If you follow me here or on Twitter, you know I am living where the sky is blue and the sun does not set. Yes, I am in the middle of SEC country. Born and raised a Gator, I have disappointed my parents with my growing appreciation for Big Ten football and my disgust with the aura of superiority around the SEC.
That is a post for another day . . . and maybe another blog.
The point is, I do not get to Evanston very often. Since graduating in 2010, I have been to just two home games at Ryan Field. My only NU games between those times were limited to Northwestern lacrosse visits to Gainesville to play Florida while I was at law school and trips to Clearwater, Florida, to see Northwestern softball play. And the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, of course. I was limited to grainy footage on BTN2Go (no BTN in Gainesville, go figure) and whatever was on national TV.
I really missed Ryan Field.
Last year, I was in town for the Michigan game. It was a miserable weather game with rain falling almost the entire game. It was great seeing so many friends and the game could have gone better. It was my first exposure to the pyrotechnics and the inflatable entrance and everything (I liked the added touch of launching fireworks off of Welsh-Ryan Arena’s roof after touchdowns). After four years sitting in the student section, it was definitely different being elsewhere (and surrounded occasionally by non-Northwestern fans).
I have had a week now to think about the return trip to Evanston — slash get over how Northwestern disappeared in the second half. So before we move on to prepping for Iowa, here is one more big-picture item to consider when it comes to Northwestern.
The home-field advantage experience is still lacking. It would be so much nicer to see everyone in purple. But that does not mean a trip to Ryan Field is a bad one. Maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I still have a really good time at Northwestern games.
The atmosphere feels bigger than it does. A lot of that should go to the students. It took some time, but the students showed up last Saturday against Nebraska. I did not believe they would be able to fill the four sections across from us on the southeast end of the stadiums. I cannot speak for the rest of the stadium, but their presence was clear to us and the band is awesome as usual. The fans were engaged. Kudos to them.
Even during the hay day that I was at Northwestern for football — TWO BOWL APPEARANCES! THREE YEARS OF BOWL ELIGIBILITY! — the student section would not stretch all the way to the back of those two sections we had. Maybe it was the night game atmosphere and the homecoming festivities, but for where this team was this season, the students were not the problem.
It was clear in discussions with my friends on the way back from the game that the students are not the problem. The students will be there when they have to — they even have a new coordinated first down cheer (which I kind of like to believe I contributed to in some small way)!
The scoreboard is an upgrade. Gone is the hazy non-high definition image on the scoreboard. The new ribbon banners are nice too. Ryan Field has definitely been upgraded.
Of course, the issue with the speakers remains. I can hear the public address speaker fine, but the sound coming from the stadium was off. Even the syncing between the noise coming from the scoreboard. That might be a light and sound issue. I do not know, I did not take any science classes (journalism major, yada yada yada). The bottom line is, and I think we all know this, the sound system still needs a lot of work.
The production value has gone up immensely. The videos (more than one of them now!) adds a lot to the game and shows off our highlights (from last year, at least). I love trying to do something different with the fireworks and inflatable entranceway. Northwestern needs to add these elements to differentiate themselves (and try to build some new traditions).
Overall though, I found the gameday experience fantastic. Ryan Field remains a great place to watch a football game. There are no amenities or distractions. Just the game to enjoy (the Wildcats have to work on that part).
I understand the frustration that continues among the long-time season ticketholders and the people on this blog who are frustrated with the invasion that occurs for those select games. Jim Phillips stated pretty plainly (if I recall) that he believes in getting fans to adopt Northwestern as their second Big Ten team. If I lived in Chicago, I would be a season ticket holder easily. I opted for homecoming this year for my yearly trip mainly to have one less ticket turned red.
It was frustrating having the Nebraska fans in front of us for the fourth quarter and not leaving them at the visitor’s section on the other side of the field. There is obviously still some work to do to get a home-field advantage. That is going to continue to be a struggle.
Winning will cure some of it. Producing a consistently winning and entertaining team will do the trick too. Waiting for fans of my generation of Wildcat fans (with no memories of the Dark Ages and an expectation for at least a bowl game) growing up and gaining some disposable income — plus putting in time as season ticketholders, will help too.
The sports culture at Northwestern has changed. You can see it in the way students show up to these games now (granted, maybe I caught it on a good day with a night game and a great giveaway). There is a changing tide.
For what it is, though, Northwestern has created a great space to watch a football game. They have not created any of the other amenities that you might see at other stadiums. Then again, I do not go to football games to enjoy the stadium. I go to cheer for my team and watch the game. From the times I have been to Ryan Field, the experience continues to improve and continues to get more fun.
Book me for another trip back soon.