Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chicago Makes Northwestern A Fun Trip

We always enjoy following Penn State to Northwestern. Why? Location. Location. Location. Evanston Illinois is a suburb just north of Chicago. Every once in a while it’s nice to get a big city fix, and Chicago is one of America’s great cities.

When we go to Chicago, we try to take advantage of all that Chicago has to offer. Favorite museums include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Science and Technology. We will usually visit one of these museums each time we go to Chicago. There’s always something interesting to learn or see.

Also, Terry loves to visit zoos, and two of his favorites zoos are in Chicago. The Brookfield zoo is great – in the suburbs near O’Hare – and so is the Lincoln Park Zoo – within the city limits. If the weather is good, we will head to the zoo.

Then there’s the shopping, especially on the Magnificent Mile, where we usually stay. Flagship stores of major brands such as Nike, Sony, or Apple can be found on that stretch of Michigan Avenue. Favorite department stores such as Nordstrom's, and major malls with every retailer you can possibly name can be found here. Since I live in Centre County, PA., excellent shopping (more likely browsing) is a real treat. As a marketing professional, seeing the latest trends in retailing is also a learning experience. The only problem is that Terry hates to shop. So I leave him in the hotel room for a few hours while I explore.

Finally, there are the restaurants. Chicago deep-dish pizza – there’s nothing better if you like pizza. Edwardo’s is our favorite, followed closely by Giordano’s. There are steakhouses galore, too numerous to mention, and we’ve had several good meals. Somehow, Midwestern steaks are always better than what you can find in the East. And then there’s the Twin Anchors Tavern, a recent find. The best ribs we’ve ever eaten! We’ll probably go there again this trip, even though we need to take a taxi, it was that good. A local pub, very crowded, but well worth the wait.

We’ve learned from experience how to manage the trip to Northwestern. The first time we visited there, we stayed at a hotel near O’Hare Airport and drove to Evanston. It was 1993, and football was – well – not a major focus at Northwestern. The stadium, Ryan Field, has a capacity of 47,130. When we went to that first game, we had a rental car and drove to the stadium. Barely an hour before the game, we could park within two blocks of the stadium. A half hour before the game, there were still empty parking spaces right next to the stadium. We were amazed. Northwestern did not have a winning tradition, so attendance was sparse, and access was easy. Empty seats – and empty parking spaces – prevailed. Our seats, purchased through Penn State, were on the 35-yard line for that first game.

Northwestern is a great school, with very tough academics. In 1993, Northwestern was known more for its losing records in Division 1A than its winning records. On the other hand, Northwestern has always had one of the highest graduation success rates of NCAA BCS football – 92% in 2008, the last year the statistics have been made available. In comparison, Penn State’s NCAA graduation success rate for football was 78% that same year. This is not to be frowned upon! Among the Top 25 AP teams, Penn State was #2. Texas Tech was #1, with 79%. But for Northwestern, recruiting great football talent with very tough academic standards is even harder than it is at Penn State – which is tough enough, and getting tougher every year.

Unlike other Big Ten schools, which are all public universities, Northwestern is a private university, with an enrollment as of 2007 of about 19000 students. From my perspective as a marketing professional, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern is well known for having one of the best marketing departments in the country.

In fact, in 1995, just when I was about to go to Northwestern for a game, we were recruiting marketing professionals for my company’s marketing department. I asked my boss where we should recruit. Northwestern, of course, was his answer. My response: “I’m going to the Northwestern game this weekend. What can I do?” My boss said, “Recruit an MBA from Northwestern”. So it was the first and only time a football game became also a business trip.

That same year, everything changed for Northwestern football. Under the leadership of head coach Gary Barnett, Northwestern had its “Cinderella Season”. “Expect Victory” was the motto. On November 4, 1995, when Penn State played them at Ryan Field, Northwestern had lost only one game – oddly enough to Miami of Ohio. They had won against Notre Dame, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois before they played us. The atmosphere on campus when I met with Kellog to recruit an MBA was electric. There was purple fever everywhere. We wound up losing that game 21-10, and Northwestern won the Big Ten Conference title that year and headed to the Rose Bowl to play USC. Their record for the year was 10-2, after losing to USC.

Parking at the stadium in 1995? Forget about it! The stadium was sold out for every game, and parking there was out of the question. We were advised to park on campus and take the shuttle to the game.

So we did park on campus. We were directed to park near the Natatorium. The shuttle worked well from campus to the stadium. However, on the way back, after a miserable loss, the shuttle took a different route, and the bus driver didn’t announce the stops. I guess he assumed that everyone on the bus knew where to get off. Everyone, that is, except us. We stayed on the bus too long, and finally asked the bus driver where we were.

The bus driver dropped us at the very south end of campus. The Natatorium was near the north end of campus. On a very bone-chilling cold windy November night we had to walk a very long way – my guess close to two miles – along Lake Michigan – asking directions from whomever we could – to find our way back to our parking spot. It was a miserable experience!

Since then, we have not driven to Evanston for a Northwestern game. The games have been much better attended, and the away team section is relegated to the corner of the end zone. Parking is impossible.

We find it easier to stay in downtown Chicago – preferably near the Magnificent Mile - and take the “El” – the purple elevated subway line – to the game. That leaves us about 3 blocks from the stadium. It works very well, and we don’t have to fuss about parking! The Penn State Pep Rally is also close to that “El” station in Evanston. So it’s convenient to stop by there before the game.

This year, it will be more interesting than usual. We will play Northwestern on Halloween. What are we likely to encounter on public transportation to and from the game? I’ll be sure to have my camera ready!

One thing I’m not too worried about this year is winning the game. As long as the Penn State team doesn’t overlook them!

Despite our winning record against them, we’ve had some very close battles with Northwestern – most notably in 2005. Towards the end of the game, Northwestern was ahead. Michael Robinson completed a 4th and 15 pass to tight end Isaac Smolko in order to keep our chances of winning the game alive. To me, that was the key play of the incredible 2005 season. A pass to Derrick Williams five plays later secured our victory, with 51 seconds left on the clock.

At the end of that game, Terry and I had our first clue that the 2005 team would be special. How special we couldn’t predict, but at that point we knew that the team could at least find a way to win. It was a major turning point after two miserable losing seasons!


  1. I totally agree with you about the 2005 season. The completion to Smolko on 4th down was the key play. Many people only look at the TD to D Wil or Tamba Hali's sack of Troy Smith as the key play of 2005..but none of that happens without that conversion.

    I think we dominate this weekend...35-14

  2. I think we will dominate as well. Northwestern will have to play a perfect game to beat Penn State this weekend. It could happen, I suppose. That's why you play the game!