NCF Nation: Darnell Autry
"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.
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The crowd was small, no more than 100 people. It was mostly members of the marching band, but also a few fans who live around Ryan Field.
They showed up to greet the Northwestern football team after it returned from last Saturday's 22-17 road win against Iowa. The Wildcats improved to 5-0 for the first time in 46 years, and the welcoming party reminded head coach Pat Fitzgerald and longtime assistant coach Jerry Brown of a more exciting time in the program's mostly bleak history.
"We got off the bus and Jerry looked at me and he goes, 'Kind of reminds me a little bit of '95,'" Fitzgerald said. "We'd come back from road games and we'd have a lot of fans and our band there."
In 1995, Northwestern was one of the nation's top sports stories, winning the Big Ten championship and going to the Rose Bowl behind Fitzgerald, a star middle linebacker, and running back Darnell Autry. Brown coached the secondary that year.
This year's team has a long way to go to be put in the same category, but for a program where attendance is a major challenge, any excitement is a positve step.
"There's a lot of pride here," Fitzgerald said, "and we've got some positive momentum here, obviously starting the season the way we have."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's a big day in the Big Ten, as the media sessions begin in several hours. Illinois coach Ron Zook leads off on the dais at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. I'll be checking in throughout the day, but first here's a look at what's happening around the league:
- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez will get top billing at media days, at least according to Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. Greenstein has a nice rundown of the top storylines for the other 10 Big Ten teams.
- The second investigation by the Iowa state Board of Regents into the sexual assault case involving two former Hawkeyes football players could include an interview with the alleged victim, a female student-athlete, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reports.
- Ohio State will be the media's pick to win the league, but can the Buckeyes sweep the preseason offensive and defensive player of the year awards? Running back Beanie Wells and linebacker James Laurinaitis are likely choices. It would mark the first sweep of the preseason accolades since Northwestern in 1996 (RB Darnell Autry and LB Pat Fitzgerald), Ken Gordon writes in The Columbus Dispatch blog.
- Michigan State players attended a golf outing Wednesday to benefit Heroes for Kids, a foundation that supports youth athletic programs in Saginaw. Spartans players weighed in on several topics, including how Michigan will adjust to a new coaching staff.
- Mark Dantonio has Michigan State on the right track, but a tougher schedule and the pressure to beat Michigan loom large this fall, the Oakland Press' Pat Caputo writes.
- Minnesota announced its 2008 Hall of Fame class, which includes former football player Francis Twedell (1936-38).
- Another home sellout for Illinois, this time for the Iowa game.
- I'm a sucker for college football highlights set to melodramatic music. Penn State fans will enjoy this.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 20 Duke 7 1 Florida State 45 Final 2 Ohio State 24 10 Michigan State 34 Final 5 Missouri 42 3 Auburn 59 Final 17 Oklahoma 33 6 Oklahoma State 24 Final 7 Stanford 38 11 Arizona State 14 Final 25 Texas 10 9 Baylor 30 Final 16 UCF 17 Southern Methodist 13 Final Utah State 17 23 Fresno State 24