Wrigley confines force changes for NU-Illini game

November 19, 2010 8:37:20 PM PST
The friendly confines of Wrigley Field are a little too tight for the Big Ten.The league announced Friday that Illinois and Northwestern had agreed to some drastic and unusual changes for Saturday's game at the historic home of the Chicago Cubs -- including running all offensive plays toward the end zone that doesn't happen to come within a foot or so of a padded brick wall.

The game Saturday will be the first Northwestern-U of I football game to be held at Wrigley Field since 1923.

Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said that even though the changes came as a last-minute surprise, they were the right thing to do.

"Pictures can say a million words, but reality is reality, and we got up close to it and it was really tight. It was all vetted out we thought it would be safe and when you got it to and practically and I think this is a great decision. I think this is a tremendous show of leadership from the commissioner from both [athletic directors] and from both coaches," said Fitzgerald. "We're going to do what's right."

The decision could take away from the luster of a nationally-televised high-stakes matchup in special surroundings.

"It isn't ideal, there's no question about it, but at the end of the day, I really believe and we all really believe we made the right decision because it was based on the welfare and safety of the student athletes," said Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips.

The field change, prompted by safety concerns, was approved along with a few others by the NCAA.

The changes have only made Marty Mulroe, whose son plays left guard for Northwestern, more excited about Saturday's game.

"From what I hear about how the end zone is supposed to be set up, he should be running toward home plate tomorrow for touchdowns for northwestern, so we're excited about that," said Mulroe.

The change also one Wrigley rooftop owner thinking the fans who will watch from his seating will be even better served by the changes.

"View-wise from our rooftop, I think it's actually beneficial, because you'll be able to see every play in that end zone, they're coming this way there's a little bit of a cutoff in our end zone, so I think it's going to work out for the better for our fans," said Rich Zasiebida of Skybox on Sheffield.

Fans holding tickets for seats near the end zone action will not be primarily headed toward are not so pleased.

"The market fell out probably 30, 40, 50 percent on the east end," said Steve Buzil of Sit Close Tickets.

Wrigley Field has hosted hundreds of football games as the home of the Chicago Bears for years, ending in 1970.

Former Bears receiver Harlon Hill recalls running into the unpadded brick wall a number of times. "I hit the wall several times... hit hard... enough injuries that I had to come out of a game and couldn't play any more," said Hill.

The game Saturday will make history as the first to use just one end zone.

If the single end zone move sounds like a last-minute surprise, well, the Cubs thought so, too.

"The field dimension layout was delivered to the Big Ten approximately eight months ago and was approved by the conference," Cubs President Crane Kenney said. "Last month, the field was built exactly to the dimensions previously approved by the Big Ten. Last week, a Big Ten official performed an onsite visit at Wrigley Field, participated in a field walk-thru and raised no issue with the field dimensions, painted lines and boundaries previously approved by the Big Ten."

"This game would not have been scheduled if it did not pass the strict and meticulous standards of everyone involved, a process that began more than a year ago," said Kenney.

Kenney even noted that Saturday's game between Army and Notre Dame would be played at Yankee Stadium on a reconfigured field and that one didn't require any rule changes. Not that the $1.5 billion showplace of the Yankees is much like the second-oldest ballpark in the majors.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany released a statement that credited both schools with doing "significant" due diligence over the past 18 months. But he said the actual layout prompted the change to keep the players safe.

"The health and safety of our student-athletes is of the utmost importance," said Delany. The problem is that the east end zone nearly abuts the right field wall, which has been heavily padded. The field is laid out east-west for the first football game at Wrigley since the Bears left for Soldier Field in 1970; back then, Bears games were played north-south, but there wasn't much room then, either, and everyone decided the east-west layout was the way to go for Saturday's in-state showdown.

The Illini (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) need a win against Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) this week or next week against Fresno State to become eligible for a bowl game. The Wildcats are already planning a postseason trip, hoping to win a bowl for the first time since the 1949 Rose Bowl.

