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The Return of Student Tailgating to Evanston

While waiting for Saturday night to roll around, NU Wildside, the official student section and support group of the athletic department, dropped some pretty big news.

You can read all about “Fitzerland” here. What you really need to know is that the school is creating a student tailgate section on the practice field next to Ryan Field and making it easy. Very easy. I’d be surprised if any school in the country will go as far out of their way to encourage student tailgating as Northwestern will this year. If students don’t have their own equipment, they can rent it on the spot for free with a very modest and fully refundable deposit of $20 per game or $75 for the season. They will also be allowed to consume alcohol.

It seems Northwestern finally has leverage with the city of Evanston and is capitalizing on it. There was noteworthy panic created by the Wrigley deal and loss of significant tax revenue, which may now total close to an average of $100,00 a game. Rumors of an unofficial policy of one night game per year are no longer relevant now, as the Wildcats are playing three games under the lights in their first four home games. Before I get to why this is all significant, let’s take a quick look back at the history.

Evanston was once a dry town. Infamously so. The Northwestern University charter of the 1850s created a four mile radius around campus in which alcohol sales were forbidden. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was established two decades later, largely in response to the rise in alcoholism that was blamed for creating a culture of wasting money and worsening home life around the country. Take a walk down Chicago Ave. and you will see a visual reminder of the WCTU’s powerful presence in Evanston. The Francis Willard house, a national landmark, was used as the national headquarters of the WCTU from 1899 to 1910.

Temperance in Evanston is a fascinating story, details of which are best left to historians. In 1972, Evanston finally changed its stance, allowing a limited quantity of liquor licenses to business in city limits. While Evanston did take a relatively hard-line stance against TKOE in the past year, the difference between today and 40 years ago is unmistakable. Evanston will soon have three or four breweries, countless bars, and a much more liberal view of alcohol consumption by students. There’s even a World of Beer right in the middle of downtown Evanston.

It’s important to highlight some of that past that is applicable to football culture on campus. Massive celebrations were not uncommon on campus after big victories, such as the bonfire that saw NU officials cancel classes after the Wildcats won the conference championship in 1930 (see page 39 of Larry LaTourette’s “Northwestern Wildcat Football”). It’s unclear how much alcohol, if any, was consumed, but many students at the time were certainly familiar with letting loose just up Sheridan Road in No Man’s Land, the unincorporated area between Wilmette and Kenilworth. It was anything but what you would expect from pre-war North Shore Chicago. You can read more about that here.

Celebrations following big football moments also produced one of best parts of the Northwestern/University of Chicago rivalry. Though the two schools would never face each other again after the lopsided Wildcat victory of 1926, the game which saw the dedication of Dyche Stadium, the taunts continued. Following Northwestern’s invitation to the 1949 Rose Bowl, as Larry LaTourette recounts on page 63 of his book:

“Students stayed away from classes Monday, continuing their parties and waiting for the invitation. It finally came later that morning, and it was greeted by an even bigger explosion of celebrations. During a ‘Rose Bowl Dance’ at Patten Gym Monday evening, NU president Franklyn Snyder introduced Captain Sarkisian, who informed the 4,000 students at the dance that NU was, indeed, going to Pasadena. The Daily Northwestern printed a special edition and splashed the headline, ‘ROSES!’ across its front page. In an unprecedented move, the school canceled classes for a full week for the ongoing parties and pep rallies. Northwestern’s academic rival, the University of Chicago, had dropped football nearly a decade before, and their unused football stadium was the site of the first experiments with atomic fission. The bookish Chicago undergrads looked with disdain at the Evanston students’ freewheeling Rose Bowl celebrations. The Chicago students published a parody of the Daily Northwestern’s ‘ROSES!’ front page. The Daily Country Club instead had the headline, ‘ONIONS!’ – perhaps an eerie precursor of today’s Onion parody newspaper? Earlier the Chicago Maroon, the University of Chicago’s real student paper, sniffed, ‘yes, Northwestern students are on the ball. They are busy learning the new dance steps and fathoming the intricacies of the T-formation. The atom bomb? Pooh, what’s that? Hail to thee, O Wildcats, and may you have bigger and better football teams.’ The Daily Northwestern shot back, ‘What Chicago doesn’t seem to realize is that you must compromise to become a well-balanced, normal individual. Yes, we like dancing, we like football games; and we think this is better than being hailed as a social and athletic graveyard.’ Just 20 years later such a statement was to take on a heavy dose of irony.”

