Built in 1926, Northwestern University’s Ryan Field is the oldest football stadium in the Chicago area that does not have a flying saucer on top of it. A 1996 renovation added a few upgrades, but for most fans, the look and feel are largely unchanged from the early days of college football – falling somewhere between historic and decrepit in terms of character.
Northwestern was a founding member of the Big Ten in 1896, and when the University of Chicago dropped its football program in 1939, Northwestern became the Chicago area’s only Big Ten team – a title it currently lords over the University of Illinois.
Though generally successful in the early years, the football program fell into a steep decline in the postwar era. Between 1949 and 1994, the Wildcats earned no bowl appearances and only a handful of winning seasons; during a particularly bad stretch in the late 1970s, they eked out a total of three victories over six years.
Then a surprise turnaround in 1995 ended with a conference title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, catching the entire region by surprise. Despite being the smallest program in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have mostly remained competitive since then, with more bowl appearances in the last 15 years than the preceding five decades combined.
Ryan Field doesn’t have a lot to offer beyond great views of the field and a friendly, hospitable atmosphere, but that’s enough for a pleasant day of college football.
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Skip the main concession stands. The prices are fine (Vienna Beef hot dogs $3, Polish sausages $4), but the food is mediocre, save for decent hot cocoa ($3 at stands, $5 from vendors) if you need a quick warm-up. Bottled soda and water are $4, and no alcohol is sold. There may only be one concession stand open for the upper deck, and it's a long walk up there, so get whatever you need on the lower level before you find your seat.
If you just need some cheap food in your stomach, grab a hot dog ($3) from one of the Mustard's Last Stand carts outside on Central before the game.
The best food is at the south end of the stadium, where a long row of grills awaits. Burgers and hot dogs ($4), brats and chicken ($6) are much better here, along with tasty desserts (funnel cakes $7-$8), and fresh popcorn instead of the stale stuff from the main stands.
The renowned Bobak's Sausages have a cart ($5 bratwurst, $5 Italian sausage), but the star attraction is Real Urban Barbecue, with rib and pulled pork sandwiches ($7) and mac 'n cheese ($4). However, this area is absolutely crushed at halftime, and when I came back during the third quarter, I was told that the entire stadium had run out of sausages. How could such a thing happen?
Bring cash - a few concession stands accept credit cards, but not all, and if there are any ATMs inside the stadium, they're not easy to find.
This is a refreshingly simple game experience. Some areas feel so close to the game that it's exhilarating. Views of the field are excellent throughout, with the sole exception of the obstructed view seats at the top of the lower-level west stands. Even the upper deck offers a terrific perspective of the game and a lovely view beyond the stadium, with the white dome of the historic Ba'hai Temple peeking above the tree line.
Conversely, this isn't one of the more intense game experiences around, either. It's pretty laid back, and the stadium production doesn't do much to accentuate it.
Replays on the small, pixelated video screen are barely visible to most of the stadium, but with such good views of the field, it's not a major concern. The public address system, on the other hand, is ridiculous. It sounds like whichever staff member has the loudest home stereo brings it to the game, sets it down on the home sideline, plugs in a microphone and starts announcing, popping in a CD when necessary. Ostensibly, there's a stadium tradition where a bell tolls for every third down play by an opponent, but the awful sound system keeps it from creating any sense of atmosphere.
Ryan Field is a 20 to 30 minute walk from Northwestern University's lakeside campus in Evanston. While lovely in the autumn, there isn't much to do in the immediate area other than a visit to Mustard's Last Stand (1613 Central St.), a classic hot dog shack just west of the stadium. The closest bar/restaurant is Bluestone (1932 Central St.), which is nice but not really sports-oriented (and gets crowded quickly).
Downtown Evanston is about 30 minutes away by foot (or three stops on the CTA Purple Line) and full of great places to eat and drink. It's well worth planning to spend the evening there.
Among places to drink, Tommy Nevin's Pub (1450 Sherman Ave.) is the chief gameday bar, Bat 17 (1709 Benson Ave.) has good sandwiches, and Firehouse Grill (750 Chicago Ave.) will keep kids entranced with vintage fire department memorabilia. All three are close to the CTA Purple Line.
Lou Malnati's (1850 Sherman Ave.) will have games on and serves hot, filling Chicago-style deep dish pizza. For cheap eats, Edzo's Burger Shop (1571 Sherman Ave.) is tops, though there are good noodle and pasta places around too, such as Dave's Italian Kitchen (1635 Chicago Ave.). Evanston excels in fine dining, notably the Nepalese restaurant Mt. Everest (630 Church St.), live jazz spot Pete Miller's Seafood & Prime Steak (1557 Sherman Ave.), and the Michelin-recognized Found Kitchen and Social House (1631 Chicago Ave.).
