If the only issue surrounding Northwestern University football was how to come back from a 1-11 season, this year would still be a challenge.
Now throw in the hazing scandal, the firing of long-time head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the appointment of an interim coach to guide the Wildcats this fall, and controversy over the new stadium plan, and you have a reality that makes 1-11 seem the least of NU’s worries.
However, a decent-sized and supportive crowd at Ryan Field, plus, of course, a win in Saturday’s home opener could help refocus attention, at least somewhat, on the product on the field.
Presumably with all of that in mind, Interim Head Coach David Braun has sent a public message via the Athletics Department to the “Wildcat Family,” saying he is “looking forward to Northwestern football returning to Ryan Field this weekend.”
Braun says that the team has worked hard, and he is “proud of what was accomplished during [training] camp. We can’t wait to come back home and play in front of — and for — the Northwestern community.”
It will be interesting to see how many fans show up, with everything that’s been going on.
Of course, one of the biggest factors driving attendance is how well the team is performing. Last week’s opening loss on the road at Rutgers, 24-7, doesn’t help.
Another factor is whether the opposing team is a big draw, bringing fans of its own.
Saturday’s game is against the University of Texas at El Paso, which, safe to say, does not have a very large alumni base in the Chicago area.
Plus, classes at NU have not started yet, so many of the students who might normally attend are not even in town yet.
Last year’s home opener, against Duke, drew only 24,622 to the 47,000 seat Ryan Field, and NU saw average attendance for the season dip below 30,000 (28,697) for the first time since 2009. (Not counting 2020, when there was no attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Still, with good weather expected, and a game which, on paper, at least, NU has a chance of winning (the ‘Cats are 1.5 point underdogs), for loyal fans, there is always hope.
“Your investment in our program,” the coach’s letter says, “directly impacts the success of our student-athletes and your fandom means more now than ever.”
Braun says the team hopes to see the fans, not just for the home opener, but “this fall, as we place a collective effort in supporting these young men through their journeys in football, academia, and life.”
The letter wraps up with a familiar phrase: “Go ‘Cats!”