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Get Up, It's GameDay: A Look Back at Northwestern's Moment in the Spotlight

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EVANSTON, Ill. -- Aaron Zelikovich wasn't letting anyone take his spot in line.

Despite a rule against camping out, the senior had gotten to the Lakefill at 6 p.m. Friday evening to ensure a front row seat for ESPN's first broadcast of College GameDay from Evanston since 1995. By 3:30 Saturday morning, he was doing his best to hold his spot, and he and his friends weren't happy with anyone who came close to the front.

"The line is back there!" he yelled at us as we approached, staying combative until he realized all we wanted to do was take his picture and ask him about his experience.

While we were talking to Zelikovich, the rest of the group at the front of line started chanting "Asshole" at us, then at other late-comers they thought were cutting in line. That continued for nearly everyone we tried to interview — nobody was risking losing their spot at the front.

"Get to the back of the line!" one girl yelled at us.

"We aren't in line, we're interviewing people," we said.

"I don't care!" she yelled, overwhelmed as more and more people tried to jump in front of her.

It was as crazy a scene as the Northwestern campus has seen in a long time, not to mention the fact that it was at 3:30 a.m. One reader tweeted at us that she heard the mob of students from seven blocks away. Heck, it was so rowdy that Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl was probably one step away from banning college football in Evanston altogether. And all of this craziness could happen at Northwestern!? Tiny, book-loving Northwestern!? Perhaps that is what made the scene so surreal.

(You can't see much in this video, but you can get a sense of the rowdiness at 3:30 a.m. And my "uneducated guess" in the video was way off.)

We had gotten up at around 2:30 a.m. to meet up with some friends and make it to the Lakefill by 3:30. Those friends wanted to ensure that they'd make it into "the pit," or the front section — it held between 300 and 600 fans — and figured 3:30 was plenty early. Knowing I'd be up until at least 1 a.m. that night, I asked them if we could leave a little bit later, because after all, this is Northwestern, a school that does have some die-hard fans, but surely not enough to fill the pit by 3:30. But as it turns out, 3:30 was far too late.

Walking to the Lakefill, that became clear. Aside from the French guy who had misplaced his car — he apparently parked it at Ryan Field and found himself on Sherman and Emerson — the typically-abandoned sidewalks were littered with people with signs rushing to stand in line. By the time we arrived at the Lakefill, there were already roughly 500 people in line, and that number seemed to balloon to near 1,000 by just past 4 a.m. Zelikovich may have been incredibly early, but the groups right behind him had also come to camp out, and to get a good view in the pit, initially, it seemed that you had to have arrived by at least 2 or 2:30 in the morning. Others who arrived by 4 a.m. seemed to resign to the fact that they were going to be standing behind more than 1,000 others.

More than once, we were told, "I figured I would be fine getting here by 4:30. This is Northwestern."

We left the Lakefill around 4:45 to get our laptops and change into work attire, and by the time we got back the athletic department was busy serving breakfast to a line that had grown rowdier and even more anxious. Wildside President Gram Bowsher said he texted athletic department officials who didn't believe him when he said how long the line was, only to witness a near-riot when they arrived. GameDay host Chris Fowler said it was among the earliest-arriving crowds he's seen.

But once the pit finally opened — about 45 minutes late — the anxiousness turned to excitement. There were still two hours to go until the show, but reality of the spectacle that was about to ensue had settled in. GameDay was at Northwestern, the rain was going to hold off and the college football world was centered around Evanston.

As the sun came up and provided a picturesque view of Lake Michigan, and as the crowd joined together in signing Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," athletic director Jim Phillips beamed, passing out orange juice to the crowd. He watched a show of student support that seemed impossible when he was hired in 2008.

Forget the nerd stereotypes; maybe this was Northwestern — a place where getting up at 4 a.m. isn't good enough to land even a decent spot for a football pregame show. Perhaps that was the most goosebump-inducing part of the entire surreal scene.

"It was a no-brainer to come here"

This game had been circled on the calendars of Northwestern fans since the 2012 season ended. All along, it looked like a game with the potential to bring GameDay to Evanston for the first time since 1995. It was sure to be a matchup of top 20 teams if both were undefeated heading in and it was a pretty "meh" week of games. Apparently, GameDay had this one circled, as well.

"We put together our preliminary list last spring and saw this game, and it was on the top of the list for five or six months," senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting said. "Washington-Stanford was sort of 1.A. this week. After that there’s a significant drop in games this week. It’s Ohio State-Northwestern and Washington-Stanford."

