- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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The annual Northwestern-Illinois football game used to be the Battle for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk.
Now it's the Battle for Our Attention.
Well, you won this time. But not for the right reasons.
On Saturdays across Chicago, bars and living rooms are packed with fans watching Michigan State and Michigan and Notre Dame.
No offense to the alums of these two fantastic schools, but no one cares about the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry. Even your fan bases are lukewarm.
When Illinois is good, sure, it gets plenty of love in Chicago. The city is crawling with Illini alums. But Illini football is rarely very good. And while Northwestern is coming off a win over nationally ranked Iowa, it can barely fill its stadium with its own fans.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald could inspire me to run through a brick wall, so to speak, but even he couldn't get me to go to this game.
Sorry. My mom is in town to see her grandson. Priorities, folks.
Chicago's collective yawn at this rivalry was supposed to be stifled this season with the game taking place at historic Wrigley Field.
But like the Cubs this past season, and well, most seasons, this game quickly turned into a national punchline.
Now there are bitter feelings and tarnished reputations, and few people care about the actual football being played, instead focusing on how screwy the game will look when teams change sides of the field like it's a pickup game in your front yard.
You've probably already heard, but after some 11th-hour deliberations on Friday morning, it was decided that both offenses will drive toward the west end zone, eschewing the east end zone and its close proximity to the brick walls of center and right fields.
Not that the west end zone is disaster-proof, there's still a brick wall nearby, but it's usable.
The fact that this was going to be a tight fit isn't news. We all knew this game was dicey, but now it's just laughable. And while this plan makes the game safer, there's still risk for injury if say, someone takes a turnover the other way for a touchdown, among other scenarios.
This is the end result of two schools, and one conference, desperate for relevance in a crowded sports marketplace and ultimately mucking it up.
The Chicago area is the home of the Big Ten and the Big Ten Network, so, as they say, the Big Ten does live here. But the conference should be embarrassed by the slapdash way it handled this event.
You drop bad news on a Friday. Don't tell me this is a coincidence.
It's obvious Northwestern, the host and progenitor for this game, is not accustomed to a project of this magnitude.
It's obvious the Cubs couldn't talk themselves out of this plan. In fact, the organization couldn't stop back-slapping and glad-handing in the weeks leading up to this game.
"If everything goes smoothly we would love to make it an annual event," Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said on "Chicago Tribune Live" on Comcast on Tuesday, not long after holding a news conference about his unpopular tax plan to renovate the stadium. "The field looks great and it should be a tremendous game to watch."
Tremendous or hilarious?
The giddiness approaching this game was nauseating at times. It was a fun idea in theory. In reality, it was a money grab.
Hey, let's get a sponsor and call this game a "classic"!
Hey, let's charge $100 a ticket for seats in the east end zone! One fifty for
outfield club seats!
Hey, let's take pictures of the landmark-status marquee being painted purple!
Hey, let's go on TV and say this is going to be an annual event!
Someone should have said no to this plan, and that was the Big Ten.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany waited way too long to stop this farce. The field has been up for two weeks, but this should've been dealt with last spring when the plan was cemented.
"The health and safety of our student-athletes is of the utmost importance," Delany said in a statement. "Both Illinois and Northwestern did significant due diligence over the past 18 months, but after seeing the actual layout of the field, all parties felt that it was appropriate to adjust the rules to further enhance the safety of our student-athletes. Wrigley Field is one of the most historic venues in the country, and playing the Illinois-Northwestern game at this facility will provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience for student-athletes, coaches and fans."
Highlight "once-in-a-lifetime" because this game isn't coming back to Wrigley. We'll see a World Series trophy in the Triangle Building before we see another college football game.
Needless to say, the Cubs were "surprised" by this news. Team president Crane Kenney issued a news release that was unusually, well, defensive and angry.
"The field-dimension layout was delivered to the Big Ten approximately eight months ago and was approved by the conference," Kenney said in the release. "Last month, the field was built exactly to the dimensions previously approved by the Big Ten. Last week, a Big Ten official performed an on-site visit at Wrigley Field, participated in a field walk-thru [sic] and raised no issue with the field dimensions, painted lines and boundaries previously approved by the Big Ten."
I'm just guessing, but I think Kenney is mad at the Big Ten.
"This game would not have been scheduled if it did not pass the strict and meticulous standards of everyone involved, a process that began more than a year ago," the release continued. "All are in agreement Wrigley Field is a safe venue to host a football game. Other baseball parks, including tomorrow night's game in Yankee Stadium, feature similar football field-to-venue grid dimensions and rule changes are not considered for football games played in other baseball parks."
Ugh. The Cubs want to make Wrigley a 365-day destination. That's part of the reason they're asking for some tax relief and state bonds to rehab it. This looks bad, and Kenney's right. This should have been dealt with at the idea's inception.
I don't blame the Cubs. For once it's not their fault. After the success of the Winter Classic two years ago, why not play a football game there? The Bears played at Wrigley for decades, though they've added seats since then. The Wrigleyville bar scene, bereft of playoff customers, will do gangbuster business.
This idea, this setup was logical and fun and romantic, but ultimately unrealistic.
These developments struck a nerve, or rather a funny bone. It was made for smart-alecks on Twitter who have trotted out the sandlot jokes and created hashtags for all the new rules.
Maybe they can plant an oak tree at the 30-yard-line to add some authenticity. And what time is Evan Watkins' mom calling him in for dinner?
Northwestern and Illinois were looking for legitimacy and found themselves looking like jokes.
This wasn't a moon launch. It's pretty simple engineering and planning. Well, maybe not simple enough.
"In talking to the conference and everybody involved, maybe it didn't come out exactly that we thought potentially it would," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said at a news conference. "When you look at the back wall, if you take away the ivy, take away the pad, your boundary is not approached upon. But when you put the ivy in there and then you put in the padding, now you've encroached on the boundary. We just felt, 'Let's think this through and make a right decision.' The timing isn't ideal. I don't dismiss that at all.
"It's the truth," he said. "It's not perfect, and I hate the timing of it, but I really believe we did the right thing."
Poor Fitzgerald. He just wants to coach and represent his university.
"I was commenting earlier to some of my family members, it's like being back in Orland Park," Fitzgerald said. "Losers walk. It's football. Let's go. To me, it doesn't change a whole lot.
"Pictures can say a million words, but reality is reality. When you got up close to it, it was really tight."
Fitzgerald and Illinois coach Ron Zook tried to make light of the situation this week, but both were concerned. How could they not be?
To me, what it sounds like is that the people in charge knew there would be inherent safety issues, but they wanted this to work out so badly, they talked themselves into going through with it.
Ever buy a pair of shoes that were a little too tight, because you liked the look of them?
The funniest part of this whole debacle is the sponsor: An insurance company.
Only at Wrigley Field, right?
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
All involved should be embarrassed by Wrigley Field end zone debacle.