Sailgate – NU at Army, 09/17/2011
On September 17, 2011, 700 fans of the LTP community came together for what many are calling the largest unofficial gathering of Northwestern fans for a road game in football program history. The event, called “Sailgate” included a roundtrip boat excursion from NYC’s Chelsea Piers to West Point (and back after the game), a tailgate at The First Class Club and a game ticket. While the game is one we’d all like to forget immediately, the event was a once in a lifetime memory. Below is the recap of the event.
NEW: Thanks to Adam Dew, we have an exclusive premiere of Sailgate 2011 video feature which will be on The Pat Fitzgerald Show this week on BTN. Thanks to NUHighlights for setting it up on YouTube. The three interviewees are Darren Rovell, CNBC Sports Business Reporter, Christine Brennan, USA Today and yours truly, LTP. It is pretty insane:
A friend on the Ara boat said it best. As we cruised back to Manhattan down the Hudson on a slightly chilly, but pleasant night he said “you know, with the sheer volume of variables of Sailgate – getting 600 people on board, multiple locations across campus, who would’ve thought the hiccup would’ve been the actual game?”. The looks on the faces of the return boat passengers in the boarding area said it all. What the heck just happened? Did we really just lose that game at Army? I’d be lying if the disappointment didn’t show on my face. We’ll have all week to break down what happened, and trust me, we will. I can tell you though, above the consistent gripes of McCall’s ultra-conservative play-calling, the frustration at Fitz punting twice in Army territory against a time of possession monster and the just plain terrible rush defense, one nugget stood far above the others – “heart”. The ‘Cats right now don’t have heart. A third quarter gasket blow by Fitz after a series of questionable penalty call after penalty call and I knew we were done. Fitz looked like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers staging a “give me a tech” to try and create an event for the ‘Cats to find their emotional “on” switch. It never happened. Army had more fire and it was visibly evident. I can’t believe that I’m writing these words about a Fitz-coached team, but it was true and it cost us, dearly.
I simply can’t wait for the photos and stories to start flowing in from the big day. We have two weeks to break down what went wrong at Army and where we are as a program and we’ll need every day of that span to do so. But today, I want to focus on Sailgate. Scott Sloane and his family’s efforts were truly remarkable. I literally had more than one hundred people comment to me about how well organized the events were and how fun it was. Scott Smith was also a huge help and it was a team effort.
Nearly 600 people loaded on four different boats from Chelsea Piers’ pier 59 in the course of 90 minutes. It was an incredible sight. Everyone was decked in purple wearing the Sailgate T-shirts and coolers and gear was in tow. I was on the “Ara” boat and it was a picture perfect postcard day. As we cruised up the Hudson, fans mingled and new friendships were created. A business deal got done and I’m hoping that on at least one point a love match was made as I’m hoping for a wedding down the road as a result of Sailgate! I will tell you there were a few key highlights of the day for me, but I want to hear what yours were.
Our boat was rocking. The excitement for the game built with each passing mile and cocktail consumed. One of the main subject matters was the momentum around the program and the road attendance. Sailgate accounted for 2% of the entire capacity crowd, but you could just feel the buzz and pride about Fitz and the program. I can’t tell you how jacked up everyone was for a postgame celebration cruise and a 3-0 record and the potential of being ranked heading in to Illinois.
Moment number one of the chills for me, possibly all day, was when we passed a fellow boat. To see the image of a packed purple boat with an “N” flag flying high just spontaneously caused our boat to erupt in to the fight song and we could hear the other boat making a ton of noise. At that moment I felt the “holy cow, look at what we’ve accomplished.” I’m not sure if others felt it, but I was truly tingling with pride and praise for all that Scott Sloane had done. The boat ride was a little over 2.5 hours and then we saw what looked like an Italian city fortress arise in the distance to our left. People were in awe. We pulled up to the dock and a slew of Army soldiers greeted us with a stern warning that we needed our photo IDs out. “Ara” was the first boat to land and you felt that we had stepped in to a surreal world.