Ironically, Washington will host GameDay this week, while Stanford seems likely to host the show later in the season when it meets Oregon. However, Fitting said it's a week-by-week process, and the show will feature the same team multiple times in a season if it feels compelled to do so. It's all about finding the best story — it's about the story more than the game. And what made this the best story of the week?

"It’s Northwestern’s rise to prominence," Fitting said. "I’ve been in this position a number of years. Ohio State finally facing a ranked opponent is nice. If Ohio State wins this game, it will be the highest-ranked opponent they beat in the Urban Meyer tenure, which is pretty amazing when in a year-and-a-half they haven’t faced a team ranked higher than the mid-teens. It’s an obvious one. We haven’t been to Evanston in close to 20 years and we imagine the scene will be great here.

"It was a no-brainer to come here."

But GameDay's week-by-week approach caused some conflicts. Homecoming was this week, so GameDay's first choice for a location was already reserved.

"Our ask was Deering Meadow," Fitting said. "That’s what we wanted to do — it just screamed Northwestern, looking at the pictures when we sent our crew out here. Homecoming activities sort of prohibited us from doing that."

So instead, GameDay settled for the Lakefill, which NU President Morty Shapiro had pushed for.

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"To be by the lake is cool," Fitting said. "We want different venues. We don’t want to every week to look exactly the same. If it did, it would get old and it would get boring. You hope the weather clears and we can get a glimpse of Chicago here, but to be up by the lake is going to be a different natural atmosphere and a different vibe."

It was hazy, so there wasn't a glimpse of Chicago, but the Lakefill seemed to work out — it was unique and it was picturesque. For Northwestern, it provided plenty of recruiting material for both athletes and regular students. You can't ask for much more than that.

"Comin' To Your City"

The familiar music that emanates from television sets nationwide every Saturday morning blared from a pair of speakers flanking the massive stage. The months of build up, including the final few hours of sign-making, camping-out, line-waiting craziness, led up to this: College GameDay was airing live from Northwestern’s campus.

Most students in attendance had been awake since 4 or 5 a.m., so by the time Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard began their wide-ranging preview of another wild college football Saturday, the vast majority of purple-clad loyalists were tired. Weary. Running on pure adrenaline. Or Red Bull. In most cases, both. One student standing near the front of the pit asked if there was a way she could use the bathroom while someone reserved her spot.

"Nope," we said. "Sorry."

As the show progressed from segment to segment, students began to funnel out of the pit, presumably tired. Perhaps anxious about that Poli Sci 202 paper that had been put off far too long, procrastinated amidst a rush of football-related excitement unlike anything most Northwestern undergrads had ever experienced. But even though some of the students who arrived early  to secure prime spots couldn’t make it through the entire show, most appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Over the course of three hours of college football debate, academic-related video features, uniforms with misspelled names, a controversial comment from analyst David Pollack and one hilarious moment involving host Samantha Ponder – wherein a student, after watching Ponder take her seat on stage, shouted, "Samantha, I’m a virgin!" – Northwestern football soaked in untold amounts of national exposure.

Fans across the country were given a window into a campus culture they thought they had all figured out. Northwestern was a private school full of rich, nerdy, academic-minded young adults who could care less about sports – more conversational about 19th century Victorian literature than they were first downs, false starts and touchdowns.

That perception might not have been erased completely, but the historically jeered image of a library-sheltered student body apathetic toward their school’s athletics pursuits was strongly disputed by the scene displayed on television, where a huge number of totally invested, vibrant, irrepressible Wildcats fans screamed their heads off in support of one thing: Northwestern football.

Sure, the cheers were louder in the beginning of the show than the end, but if viewers around the country tuned in expecting to see a barren landscape, with few fans to be seen or heard, their expectations were veritably misguided.

In fact, in one essential respect, Northwestern’s students may have outperformed most College GameDay crowds. The selection of signs shown on camera were, without question, one of the best in the show’s history. USA Today compiled a wrap-up of GameDay signs in Evanston, leading with the following description.

"It’s Saturday, which means it’s time for college football and "College GameDay" signs. The jokes! The meanness! The school spirit! Mostly the jokes, but definitely also the meanness!"

Sounds like a pretty strong endorsement.

As we stood on a platform overlooking the crowd, a batch of creative, witty, intricate signs dotted a vast sea of purple. Keeping track of all of them was impossible, but we did manage to assemble a round-up of some of the best – many of which required us wading out into the densely-populated wilderness to get better angles for photographs.

Of all the signs on display, this one stuck with me the longest.

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The initial reaction? "Only at Northwestern." Because only that group of students would possibly think to mock the bane of all academic sourcing methods at a college football pre-game show. Did it have very little to do with football? Yeah. Did it play into the whole "Northwestern kids are so smart they don’t realize they’re being dumb about sports" narrative? Yeah. But guess what? That sign is hilarious.

