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Where Are We Wednesday: After Walter Athletics Center

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The student body has not matched the enthusiasm that the university and its donors had in unveiling the Walter Athletics Center. What does that mean for Fitz and the football program?

Photo by Davis Rich

Humans tend to measure things in eras. There’s the post-2016 election era, or the post-World War II era, or, perhaps most notably, the post-birth-of-Jesus-Christ era.

On Monday night, Pat Fitzgerald tweeted a tightly-produced video featuring the highlights of the new football facilities at Walter Athletics Center. The caption:

“Longest P5 win streak in the nation. No. 1 graduation rate in FBS. Finest developmental facilities in college football. Only the beginning.#B1GCats

Only the beginning.

It’s a new era of Northwestern football. Call it After Walter Athletics Center. Call it the post-House That Fitz Built era. Call it whatever you want — it means something. Roster-wise, a new era will begin when Clayton Thorson departs and Hunter Johnson takes the reins at quarterback. But on campus, and more generally, this behemoth of a facility is a massive step forward.

When the proverbial capstone went into Walter Athletics Center, something in the Northwestern football program shifted — and it wasn’t just the location of their practice facilities.

That shift was expanded expectations, rumbling under the program like a foreshock.

Following the opening of Walter Athletics Center, Northwestern finds itself in the same breath as Clemson, Alabama, and Oregon in terms of facilities.

Yet while national college football writers breathlessly reap praise on the new facilities, it’s important to remember that this is Northwestern. In Tuscaloosa or Eugene, a new facility comes with grand expectations of consistent CFP contention and national relevancy.

That’s not the case in Evanston. While Fitz has spoken at length about contending for the Big Ten title and creating a powerhouse at Northwestern, there is something distinct about the football culture here that breeds a different sort of expectation.

Fitz knows it.

“We’ve won 27 games over the last three years, that’s top 15 in the country. Our attendance isn’t top 15 in the country. Our atmosphere isn’t top 15 in the country. We gotta get our students to come out and let’s get this thing going. This is a together thing,” he said back in April.

To be blunt, a majority of Northwestern’s student body does not care about the football program. Part of the problem is structural — Ryan Field isn’t close to campus and kickoffs are often at 11 a.m. on Saturdays. Many students prefer to tailgate or study in lieu of standing around in often-bitter temperatures.

The larger issue for Fitz and the football program, however, is the apathy towards athletics at Northwestern. The university and the donors has shown its support for the program. The students? Not so much.

As Walter Athletics Center opened, I noticed students questioning why the university chose to construct this $270 million behemoth when financial aid and mental health services are underfunded. It’s a fair question — the student experience at NU is far from perfect and students have every right to be frustrated with a massive outlay that a small percentage of students benefit from.

An aside: This isn’t how private donorship works — NU couldn’t just divert the money elsewhere — but it does beg the question of where the university’s priorities lie. They could, of course, ask mega-donors to make contributions to CAPS or earmark scholarships for financial aid. It’s also worth noting that NU is one of the only schools in the country that could construct something like the Walter Athletics Center at no financial cost to students, their families or taxpayers.

Still, there’s a dissonance between the enthusiasm of donors and the university and the apathy (or even antipathy) of student body towards the Walter Athletics Center. The new athletic facilities could drive a deeper wedge between students and the athletic department, as the football team potentially soars to new heights.

For the Walter Athletics Center to be “worth it” football-wise Fitz’s vision of what Northwestern’s football program should be needs to converge with the student body’s posture towards the athletic department.

“This is a together thing.”

The student body needs to buy in, and some responsibility undoubtedly falls on students. But what it will take is a team that goes beyond the success that NU has enjoyed the past three years, 27 wins and two bowl victories and all.

Put simply, the students need to see something that compels them to attend games at Ryan Field and stay through the final whistle. They need to see a team whose highlights are talked about in dining halls and dorms across campus. They need to see a team led by high-character stars like Clayton Thorson, Tommy Doles, and Paddy Fisher, to name a few.

And perhaps more importantly, the investment in these facilities needs to pay off. So while this isn’t Tuscaloosa, or even Ann Arbor, Northwestern now needs to be relevant year in and year out. Fitz has the program on the way there, but second place in the Big Ten West won’t cut it forever.

The program must start accruing more money for the university. If it can’t rise to the point where it’s bringing in significantly more value to the rest of the student body, then the money would’ve been better used elsewhere.

That might sound harsh, but at a school still grappling with mental health and accessibility issues, that is the reality.

This will not all happen in 2018, or maybe even in 2028.

For Fitz, the athletic department, and the university, making this investment “worth it” will be their toughest test yet. Winning at Northwestern is one thing — and to Fitz’s credit, he’s done that.

Creating a football culture is another.

No matter what you say about Alabama’s plans for $600 million stadium upgrades, the Crimson Tide will continue to cultivate a rabid, valuable football culture while contending for championships. It’s a safe bet.

Walter Athletics Center is a different story. Sure, it will be easier to sell recruits on Northwestern given the new football facilities.

But will it be easier if recruits know that Ryan Field will continue to be louder when Michigan State or Iowa scores than when Northwestern does?

Even louder will be the tremors from the student body should the post-Walter Athletics Center era fail to deliver.