They'd better plan on getting familiar with the west end zone.

The Illini and Wildcats will run their offenses toward the dugout on the third base side. All kickoffs will go the other way and after a change in possession, referees will reposition the ball to point offenses to the west. The only time a player would end up in the east end zone would be after a turnover.

"I know that the brick wall and whatever is right there," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said before the rules were changed. "You've definitely got to be aware of that. You don't want to have anybody smacking into a wall after they catch it."

Earlier this week, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN Radio in Chicago that certain plays would be "a recipe for disaster" and that the layout could affect play calling.

"It was all vetted out. We thought that it would be safe," he said Friday. "We're going to do what's right. All the other things are irrelevant."

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips was asked why the decision came so late.

"We had a chance to walk the field the first time earlier this week, over the weekend," said Phillips, whose campus is eight miles from the ballpark. "The more we looked at it, the more we dug into it and talking to the conference and everyone involved, we just felt that maybe it didn't come out exactly the way we thought it potentially would. ... The timing isn't ideal. I don't dismiss that at all."

Phillips said risk managers, safety engineers and others approved the east-west layout, which gives the most space for a football game.

"I don't think there's any remorse. We're still excited about playing. It's a fantastic venue," he said.

Illinois sports information director Kent Brown said concerns arose last week about "the tightness" of the right field end zone.

"Any institution that plays there in the future wouldn't want to be in this situation we're in," he said. Asked if it might have been better handled earlier: "I think everybody would agree with that, yes."

The home of the Chicago Bears for a half century, Wrigley has hosted concerts and the NHL's Winter Classic in recent years but no football games since the Bears left for Soldier Field after the 1970 season.

The most recent college game? That was the 1938 clash between DePaul and St. Louis. Illinois and Northwestern last met at Wrigley Field in 1923, when the Cubs' championship drought was a mere 15 years.

The latest game was announced with fanfare in August, with sponsor Allstate Insurance Co. proudly backing the first Wrigleyville Classic. The famed marquee has been painted purple, flags with the letter "N" line the rooftop and one goalpost is mounted on the right-field wall, though it won't be used now.

Beyond the controversy and novelty, this is an important game for both teams.

Illinois coach Ron Zook was under an improve-or-else mandate from athletic director Ron Guenther following a 3-9 season that led to much of the staff being fired. Until recently, it looked like the Illini had done just that.

Two straight losses after a 5-3 start have erased much of the goodwill. As if a 67-65 triple-overtime loss to Michigan wasn't disappointing enough, Illinois fell 38-34 to lowly Minnesota last week.

"For the first eight games of the season we've tackled as well as anybody I've ever been around, and the last two weeks we haven't," Zook said.

At least they'll be facing an untested quarterback. Wildcats freshman Evan Watkins will make his first start after Dan Persa ruptured his right Achilles tendon on the go-ahead touchdown pass against Iowa last week. Watkins, a 6-6 freshman, has played sparingly.

"I'm pretty excited about the opportunity ahead of me so I've got a lot of energy and I can't stop thinking about it," he said. "I'm going to be excited but you just need to stay focused and prevent any distractions you can, keep your mind on winning and what you have to do."

Watkins -- and everyone else -- will certainly be sharing the spotlight with the venue.

Gone are the pitchers mound and home plate, and the infield and warning track are covered by a thick layer of turf. One goalpost is in front of the third-base dugout, the other on top of that wall in right field with no net -- but no chance now of fans scrambling for footballs in the seats or out on Sheffield Avenue.

Fitzgerald said he didn't think the unique rules would change much for his team, though he knows it will be a memorable game no matter the final score.

"You want to talk about to talk about 30 years from now maybe the most unique game maybe in college football ever, we've got it right here," he said. "It's going to be a 100-yard field. It's going to be played with the same rules as it would be; we're just heading west. So you recover a fumble, you pick off a ball, you go score in the east end zone -- we're going to celebrate in that east end zone.

"Then we're going to kick the extra point the other way."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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