A ‘unique, special experience’: College football returns to Wrigley Field
For many Chicagoans and Midwesterners, Wrigley Field is a landmark and the Cubs are a foundation.
This is the case for Northwestern Football head coach David Braun, whose team is preparing to host the Wildcats Classic at the Friendly Confines this Saturday.
“The first baseball game I ever went to was with my dad at Wrigley Field,” Braun said at Monday’s press conference at Walter Athletics Center. “We drove down, grabbed a hot dog on the way. Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, Joe Girardi, Ryne Sandberg were all playing.”
Braun – a Wales, Wisconsin native – knows how special it is to play a football game at Wrigley Field. Saturday’s matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes will be the third iteration to the Wildcats and Cubs’ partnership, which resurrected football to the sports mecca in 2010 for the first time in 40 years.
“Having the opportunity to be a part of a football game at Wrigley Field, what a unique, special experience,” Braun said. “To say that I’m getting the opportunity to coach in that game is really special. I’m really excited for our fanbase to experience it, our players to experience it, and really excited for my two boys to experience it. It’s going to be a special day.”
Wrigley Field has extensive football history as the home of the Chicago Bears during their early days. From 1921 to 1970, the Bears played their home games at Wrigley Field, winning eight NFL championships, and Chicago legends like Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers called the stadium home. It held more football games (365) than any other stadium until 2007 when Lambeau Field passed it.
When the Bears left for Soldier Field in 1971, Wrigley Field became exclusively a baseball venue, home to the Cubs.
This storied history made college football’s return to the Friendly Confines much more significant in 2010 when Northwestern hosted Illinois. It was the first football game at Wrigley Field in 40 years and was the first college football game at Wrigley since 1938, when St. Louis and DePaul met on the gridiron – both universities no longer have a football program.
With all this in mind, the 2010 game was a spectacle and for one day, Wrigleyville became a football town. The Wrigley Field Marquee was painted purple, photos of Northwestern players were posted around the stadium, and even ESPN’s College Gameday set up across the street from the ballpark. Two Illinois schools with local fan bases playing in one of Chicago’s most famous landmarks made for a special occasion.
The game in 2010 had a unique environment. This was not a regular football game – the dimensions made it hard for the NCAA to proceed normally. There were questions about player safety, mainly that the East end zone was too close to the brick Wrigley wall, and the day before the game the Big Ten decided it could not be used. So, Northwestern and Illinois played with one endzone.
“They were trying to create some safety precautions in there,” said Adam Rittenberg, an ESPN College Football Senior Writer and Northwestern alum. “It created an interesting dynamic … but it was probably the best decision.”
Wrigley Field has undergone field renovations since the 2010 game – the dugouts and first few rows of seats are removable, which allowed for more field space in 2021 when Northwestern was set to host Purdue. This time, both end zones could be used, the biggest difference from 2010. There were some abnormalities – both teams shared the same sideline since the field was too close to the first base seats, and at the East end zone, the fans were directly above the players in the right field bleachers – but it was those unique aspects that made for such a special environment for the players.
“The fans being right above the east end zone was pretty cool,” Northwestern safety Coco Azema said. “It was surreal to see the fans right there above us.”
To say both games were a success would be an understatement. In both 2010 and 2021, Wrigley Field was packed with Northwestern fans, and the Illinois and Purdue faithful showed up when their team had the opportunity to play in Wrigley. The games in 2010 and 2021 averaged over 36,000 fans.
On Saturday, college football returns to Wrigley Field once again and both players and coaches are excited for the occasion. Northwestern, who is marketed as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” understands how important Wrigley Field and the Cubs are to Chicago sports and the city.
“The team is ecstatic. Everyone understands the historical importance and not many have a chance to play a football game at Wrigley,” Northwestern tight end Thomas Gordon said. “A lot of us go to Cubs games, we’ve all been as a team, been to the rooftops, playing a different sport at Wrigley is awesome and everyone is excited to go.”
“I got to go to Wrigley on my official visit, we went to the top of the stadium and had some hot dogs,” Azema said. “I had never been to a baseball game before, so when they said we get to play there I thought I would get a crack at playing at a baseball stadium.”
Gordon and Azema have the opportunity to play at Wrigley Field not once, but twice as they were both around in 2021 as well. But, for many players and coaches, Saturday will be their first opportunity.
🗣️ Wrigley Week. pic.twitter.com/pQqjyvJoZQ— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) October 30, 2023
“Playing at Wrigley Field in a rivalry is something that this group is really excited about,” Braun said.
Saturday’s matchup is a Big Ten West rivalry and also has major standings implications. Northwestern is 4-4 (2-3 in the Big Ten) and Iowa is 6-2 (3-2 in the Big Ten), and the Wildcats are just 1 game behind the Hawkeyes and Wisconsin Badgers for first place in the Big Ten West. This only adds to the stakes of the Wildcats Classic.
The field layout will be unique once again as the fans will be right above the east end zone in the right field bleachers and Northwestern and Iowa will share a sideline, similar to 2021. The teams will have to adapt to these differences.
“It’s just another piece of the puzzle for a unique and special opportunity for our guys,” Braun said.
Clearly, playing football at Wrigley Field is a special opportunity. Combine one of the most famous stadiums in America with big college football games, and it will always take headlines.
So, if it’s always big, will there be more college football at the Friendly Confines in the future?
The games always make for great atmospheres, and with Wrigley’s lore and how popular the three iterations have been, many other teams would love the opportunity to play there.
“I think it’s something that’s exciting and a little bit different.” Rittenberg said. “Others have brought this up, but it would be great if there was a bowl game at some point. You have that [The Pinstripe Bowl] at Yankee Stadium, you have that at other primarily baseball venues around the country.”
Whether a Northwestern fan, an Iowa fan or a college football fan, the game will be noteworthy for players, coaches, and viewers all over the country. For Cubs fans, it’s a remarkable time where their favorite stadium is turned into a football stadium for a day.
There’s no doubt Wrigleyville is a Cubs town and it will always be. But, on Saturday, football takes the main stage at the Friendly Confines, and whether Northwestern or someone else is the host, it sets the foundation for an irregular and special opportunity.
“It’s just a really good celebration of the sport,” Rittenberg said. “Maybe not to have it every year, but there’s a continuance of college football at Wrigley Field because it’s a great place.”
*For the full interview between Michael Barthelemy and ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, check out the video above*