There were some bumps in the day, no doubt. Some 30-40 buses awaited and our boat quickly
boarded buses and it was clear our bus driver didn’t have a clue about how to get to the First Class Club or how to readthe event map we all had in our packet. We finally got close enough and I had him just stop to get us out and fans instantly split up to go see the Cadet March which was just incredibly patriotic. The tailgate scene looked like GI Joe had transformed a normal tailgate in to a mock war zone. Army trucks and webbed camouflauge material was draped over tailgate areas. Grey stone buildings engulfed the view and the hills on the campus were steep, stern and unforgiving. It was simply gorgeous. Army fatigued soliders were everywhere, many draped with machine guns and every single one of them was courteous and helpful. I felt for the first time what it is like to be an Ohio State fan in Evanston on gameday as all you could see walking the streets was purple.
I instantly head over to the “Firsties” Club as the locals called it for our tailgate to set up camp. It was not easy to find, even with a map as things were unmarked and the buildings were encased in military fortress walls. I got tothe Firsties Club and I had the second moment of chills. Our venue was downright out of this world. Imagine a big bar and restaurant with University Hall-like exterior but surrounded by a 10-foot stone wall with cannons and iron cast gates all around it. I was nervous as heck no one would find it as my wife kept texting me that she was lost. Fans helped out and served as guides to other fans to help find it. By 1:30 pm we had music going, a bags game set up (brought on our boat by a guy who looked like he could’ve played LB for us – his contraption was incredible and large) and the space between the fortress wall and the inside bar served as the lively hub of activity, or so I thought. There were white tents set up here and the younger crew of fans quickly turned it in to lively homes of various drinking games. The buzz of the crowd could be heard. Presto! Within 30 minutes we had 500 people rocking a tailgate and by now everyone was just in a “this is awesome!” kind of mood. I went inside at one point after doing door duty and stopped in my tracks. It was packed, yet easy for folks to get access to the open bar, plenty of food and Iowa was down 17 in the 4th on the screens. We introduced and thanked Scott Sloane for his work and finally, we were able to relax a little. Shuttles started taking fans in droves to the game at 2pm, but no one really had much of an interest in leaving. This surrounding, this moment, was one where we looked around and said “THIS” is a real program.
An Army graduate came to the door and tried to enter our party. I politely asked him for his ticket and he was in disbelief that the Firsties Club had been rented out to an NU party. He was pissed. “Do you realize that this place is THE place for Army alums to come to and congregate on gameday? he asked. I politely thanked him for everything he did for our country and I invited him to join us. He walked away. The ego-building line of the day was from my good friend Rob, who was at the NAA Tailgate, where 150 of our group were slated to enjoy the pregame activities. He informed me that several of the NU VIPs were talking about Sailgate and a few mentioned they tried to get tickets but it was soldout. They were talking about the scene of our party and how fun it looked. I was finally having a blast catching up with a bunch of old fraternity brothers, new friends I had met and completely pleasant surprises of people I hadn’t seen in a decade.
We all mostly agreed to walk the 3/4 mile to the stadium to check out the sights of campus. It was an uphill walk the entire way. I didn’t see anything but streams of purple the entire way. Michie Stadium emerged in to view right on the side of the hill and banking a lake. The lines were ridiculously long as you can imagine what security is like at Army. There are snipers sitting on their version of the Randy Walker Terrace, to give you a hint. Much like Ryan Field, Michie is not really equipped to handle a full house. By the time we got to our seats, we’d missed NU’s first drive. The entire end zone was purple. Our Sailgate section turned the corner from the endzone and eventually flanked the Army season ticket holders. Diagonally across from us was what looked like the entire 4440 student population decked in their spiffy home white uniforms. Water and trees were off in the distance. It felt like a bowl game. Our section was rocking as it had the feel of an adult student section – the first to stand, the loudest on 3rd down and ready to party on what surely would be a lot of offense.
Personally, I missed the final drive of the first half as I had to get to the WGN Radio booth to do a halftime interview about Sailgate. It took forever. Michie has one elevator. They lock it down several minutes before half. In a scene out of a This Is Sportscenter commerical, the elevator opened and both coaching staffs sprinted out of the elevator to run to the lockerroom. I seriously thought about joining them to give them my unsolicited advice, which I knew represented the 10,000 fans in attendance (two different Army offiicials told me, when I went to get my credential, they had estimated the NU crowd to be between 9,000-10,000 and thought it was somewhere around 9,700).