And to the others I failed to mention, don’t think we forgot about you. This was a truly inspiring sign-making effort from a group of students that, frankly, we thought would fall drastically short of the standard set by other GameDay destinations this year.

The climax of any GameDay show is, of course, the final two minutes, where host Lee Corso picks that Saturday’s marquee matchup by putting on the mascot head of the team he thinks will win. On this particular Saturday, that segment was not particularly popular among Northwestern fans. After a long-winded explanation about his history of selecting Ohio State, followed by a shorter remark about a recent trend involving upset picks, the free-wheeling 78-year-old pulled out a large "Brutus the Buckeye" head from under the stage, slid it on and raised his arm to hush an incensed crowd.

"Now what?"

The excitement surrounding College GameDay carried over into the 7 p.m. CT ABC primetime kickoff against Ohio State, where Corso’s pick was put squarely on the line. 70 points, five turnovers, a vicious blocked punt and 168 Carlos Hyde rushing yards later, the Buckeyes edged Northwestern, 40-30, to end a thrilling day on a disappointing note.

Northwestern’s fans had spent all week – ever since a tweet from Chris Fowler’s account Saturday night confirmed the wish Wildcats supporters had long hoped would come true – anticipating College GameDay’s impending arrival. They packed so much excitement and energy into the days leading up to Saturday morning, it was almost easy to forget what was taking place Saturday night – what would happen if it all came crashing down, if Northwestern was unable to cap an exhilarating week with a statement-making upset victory.

Forced to face that reality moments after the Wildcats' game-saving hook-and-ladder play flopped, the mixture of reactions from fans ran the gamut of human emotions. From what we could tell, there were some devastated folks who believed everything that took place the past few days was outweighed by a disappointing loss. There was another contingent that took away both positives and negatives from the weekend: on one hand, Northwestern played host to one of the greatest inventions in modern-day sports media. On the other hand, the Wildcats lost their first Big Ten game of the season, and with a road trip to Wisconsin looming, could be in danger of falling out of the Big Ten race. College GameDay came, and it rocked, but what’s a big party before the game if you don’t, you know, win the game?

Then there was the reasoned, level-headed approach, one distilled perfectly by Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips. Phillips arrived at the Lakefill well before the show’s 8 a.m. start, and after mistakenly handing out bottles of orange juice to students in the pit (prompting a group of howling athletic department officials to request the students give up their beverages), Phillips stepped away from the scene, crossed his arms and observed what was unfolding in front of him.

We began to ask Phillips what he thought about GameDay’s visit to Evanston, only to be interrupted when he intervened. Even if Northwestern were to lose Saturday night, Phillips said, the football program would benefit from a weekend that showcased the Wildcats, and the academic community that houses them, on college football’s biggest national platform. The whole week, he said, "elevated the status of the university," both in athletics and for the general student body.

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When Phillips spearheaded the launch of the "Chicago’s Big Ten Team" marketing campaign in 2010, it was easy to laugh. Easy to make light of a cute little athletic program trying to make headway in a crowded, Bulls/Bears/Cubs-dominated Chicago sports market. Three years later, not only was Northwestern the center of the college football universe on a Saturday in October, it was the one thing everyone – from Mike & Mike to ESPN radio Chicago (both of which broadcasted live from campus Friday) to students to my New Jersey-based high school senior sister to the head of Northwestern’s economic department, Mark Witte, who wrote Monday in the first of a long string of emails sent to a list-serve that, "I can barely muster the strength to spam you all," before offering his three thoughts on the game – wanted to talk about.

Will the heightened attention persist? Probably not. Losing to Ohio State likely deflated some of the hype. But for one Saturday, Northwestern embossed all the implications surrounding its flashy marketing campaign moniker. Northwestern football, long overlooked not only in Chicago, but by college football fans across the country, made a dent. It left an impression that, no matter the result of Saturday night’s game, won’t soon be forgotten – not by fans or alumni, not by the 5,000+ students that stuffed the student section and certainly not by the thousands of four and five-star high schoolers who tuned into ESPN Saturday morning.

There is no way to quantify what GameDay means for Northwestern’s football program, but if there’s one important takeaway, it should be this: to quote former Wildcats linebacker David Nwabuisi, who stood on the sidelines Saturday night alongside former wide receiver Demetrius Fields, "We’re here now," the then-senior said following Northwestern’s 34-20 win over Mississippi State in the 2013 Gator Bowl. "And we’re here to stay!"

College football fans would have a hard time arguing that statement after seeing what Northwestern’s football community is capable of.

This is the first piece in our InsideNU In-Depth series. Read more about the series here.