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Column: The Rapid Revolution of NU Student Football Fans

I arrived on Northwestern’s campus just over two years ago, and as I looked up at a jam-packed student section from the sidelines at Ryan Field on Saturday, it amazed me how much things have changed in the last two years.

The first game I attended at NU was NU-Michigan in 2011 and some friends who had grown up attending other Big Ten games went up to tailgate at Ryan Field about seven hours before the game, only to find nothing (we soon learned about NU’s parking lot rules). That year, my friends and I got in line a couple hours early to sign up for a Wildside roadtrip, only to find out we didn’t need to get there early at all.

Contrast that to Saturday morning, when I arrived at the Lakefill with friends at 3:30 a.m. to get in line for College GameDay, only to find hundreds of people ahead of me. I talked to people who got there at 4 a.m. — far past the arrival time to get into “the pit” — who thought, Nobody is going to come early, it’s Northwestern!

Well, this isn’t your grandfather’s Northwestern, nor is it 1995’s Northwestern or even 2011’s Northwestern. It’s a school with a student fan base that has undergone one helluva transformation in such a short amount of time.

I’m in a unique position as a writer for this site. I cover the team objectively, but I’m also connected to the campus and can catch the vibe around campus. I never thought the vibe I saw this week was possible at NU.

It’s hard to explain what it was like — the best explanation I could come up with is it felt like another Big Ten school. For once, everyone knew what everyone was doing on Saturday.

Fitzerland, in just its first season, has become a favorite for students. Other Wildside events have become more mainstream. All of the momentum led to a moment like this one, with GameDay in town and a date with Ohio State in primetime. It was the perfect storm and NU students responded.

Consider this: The Ryan Field student section holds 5,000 students. NU’s undergraduate population is 8,000. The students filled their section and more — some were being turned away — meaning 60 percent of students were at the game. That’s unbelievable for any school, much less Northwestern.

Forget the red. NU still has issues with the alumni attendance, but there’s nothing the students can do about that — as soon as they become alumni, that will change. The students did their part, and that’s what matters.

Talking to athletic director Jim Phillips at GameDay, he beamed with pride when talking about what excellent opportunities students at NU got from this week, and he noted that he thinks the hoopla has “elevated the status of the university”

The only way that could happen was for students to show up, and they exceeded just about everyone’s expectations.

Who knows what the future holds for NU students’ fandom? It won’t be like this every week — heck, it might not be for 19 years — but today, the students set the bar.

But no matter how much of the hoopla sticks around and how much less exciting the Minnesota game is than this one, 2011 Northwestern isn’t coming back, at least from a fan perspective.

Tonight was evidence of that more than ever.