Northwestern fans are frequently outnumbered in their own stadium, especially when the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, or Wisconsin are in town. While it's not fair to pin that entirely on lack of student enthusiasm - some of their rivals have more than double the enrollment that Northwestern does - it can be hard to get swept up in the emotion of a split crowd, and the visiting fans set the tone as much as the home fans do.
Rival fans are most heavily concentrated in the east stands, particularly in the northeast corner, but they appear to feel welcome throughout the stadium. The only area that's completely set aside for home fans is the northwest corner, where a tightly packed student section and the student band are situated. Because most of the stadium is evenly mixed between home and away fans, the Northwestern football traditions don't fully register unless you're sitting close to the student section.
The term "Midwestern hospitality" kept coming to mind as I watched Northwestern fans during the game. It's not in their nature to try to intimidate or shout over opposing fans - the rules of good hospitality dictate that visitors be made to feel welcome, be allowed to chant and yell as they please, mi casa su casa, etc. But Northwestern fans are capable of making plenty of noise when it's called for, and they take their colors seriously - there's a lot of royal purple and black in the crowd. They tend to be realistic about their team's prospects and appreciate when visitors show an interest.
The CTA Purple Line and Metra Union Pacific North Line have stations on Central, in Evanston, a short walk east and west (respectively) of the stadium. Fans can transfer to the CTA Red Line at Howard for connections to Chicago, and the Union Pacific-North line runs between downtown Chicago and Kenosha, Wisconsin. On game days, the PACE suburban bus system runs a Ryan Field Express from the Northwest Transportation Center in Schaumburg.
Getting to the stadium on the CTA is pretty easy, but getting away is something else entirely. On most days, Central is a sleepy little station near the end of the Purple Line, its Beaux-Arts facade largely unaltered by the century that has passed since it opened, aside from a bit of good-natured decay. Before Northwestern games, it's not bad - fans arrive at different times, so the station isn't overwhelmed. After games, it's an unholy disaster. Imagine your grandparents trying to make a PowerPoint presentation in a hurry, using information being shouted at them, with a small, greasy tablet computer, at gunpoint; and you should have an impression of how Central and the CTA Purple Line cope with post-game crowds.
Much better, if the weather permits, to skip the post-game train and follow the march of fans back south toward downtown Evanston - a pleasant half-hour walk - and dine or drink there before heading home. (Both the CTA and Metra have stops in downtown Evanston as well.)
The parking lots adjacent to the stadium and the golf course next to the CTA station are open to Northwestern season ticket holders only. (Somehow, visiting fans still manage to tailgate in there, presumably with a borrowed pass.) If you arrive early, you may be able to find parking on the streets around the stadium, but traps abound - keep a very close eye out for signs with parking restrictions. There are some small pay lots near the intersection of Central & Green Bay Road (usually $20) and pay garages in downtown Evanston with free shuttles to the stadium; the one at Clark & Maple, near the Century Theaters, is probably the biggest and easiest to find.
Alternately, there are free lots on campus, primarily along Sheridan Road, southeast of the stadium. Tailgating is welcome in the campus lots, and there are free shuttles. If you're walking from one of the remote lots, you'll see students offering pedicab rides. Make sure to agree on a price before you get in - figure about $5 from the CTA station or $10 from one of the closer campus lots.
Inside the stadium, restrooms are long and narrow. The upper-level restrooms tend to be a lot less crowded - it's worth a walk. There are some pockets of port-a-potties set up outside, which appear to serve as de facto smoking areas. Re-entry is allowed back and forth from those.
There is seating for disabled fans in the east and west stands, and elevators to the west stands. The corridors of the stadium are narrow and difficult to traverse, so plan your entrance gate in advance. Disabled parking for single games on the west side of the stadium is first come, first served.
On average, tickets range from $35 in the south end zone to $50 for reserved seats in the east or west stands. All but the back rows of the west stands provide great views of the field. I'd avoid the south end zone, which is crowded and seems to attract the more annoying fans. The upper deck is a good value as long as you don't mind a long walk up there. (And if you do wind up with a bad seat, head to the north end zone - everyone is welcome to watch the game from the Walker Terrace.)
