Northwestern University: home to a fine journalism program, alma mater of Otto Graham, and an emerging Big Ten football power? If recent results indicate a continuing trend, the Wildcats should be among the B1G's upper echelon for some time. And with the resurgence of the football program comes games of national interest, like this Saturday's home contest against No. 4 Ohio State, and a resurgence of the Saturday pre- and post-game atmosphere on campus.
Northwestern football hasn't had a ton of on-field success throughout its history. The Wildcats have a 501-636-44 all-time record, and they went 64 years without a bowl win, ending that streak last season. The overall lack of competitive teams has made its mark on the tailgating atmosphere in Evanston, rendering it mostly tame.
"This may shock you, but the tailgating traditions at a tiny private school not known for its football or its partying are not spectacular," said Rodger Sherman, managing editor at SB Nation Northwestern blog Sippin' on Purple. "I'm told there was a time during the dark ages of Northwestern football that the tailgates were the highlight. The team sucked, but since students were allowed to freely come and go during games, the parking lot would more or less be a kegger allowing kids to refuel in between watching Northwestern get whupped.
"But somewhere along the line -- I believe in between the '96 and 2000 Big Ten championships -- the school and the town decided kids were getting too rowdy and cracked down on student tailgates -- by the way, Evanston is where much of the Prohibition movement started. I can't speak to the quality of alumni tailgating, but while I was at NU (2008-12) every tailgate I went to was a large group of people covertly drinking in someone's backyard. Even then, this was sometimes too much for Evanstonians' precious sensibilities."
But like the football program, the tailgating scene has improved in recent years. Head coach and former Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald has put up a 54-39 mark in seven-plus seasons, and he lead the Wildcats to a 10-3 record last year. Northwestern is 4-0 this season and ranked 15th in the USA Today Coaches' poll, and fans are appropriately excited. Fitzgerald is turning the football team around, and the school is doing the same with tailgating.
"Things are changing as NU realizes tailgates make people happy," Sherman said. "They've gone out of their way to get rid of 11 a.m. kickoff times, which murdered almost everybody's enthusiasm for football and booze -- almost, as in: everybody but me -- and this year opened up a zone near the stadium (entitled Fitzerland) where students can drink and grill without worrying about open-container laws. I am angry this development happened after I graduated, but at least students are pumped for NU football now."
Drinking and grilling appears to be the theme of most Northwestern tailgates. And with the proximity to Chicago -- Evanston is roughly 15 miles north of the Windy City -- and its beer and hot dog culture, why not?
"I think of Chicago as a beer town, and I think Northwestern tailgates reflect that. And yes, I think it's all about the drankin'. Some people go pretty all-out on food, but if I had to mention a food you'd be likely to find at most tailgates, some variant on Chicago-style hot dogs. Peppers, onions, pickle, celery salt and never, ever, ever under any circumstances, ketchup."
Speaking of Chicago, having such a huge city so close to Evanston somewhat takes away from the college town's nightlife, but that doesn't mean it is bereft of good dining options.
"Evanston is a half-hour, $2 train ride from a city that prides itself on how many bars it has and how good those bars are," said Sherman. "It's one of the best bar scenes in the world, and you better take advantage of it.
"As for Evanston, the food options are incredible. Bars and nightlife, not so much -- there are a few, but Evanston went out of its way to close the most popular student bar, The Keg, this past year. My personal recommendation I give every time I'm asked is Bat17: enormous, delicious sandwiches and beer towers. There are other, very good places, but I will not vouch for them above Bat."
Just in case there was a chance Northwestern fans wouldn't provide an outstanding game day atmosphere Saturday, the traveling legion from Ohio State will be out in full force. No doubt, sections of Evanston will appear to be miniature, mobile versions of Columbus. Luke Zimmermann, managing editor at Land-Grant Holy Land, SB Nation's Buckeyes blog, expects Northwestern fans to bring their A-game, but the folks in scarlet and gray will make their presence known.
"Buckeye fans are effectively like Fight Club franchisees -- they show up, infiltrate society and then do their unspeakable anarchy at night, or at least game days," Zimmermann said. "Chicago is a particularly large hub for Ohio State -- and Big Ten in general -- alums. The Chicago-based Buckeyes, I suspect, will definitely tailgate, and given their sheer numbers, your intuition about a mobile Columbus might not be wrong.
"I personally haven't been to a game in Evanston, though with this being such a huge game, I don't expect the typical game day atmosphere there to be the case come Saturday. I imagine even the most casual of Northwestern fans -- or just general Chicago college sports fans who want to hop on the bandwagon -- will be out in full force. The actual NU alums I've met have by and large fit certain stereotypes, but have also been great sports and good ambassadors for their institution. If there are any exceptions to that this weekend, I'm guessing it'll be from more of the 'townie' type Wildcats backers."
With ESPN's College GameDay in town, two fan bases looking for a big win and two teams meeting in a primetime contest, tailgating in Evanston Saturday should be far from typical. In fact, it may be the best tailgating day Northwestern has seen in quite some time -- maybe ever.
"I wrote about this in detail on SoP -- I don't think there's ever been a game where Northwestern's been this good playing against an opponent this good with this much hype," Sherman said. "People joke about Northwestern's atmosphere, but night games at Ryan Field are special, and while there will be a large Ohio State contingent, the crowd will be predominantly purple.
"As for special plans, is College GameDay not good enough? I'm stuck here in New York, and am completely bitter hearing about all my friends' drinking plans. Like, violently angry. The Northwestern bar in NYC should be pretty packed, though."
"Stuck here in New York," as opposed to hanging out in Evanston and watching Northwestern football. Yep, times are definitely changing for the Wildcats and their fans.