Successful On Field, So-So At Turnstiles
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) _ It was a perfect fall day, with the sun high in the sky and the temperature pushing 70 degrees.
The home team was ranked 15th in the nation _ and that’s still pretty new here in Northwestern country, where before last season the team hadn’t been ranked in about a quarter-century.
And the Wildcats, who last New Year’s Day appeared in the Rose Bowl for the first time in five decades, were coming off an upset of Michigan that put them atop the Big Ten standings.
So where were all the fans Saturday?
Fewer than 36,000 showed up at 49,000-seat Dyche Stadium to watch Northwestern’s 26-24 victory over Minnesota, a win that pushed the Wildcats to 5-1 (2-0 in the conference) and moved them up to 14th in the AP poll.
Where were Charlton Heston, Ann-Margret and the other assorted actors, politicians, astronauts, authors, judges and miscellaneous distinguished alums who jumped on the Northwestern bandwagon last year? More importantly, where were all the fans from Chicago, a great sports town that supposedly was won over by Northwestern’s 1995 miracle season?
The fact is, the Wildcats are still a tough sell in the big city.
Successful on the field, they are still only so-so at the box office _ despite the presence of an exciting offense that features conference rushing leader Darnell Autry.
``It does surprise me,″ receiver Dave Beazley, a fifth-year senior, said Monday. ``All I can say is that we haven’t established a tradition here yet. As of now, we are a one-season wonder. We don’t have the respect yet where we can fill the stands purely because we are in a class with the Notre Dames, the Michigans and the Penn States.″
Northwestern began its turnaround last season, when it opened with a stunning victory at Notre Dame. Each of the next three home games, however, failed to draw even 30,000 fans to Dyche. It took a win at Michigan to finally convince people that the Wildcats were for real, and the last three home games were sellouts.
Apparently, however, the carryover effect was negligible.
This season’s home opener drew more than 10,000 short of capacity. After selling out the Michigan game Oct. 5 _ ``I think a third of them were Michigan fans,″ Beazley said _ Saturday’s crowd of 35,848 was disappointing.
``We’re going to play football regardless of who shows up,″ coach Gary Barnett said.
Two home games remain. The Illinois game in two weeks is a sellout, partly because of the Illini’s loyal following, but tickets still remain for the finale against Purdue _ a game that might decide if the Wildcats return to the Rose Bowl.
``Chicago has millions of people,″ Beazley said, ``but I don’t think they really believe in the program yet.″
Northwestern’s attendance situation contrasts sharply with those of other Big Ten programs. At Michigan, more than 100,000 fans crowd Michigan Stadium each home Saturday. At Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, Illinois and Wisconsin, sellouts of huge stadiums are routine.
Barnett and defensive tackle Matt Rice sounded envious Monday when talking about the rabid Wisconsin crowd they know they’ll confront this Saturday.
But they insist they are happy with the support the team gets, especially from the students. A private institution with an enrollment of about 7,500, Northwestern is by far the Big Ten’s smallest school.
``Our fans are the best,″ Rice said. ``They know when to cheer and when not to. They’re a loud bunch, especially the student section.″
Barnett ranked Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State as the toughest places in the league to play. Asked about Dyche Stadium, he said: ``I’m not going to rank our crowd. I can’t do that.″
``I thought the people we had in those stands helped us win Saturday. The ones that didn’t come didn’t help us,″ Barnett said. ``Our kids want to play in front of their peers, and I think we have the highest percentage of students attending our games of anybody in the Big Ten.″