A few games each year are sold through the "Purple Pricing" system. Developed by a pair of Northwestern economists, Purple Pricing sets a certain starting price for tickets and then, as the game approaches, raises or lowers that price depending on demand. If you bought a ticket early and the final Purple Price is less than what you paid, you get your ticket and a rebate for the difference. (However, if the final Purple Price is above what you paid, you still get your ticket for the original, lower price.) Another aspect of the system is that you can bid below the starting Purple Price, and if the price eventually falls to the amount of your bid, you get the tickets.
One bonus point for the student band. Northwestern may have the smallest enrollment of any school in their conference, but the size and quality of the band would do any of their rivals proud, even if some of the halftime themes ("A Tribute to Disney Musicals") aren't really designed to pump up the crowd.
Another bonus point for beautiful Evanston and the historic character of the stadium. It's well behind the times in some respects (and simply outdated in others), but Ryan Field wears its history with a quiet, understated charm. It's not hard at all to imagine classic college football of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s being played here. And even if the game is unmemorable, Evanston is a great place to spend the day.
Since 1926, the Northwestern Wildcats have played their home football at Ryan Field. It's easy to forget at times that this is a school with great football tradition. The Wildcats won their first Big Ten championship in 1903, and won three Big Ten championships in a six year period from 1995-2000. Today, a trip to Ryan Field makes for a great road trip for any fan in the area. The proximity to Chicago, the availability of tickets, and the ability to turn an away game into a home field experience all seem to draw the fans of the opposition.
Let me up front and say that my visit was in 2005, the last year that Randy Walker was coach. While he had a decent program, and was a guy I liked a lot, the team was not as good as it has been under Pat Fitzgerald.
The hot dogs were not very good and came in the same sandwich baggies as they do now. Paul may have liked it, I felt my bun was a bit soggy.
The atmosphere was good for the fans who showed up. I remember the students being into the game hard core, but they only had around 1,500 students at the game. The alumni where there in small numbers but were not loud at all.
To be fair, Northwestern has a such a small student and alumni base compared to the other Big Ten schools that it is a bit hard to compare to the other conference schools. One thing I did really enjoy was the friendliness of the fans. So many of them invited us to there tailgates and offered us food despite us being from Penn State. Their fans are the same when they are on the road as well, like when I went to the NW game vs Miami OH, the first game after Coach Walker's death. They gave me food, shirts and bloody mary mix there as well. One of my favorite fan bases, but there just isn't a large number of them.
The concourses for the stadium are very tight and the bathrooms are well, usable.
The return on Investment for Big Ten football, on the outskirts of Chicago is great. I just wish it was at a packed stadium with a nutty fan base.
Not much in the way of extras, but if you go, make sure you try some real Chicago Deep Dish pizza.
As Pat Fitzgerald continues to work his magic an the team gets more and more competitive, hopefully the fans will come out and support the team...on the game I went too, NWU was blowing out Eastern Illinois, and the enthusiasm wasn't there. Tailgating was a bit of a joke, and the food inside was substandard for such a respected institution. You are close to the lake, so maybe a walk or drive down there after the game will salvage your fall afternoon. The Marching Band takes it seriously and while a bit smaller then other Big 10 bands, is still great.
There is no place to park in Evanston period much less on the day of a game. The stadium offers nothing in terms of extras and has just the basics. I also wish they would get some real teams in there for non-conference games. The scoreboard, seats, and concourses are awful. The team has really improved over the past 15 years, these guys deserve better and will need better to make the next step. There are high school stadiums all over the country better than this place
Ryan Field is tucked away in Evanston, Il and is home to the Northwestern Wildcats AKA "Chicago's Big 10 team" as they like to be called.
The Field itself has years of history to it, even if Northwestern isnt always considered in the upper echelon of the Big 10. We werent able to park right outside the stadium but did find street parking about a mile away. We did the walk with a few hundred NW fans (and even some visiting MSU ones) and found an AWESOME breakfast spot called Prairie Joe's which I would recommend to anyone making the trip.
Seeing how it was on campus, Beer was not sold but everyone made sure to indulge right up until the moment their ticket was scanned.
This was my first trip to Big 10 country and I left impressed with what I saw and ready to visit the rest of stadiums in the conference!
1932 Central St
Evanston, IL 60201
1454 Sherman Ave
Evanston, IL 60201
750 Chicago Ave
Evanston, IL 60202
1850 Sherman Ave
Evanston, IL 60201
1635 Chicago Ave
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630 Church St
Evanston, IL 60201
1557 Sherman Ave
Evanston, IL 60201
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