose Bowl came together to support the team, but for every good story, there are just as many, if not more stories like the one from The Daily.

This story about what happened with the Northwestern football program matters to the players and families that were involved, but it also matters because it’s a reminder that when power goes unchecked, the results are almost always awful.

That’s next time on the Field of Broken Dreams.

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Mack Jones
Mack Jones, Opinion Editor, Digital Content Editor
Hi! My name is Mack Jones, and I’m the Opinion and Co-Digital Editor on The Evanstonian. This is my second year on staff; last year, I was a staff writer, primarily for News. Outside of the paper, I play tennis, guitar and piano and referee for AYSO.
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