One end zone for offense at Wrigley

Updated: November 20, 2010, 11:54 AM ET
ESPNChicago.com

Only one end zone will be used for offense Saturday at Wrigley Field for the Illinois-Northwestern game because of safety concerns, the Big Ten announced Friday, and the Chicago Cubs said the decision caught them by surprise.

[+] EnlargeWrigley
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastWhichever team is on offense Saturday will head toward the west [left] end zone.

NCAA rules state the field dimensions must have adequate space surrounding the playing surface: "Limit lines shall be marked ... 12 feet outside the sidelines and the end lines, except in stadiums where total field surface does not permit. In these stadiums, the limit lines shall not be less than 6 feet from the sidelines and end lines."

Wrigley's east end zone is a few feet away from the right-field wall, and although there is padding, there were concerns players could be injured there.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had said this week he would have different game plans for each end zone to avoid the possibility of injury.

When a team is on offense Saturday, it will be positioned to head to the west end zone.

"Though it's not ideal, it's the right thing," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "We've been planning for this for a while, there were no surprises. The field came out the way we thought, it ended up maybe being a little closer with some of the padding.

"As we looked at it -- the visual aspect of it -- this week, we just felt there was a low probability that something would happen. ... And the more we thought about it, the more we talked about it, we looked at it, we just felt like this was something we needed to do. And it was complete uniformity between the Big Ten conference, and Northwestern and Illinois. At the heart of it was to make sure we had done everything we could to make it safe."

Cubs president Crane Kenney released a statement Friday saying the Big Ten and both universities approved the field dimensions in relation to player safety. As recently as last week, the Cubs said in the statement, the Big Ten "participated in a field walk-through and raised no issue with the field dimensions."

The Cubs also said they "are surprised by the Big Ten's last-minute statement regarding changes for tomorrow's Northwestern-Illinois football game at Wrigley Field, Let there be no doubt: The safety of the student-athletes has been -- and remains -- the No. 1 priority since the concept of this game was first discussed more than a year ago, and all parties have gone to complete lengths to ensure student-athlete safety for this contest."

Kenney referenced Saturday's game between Notre Dame and Army at Yankee Stadium, and said the dimensions are similar.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Friday the conference "had never been put on notice that this was anything other than tight, not a blatant violation of NCAA playing rules. There wasn't much thought in my mind than to make the necessary changes."

Delany also said the "issue was never vetted until two days ago," but felt the change was necessary.

"The timing is late. The decision is right," he said. "You could maybe make a decision not to change and take the risk; but if my kid out there, I know how I'd feel about this."

Delany said Philips told him the dimensions would be similar to Idaho's Kibbie Dome and the football setup at AT&T Park in San Francisco for the Emerald Bowl.

"Since the bowl game was NCAA-certified, I just presumed if it was going on out there, it must be close but legal," Delany said. "I found out later that wasn't the right assumption."

After deciding the initial setup would not work, the Big Ten and the two schools discussed several options, including cutting 2-3 yards off of each end zone. This would have required an NCAA waiver, but it is possible.

"I was still concerned that even if you cut it off by 2 yards, you're still in the suspect zone of 6-12 feet," Delany said.

According to a statement issued by the Big Ten, the following changes will be made:

•All offensive plays will head toward the west end zone, including all extra points and all overtime possessions.

•All kickoffs will be kicked toward the east end zone.

•After every change of possession, the ball will be repositioned for the offense to head toward the west end zone.

• As a result of a coin toss held by the conference office Friday morning, Illinois will occupy the west team bench in the first half and Northwestern will occupy the west team bench in the second half and for all overtime periods.

"The health and safety of our student-athletes is of the utmost importance," Delany said in the 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."

Fitzgerald applauded the decision.

"To me, it doesn't change a whole lot," he said. "Pictures can say a million words, but reality is reality. When you got up close to it, it was really tight. The No. 1 priority is healthy, safety and well-being. It doesn't matter if that decision was made tomorrow at 1:30 or 1:45 or 2:25 [kick-off is at 2:30 CT].

"I think this is a great decision. I think it is a tremendous show of leadership and commitment by the commissioner, both ADs and both coaches. We're going to do what was right. All the other things are irrelevant."

ESPNChicago.com reporter Scott Powers and ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.

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