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B1G Town Tour: First Stop, Northwestern

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Our first stop is Evanston, Illinois!

Photo by Barbara Soldano

This summer, as I prepare for the upcoming football season, to keep me from making everyone in my family crazy I am visiting some of our fellow Big Ten schools’ hometowns. Our first stop is Evanston, Illinois, home of the Northwestern Wildcats, a charter member of the conference.

My first question: Is Northwestern the Vanderbilt of the Big Ten, or is Vanderbilt the Northwestern of the SEC? I’ve seen them discussed both ways in various articles over the years. The bottom line is that both of them are considered the “egghead” schools of their respective conference. However, to their credit, Northwestern has in recent years demonstrated themselves to be able to field more than competent programs in both football and basketball.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Northwestern v Pittsburgh
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Pinstripe Bowl Champs in 2016 v Pitt
Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Northwestern is an anomaly in the conference of the football schools. The only private institution in the group, it was founded back in the 1830s by a group of Methodist clergymen and businessmen who wanted to provide an education to those living in the Northwest Territory (what we today call the Midwest, from Ohio to Minnesota, or roughly the footprint of the original Big Ten). Like Rutgers, which was also a private institution until after World War II, it had financial challenges during the Great Depression, but was able to survive and thrive.

Evanston is all about Northwestern, but it is a different vibe from any of the other cities I’ll be visiting this month. The bar scene is muted, to be sure, but history plays a big part of that particular thing. For more than 100 years Evanston, Illinois has been the headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). This is the group that was instrumental for the imposition of Prohibition in this country in the 1920s. So, while there are certainly craft beer establishments to watch games in town, it is not such a shock that there are not the huge bars that are the gathering point on game day as there are in other cities like Madison, Iowa City, or Ann Arbor.

To some extent, you can say Northwestern rose up out of the waters of Lake Michigan literally. The original campus was nestled up against Lake Michigan, and efforts to expand were stifled by cost and the town’s resistance to the university taking over the geography of the entire place. So, Northwestern expanded into Lake Michigan, creating a huge landfill that actually doubled the acreage of the school, and permitted them to build a new library, concert venue, student center, and more.

But, enough history lessons, right? What’s it like there?!? Well, of course August is a little slower, as students have not yet arrived. At Northwestern, those who have not yet arrived also includes the football team, who travel to Wisconsin to have their first week of summer football camp at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, in Kenosha, WI, in a manner similar to what many NFL teams do each summer. This is an annual event the first week of practices. Here’s last year’s mention about it:

However, they are preparing to return to campus next week, using Hutcheson Field for practice, which has a pretty gorgeous view of Lake Michigan. Perhaps we should all agree to not share this with our recruits, as this scene would certainly make me interested in playing for Northwestern:

Ryan Field, where the Wildcats play, is the smallest Big Ten Stadium with only 47,130 seats. With no second tier of seats, it has a feel of a stadium with even fewer seats than that. I walked into the open gate of the stadium to take a look, and the natural turf field looked like it is a work in progress, but as one of those “old time” stadiums originally built in the 1920s, it still had that feel of old leather helmet days.

Shot from the bleachers in the end zone.

Evanston is not a raucous place, by any measure, and it is obvious that there is a reason you don’t hear about the atmosphere of the town during football season. It has more of an Ivy League aura about it, to be sure. This is certainly a product of the high academic standards of the school, and has it’s own charm. It is just a different vibe than you’ll get in other Big Ten towns.

I had been hoping to visit some of the local watering holes, hear some great stories, and find out about some of the crazy parties that are commonly discussed about other similar Big Ten towns. But, not Evanston, it is a quiet, almost reserved town. Of course, you won’t find students there at this point in the year, but I was sorry to not see any of the big raucous bars you'll find elsewhere.

At this point, the Big Ten has only set up their conference football schedules through the 2019 season, and while we will be hosting Northwestern in 2018, there is not currently a date in which we are traveling to Evanston. So, it will be at least three years until the Scarlet Knight faithful have a reason to make the trek to the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan to watch a matchup between the only two football schools in the conference with a history of private post-secondary education. When we do, however, it’ll be worth it if some time is spent in Chicago, because that is a fun town to visit! In fact, the Windy City is only 14 miles to the south of Northwestern’s campus, so Northwestern attempts to use the connection. Similar to how Rutgers plays up the proximity of the Big Apple to Piscataway, so too does Northwestern play up their connection to the City of Big Shoulders.

While the above was on I-94 on the road to the school, the advertising is clear at the stadium as well:

Northwestern is a little on the muted side for a Big Ten team and it emulates Evanston itself in being very quiet and unassuming. That will certainly not be the case for my next visit, Iowa City, IA, home of the Hawkeyes. The distance between the two schools is approximately the same as traveling from Piscataway to State College to visit Penn State, but the vibe between Northwestern and Iowa couldn’t be more different if they were on different planets. Stay tuned!