By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) Riddle me this: If you’re really “Chicago’s Big Ten team,” can you play three conference road games in the Windy City?
The answer: No, you can’t. Not if you’re really “Chicago’s Big Ten team.”
But if Northwestern wants to continue to talk that broad-shouldered talk here in the state, then it needs to also walk the walk by taking its home football games against Illinois in 2016, 2018 and 2020 and moving them south from Evanston to Soldier Field.
On Monday, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas announced that his university — which boasts the slogan “Our State. Our Team” — will be staking its own claim to Chicago by playing those three season-finale contests 138 miles north of Champaign at the home of the Bears.
“By taking these Thanksgiving weekend games to Soldier Field, we will provide a great environment for our student-athletes, fans and students who are already in the Chicagoland area for the holiday,” Thomas said. “Ending the regular season at a historical site and one of the best stadiums in the world will make for a big-time event for our student-athletes and will be a great springboard for our football program into the postseason.”
What it also should be is a great springboard for an enhanced Illinois-Northwestern football rivalry, which really has never been much of a rivalry at all. With neither program known as a pigskin powerhouse, the game has usually been more of something that happens rather than a true happening. However, perhaps it could have some added juice if the two in-state schools turned their game into an annual affair for “Braggin’ Rights” in Chicago.
Down in the SEC, Florida and Georgia host “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” every fall in Jacksonville. In the Big 12, enemies Texas and Oklahoma hold their annual “Red River Rivalry” in Dallas. And out East, Army and Navy rotate their time-honored clash between NFL stadiums in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Illinois-Northwestern doesn’t have the tradition or cachet of any of those famed neutral-site contests, but by making Soldier Field the game’s annual venue most certainly could provide the Illini and Wildcats programs with much-needed excitement – and attention.
On Monday, however, the only thing that Northwestern officials seemed to be excited or attentive about was the prospect of seeing three Big Ten road games moved to a neutral site closer to campus.
“I’m really happy for our players,” Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune. “This means they’ll be in Chicagoland over the Thanksgiving weekend for the next six years. I’m also ecstatic for our fans.”
As the coach of “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” Fitzgerald should instead be ecstatic about the prospect of making the game at Soldier Field an electric annual event – both for his players and his fans.
When asked three years ago whether he would consider giving up home-field advantage for games against Northwestern, Thomas told the Tribune, “Our home game against Northwestern still would be played in Champaign. (Northwestern AD) Jimmy (Phillips) is a smart guy, but I don’t think he’ll get our Champaign game to Chicago.”
For the better of his program’s Chicagoland recruiting, exposure and alumni base, Thomas has since wised up. Phillips and Fitzgerald should too.
The ball is in your hands, Northwestern. Run with it.