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Wrigley game connects Northwestern to Chicago

CHICAGO -- Standing in left field Friday at the Friendly Confines, Corbin Bryant had a confession to make.

"I didn't know where Northwestern was when I got the [scholarship] offer," said Bryant, a senior defensive tackle for Northwestern. "I really didn't."

Such a statement would be acceptable for someone from Alaska or New Mexico or even Florida.

Bryant grew up on the south side of Chicago.

Northwestern's campus, by the way, is less than three miles north of the Chicago city limits and about 15 miles north of downtown Chicago. In terms of the sports scene, however, Northwestern might as well be 1,500 miles away.

Forging a connection to Chicago has been and continues to be Northwestern's greatest hurdle in restoring its football program. Some argue it's the only hurdle left. Winning Big Ten titles and making bowl games are no longer pipe dreams, but filling seats at Ryan Field remains a major challenge. Despite 17 wins in the past two seasons, Northwestern ranked last in the Big Ten and 83rd nationally in average attendance (24,190) in 2009. Washington State was the only BCS conference school that drew fewer fans (22,509).

Northwestern took a big step toward bridging the gap with Chicago on Friday, announcing that it will play rival Illinois at Wrigley Field on Nov. 20 (ESPN or ESPN2, noon ET). Football returns to the Friendly Confines for the first time since 1970, when the Chicago Bears ended a 50-year run there. It marks the first college football game at Wrigley Field since 1938, when DePaul played there, and the first time Northwestern and Illinois meet at Clark & Addison since 1923, when some guy named Red Grange was leading Illinois to an undefeated season and a national title.

Although the Wrigley project, done in conjunction with the Chicago Cubs, took almost two years to finalize and delayed Northwestern from sending out its 2010 season-ticket requests, Friday's announcement was a big moment for the school. Sure, it was nice to have cheerleaders on hand, signs around the ballpark and more purple than Wrigley has ever seen, but the most significant part was who attended the ceremony.

Fitzgerald, Bryant and quarterback Dan Persa sat alongside new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and Chicago Bears owner Virginia McCaskey. Former Bears running back Ronnie Bull, who played football at Wrigley, also was on hand.

McCaskey spoke about coming to Wrigley Field as a young girl to watch her father, the legendary George Halas, coach the Bears.

"I'm delighted to be here to participate in the announcement of a new era of football in Wrigley Field," she said.

Northwestern athletics director Jim Phillips lives a block away from Ricketts and would be reminded of the need to finalize the Wrigley Game every time he saw Ricketts in church.

These connections with the Cubs and the Bears -- teams Chicago sports fans truly care about -- are critical for Northwestern to work its way into a crowded sports market.

Why has it been so hard to connect to Chicago?

"That's the question everybody asks," Phillips said. "I did a strategic marketing plan with a group here, and there's 30 teams -- pro teams, college teams, minor league teams -- that vie for the same market and competition. We can't rely just only on our alums. There are nine other Big Ten schools that have more alums living in Chicago than we do. That's not going to change.

"We have to get the college football fan and the sports fan to pay a little bit more to Northwestern. That's on us. That's on us as a department. We have to do it in a way that we can compete, and one of the things is to draw interest, like with a game at Wrigley Field."

A connection with Chicago has been forged before, in 1995, when Northwestern made national news with its surprise run to the Rose Bowl.

"It's those people that have nothing to do with the program, that are not alumni, getting those people back involved," said Darnell Autry, a star running back for the 1995 team who attended Friday's announcement at Wrigley. "I don't think there's a disconnect between Northwestern and Chicago. Obviously, we're here at this event.

"This is definitely Chicago."

Northwestern will control more than 30,000 tickets to the Nov. 20 game -- the Cubs get 5,000 tickets and Illinois, in accordance with Big Ten rules for road teams, receives 3,000 tickets. The tickets aren't part of Northwestern's season package but only season-ticket holders can purchase tickets for the Wrigley game (one Wrigley ticket per season ticket, although additional requests can be made).

Fans from other Big Ten teams regularly outnumber Northwestern fans at Ryan Field, and Illinois, which boasts many more Chicago-area alums, is bound to have a strong presence Nov. 20. I wrote Thursday that Illinois would have more fans at Wrigley, a prediction that got back to Fitzgerald.

"Contrary to some popular belief, I believe this place will be purple and white," Fitzgerald said. "We have 30,000 seats, and I expect all 30,000 to be purple and white. Otherwise, those people are going to get a personal e-mail and a knock on the door from me."

Northwestern has had good fan turnout at its bowl games, and Fitzgerald expects the Wrigley game to have a bowl atmosphere. There are no guarantees Northwestern will play at Wrigley again, so growing the long-term season-ticket base is the chief objective.

Phillips would like to see an increase of 5,000 to 10,000 in next year's attendance, but points out, "it's not just going to happen with this game."

Still, it's a good start.