Monday, June 20, 2011
Heart of the City: Northwestern
By Adam Rittenberg
This week, we're taking a closer look at FBS programs located in major markets that typically also have NFL franchises. Two Big Ten programs fit this description.
First up, Northwestern.
Location: Evanston, Ill.
Bowl appearances: 9
NFL first-round picks: 3
Losing seasons: 47
10-win seasons: 1
Source: ESPN Stats & Info (Note: College numbers date back to 1936, the first year of the AP poll. NFL numbers date back to 1970.)
The good: Northwestern benefits from being located near but not quite in a major city, allowing it to have a true campus from which you can see the towering Chicago skyline. Northwestern recruits nationally both for its student body and for its football team, and Chicago is a major selling point for coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff.
The academic component is huge at Northwestern, the Big Ten's highest-rated academic institution. Most players who come to Evanston have more than the NFL on their minds, and Northwestern can point to Chicago and all the networking and career opportunities it provides for life after football.
There has been a definite disconnect between Northwestern and Chicago in the past, but things are starting to shift. Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker at the school who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, has been instrumental in bridging the gap. Last year, Northwestern launched its first major marketing campaign, targeting the Chicago area and touting the slogan, "Chicago's Big Ten team." Northwestern must grow its fan base first and foremost, but appealing to the other Big Ten fan bases in Chicago isn't a bad approach.
Northwestern brought football to Wrigley Field for the first time in 40 years in November as it faced Illinois at the Friendly Confines. Despite all the controversy about the field dimensions, the game was a success for both teams and generated a lot of attention for Northwestern within the city. Future nonconference schedules have been upgraded with teams like Notre Dame that will appeal to the Chicago market.
Ultimately, Northwestern must keep winning to gain more buzz in the big city to the south.
The bad: Northwestern still fights several significant obstacles in relation to Chicago. The Wildcats were one of the worst programs in major college sports history from 1972 to 1994, and their NCAA-record 34-game losing streak from 1979 to 1982 still haunts the program from a perception standpoint.
Northwestern also is the Big Ten's only private institution, and it not only has a significantly smaller enrollment than the other league members, but it has fewer alumni in Chicago than every Big Ten school except Penn State. Attendance has been a significant problem for some time, and Northwestern still relies on fans from opposing Big Ten teams to help its attendance numbers.
Despite all the Big Ten alumni in Chicago, the city will always be a pro sports town. The NFL's Bears dominate the media coverage, and if the Cubs or White Sox make any sort of postseason run, Northwestern football is largely an afterthought. Notre Dame football and even Illinois football can get more media coverage than the Wildcats.
The school's location also has impacted its ability to hang onto assistant coaches. The Chicago/Evanston area has higher living costs than most Big Ten cities, and while Northwestern has increased its commitment to paying assistants, it's a concern going forward.