Dave Eanet and I had a few minutes to chat before we went on the air. He’s one of us and a diehard fan and we both knew that the feeling was there. The feeling that the team lacked the drive and spirit, a rather tentative approach, and we both sensed major danger. I did the interview which was short but sweet and made my way back to the seats. The big buzz was Persa watch. We all could feel the need for a jolt to the offense and we saw Siemian and Watkins warming up. Some fans started chanting “Danny Persa” and the thought was we had all day to throw against the undermanned D-line of Army and Persa’s mere appearance in the game would electrify the crowd and settle the clearly tentative team. Obviously, it never happened. When Venric Mark KORs become your primary confidence factor in scoring you knew we were in trouble. The crowd went ballsitic along with Fitz and we were loud. The booing on the personal foul call was LOUD and the Army fans started getting feisty. The problem was it was clear the emotion of Fitz was isolated and other than Brian Peters on the sideline, who circled an offensive huddle screaming encouragement to fire them up, the obvious listlessness of the team contrasted to Army’s letting it loose, fired up, full of heart approach showed us that we were heading in to potetnial “L” category. However, when Trevor Siemian came in and the flip of the switch to instant offense cccurred, you couldn’t contain us. Ebert’s TD catch as he juked defenders sent the south end zone and beyond in to a mosh pit. The very same strangers from Chelsea Piers were now in full hugs and embraces as we were out of control loud. The Cardiac ‘Cats will pull it out. We’re getting outcoached, outhearted, our special teams sans Mark are fizzling, but the program has turned to the point where we find ways to overcome adversity and win. Or so we thought. When we didn’t, I probably along with Scott Sloane were the most hurt of the entire crowd. The prospect of cruising home after a loss was just not in the gameplan. I was in shock.
We filed out of the stadium, but stopped. NU was running over behind Army and the Cadets sang the alma mater as NU watched in shock, but respectfully. We as a fan base stopped and wished we knew the words. It’s impossible to root AGAINST Army. They represent a lot about NU that we love – underdogs, tough, clean program, but obviously they have a whole other level of reasons to support, this is just a game for them where the real world looms the second the final whistle blows. At this moment I felt our kids are almost spoiled and may not truly appreciate what they have at NU with their scholarship. It was a weird feeling. Perhaps this is what it is like to be another Big Ten team losing at Ryan Field and walking out – it’s hard not to appreciate.
The purple armada of fans walked the 3/4 of a mile downhill back to the dock. I can tell you what a realtime focus group sounds like. Unified questioning of poor play-calling, questioning of heart as a team and fans ranking the loss among a sea of Miami (OH), Duke and UNHs. The pain was palatable. This one hurt. The realization that we are indeed not really close to being THERE as a program that we thought we were with this year’s senior leadership was too painful for most. Speculation about the Big Ten season began and our season expectations got a major rattling.
Fans were beyond patient as our boats got bumped by the glitzy Zephyr yacht that was President Schapiro’s VIP trip back to Manhattan. Fans, exhausted, at their 250 boxed dinners and groans about time of launch became apparent. The Fitzgerald was the first boat to load and the fans were beyond quick boarding. My boat, the Ara, was the final boat. Scott Sloane, Scott Smith and I took a picture. The three of us had never actually met before that day. Just a couple of random fans who I felt at that moment showed the power of community and trust and what this readership and friends are capable of doing. It was one of the most bittersweet moments as a fan and blogger I’ve had. The boat ride back seemed quicker. It was a beautiful and cool night, but the ride was pretty darn spectacular. It might have been the largest unified Northwestern bitch session in history as everyone had an opinion on what went wrong and the questions about our in-game management. The unified sense was that Fitz is an incredible brand ambassador and does wonders with our guys, but we as a program are in a state of purgatory to get to that next level.
The 2.5 hour cruise back was therapeutic for me and enabled me to put in to perspective the day, Army as an entity and the loss. Perhaps it will be the Miami (OH) jolt we needed. Or, perhaps it is simply one loss that we always seem to counter with a win we shouldn’t get later in the year. I’ve picked Nebraska as that game, please. Hey, perhaps we should plan a road trip. More importantly, I made a host of new friends and met a ton of you. It’s a day I will never, ever forget.
Photo Gallery of Sailgate 2011:
Thanks to Jennifer Harmon who volunteered to take photos of the day. Please CLICK HERE to view her gallery on Picassa.