Irony, indeed. That’s right, young Wildcat fans. Northwestern was once mocked by a former Big Ten rival for their lack of bookishness.

The difficulty of consuming alcohol in Evanston did not stop tailgating, one of football’s greatest traditions.  Most fans probably assume that there never really was a tailgating scene for football games, especially given the “Dark Ages.” As HailToPurple.com points out, though, Northwestern was known for its tailgating:

“Another fan-favorite tradition, and one that NU excelled at for decades.  The “golden age” of Northwestern tailgates really began at the time NU's football fortunes began to lag: by the 1970s tailgates at Dyche Stadium had become raucous parties and elaborate affairs.  By the 1980s many students decided to forego the games and stay at the parking lot parties.  Fraternities, flying flags and sporting tremendous grills, couches, stereos, and multiple kegs of free beer, fueled a super party that cruised along heedless of the team's success.  Things came to a head during the 1995 season, when NU's wild tailgates ran headlong into the team's newfound success and popularity.  Shockingly, Wildcat tailgates actually made national "tailgating top ten" lists, taking a place alongside such legendary tailgate schools as Ohio State and LSU.  However, the university cracked down on student tailgating soon afterwards, and current tailgates are but a shell of glories past.  Even so, current elite groups such as NUTS (Northwestern University Tailgating Society) keep the grills lit.” (From HailToPurple.com)

It will come as no surprise when I say that town-gown relationships were strained at the time and the “Not In My Backyard” culture of north Evanston, still going strong today, caught up to the tailgating scene. Student attendance fell dramatically in the early 2000s. I was an undergrad for the 2004 and 2005 seasons. As long as I got to the student section gates by the time they opened, I was in the first row. For the Indiana game in 2004, the week after the memorable 33-27 overtime victory over Ohio State, I was one of two people sitting in the student section for more than five minutes after it opened. It was far from packed.

It has picked up. Continuing success is necessary, but the culture of student support requires work and patience. It’s also necessary. Having a loud student section makes attending a game at Ryan Field more appealing to alumni and casual fans. And the more students connect with the experience, the more likely they are to come back, buy season tickets, and support the program after they graduate. This is perhaps the biggest reason for excitement for this move. If tailgating catches on again, Northwestern will have a larger pool of connected young alumni from which to tap. They’ll come back for games, especially homecoming, and they’ll have fun doing it. With a capacity of just 47,330, a seemingly small gain in five to ten years of young alumni who were used to going to every game and tailgating can make a big impact on ticket sales.

There can be a downside, of course. When on-field performance goes south, a strong tailgating culture will minimize student turnout at the game. Just take a look at Bloomington. Student tailgates often last throughout the game just outside the walls of Memorial Stadium. But when things are going well, it draws more students into the stands. And since it will close down 30 minutes prior to kickoff, we’ll hopefully see more students in the stands by the time the team takes the field. That is the benefit of having tailgating right next to Ryan Field. If you walk down the streets of Ann Arbor before a game, tailgating is spread out, well away from the stadium. Foot traffic becomes very congested, reducing large masses of people to a trickle through the turnstyles. Alumni have been very vocal about how late students are to arrive for a game, often seeing the student section half-full at kickoff.

This has been in the works for a while, I’m sure, but logistics have always been an obstacle. For one, space is very limited on Central St. and parking spaces come at a premium, now more than ever. We finally have the execution to meet the desire. There’s no doubt NU Wildside deserves a ton of credit for this. I’m giving a biggest applause to the athletic department, however. This is a bold and risky move that I’m sure requires additional funding, staffing, and potential legal and town-gown issues given the alcohol consumption that will occur. If they were going to make this move, though, they picked a great time to do it. They’ve never had this much leverage.

It will be fascinating to see how quickly undergrads change their routine and pick up tailgating on Central St. With two night games before even the freshman report, a strong student turnout from those who live nearby would be very encouraging. New traditions typically don’t catch on quickly. I think this one will, though.

While we’re all amped for kickoff on Saturday night, this is another reason for excitement. It points to the health and sustainability of fan support and the investment that the university is willing to make in correcting the errors of the past to create a culture that is both desired and deserved. This move will benefit students the most in the short term, hopefully under the watchful and intense stare of a giant Pat Fitzgerald banner that encourages them to tailgate responsibly. But long term, the football program and university may be the biggest winners.