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.
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There's a mixture of disappointment and excitement when perusing the options inside of Ryan Field. Highlights include a decent pulled pork BBQ sandwich for only $5 from Hecky's in the "food concourse" under the stands behind the end zone. You can also find freshly made caramel kettle corn.
In the main concourse you'll find very typical stadium food including hot dogs ($4), Polish sausage ($4- which frankly look and taste almost identically with a hot dog), and brats ($6). I was told that hot dogs were served in sandwich bags, which I thought would create a soggy mess, but in actuality, it served as a great way to hold your hot dog without making a mess.
Coke products are available with a medium going for $4. Alcohol is not served inside Ryan Field.
Re-entry is not allowed during the game, so if you plan on sneaking out at halftime to go back to your tailgating, then think again. Fill up beforehand as most of the offerings could be considered below average.
With fewer than 50,000 seats in the house, you are sure to have a great view of the action. There are only eight stadiums in the six major FBS conferences that have a smaller overall capacity. The best part is that many games feel like it's a neutral field, given that there are so many visiting fans that travel to most home games. Metal bleachers are found throughout the stadium, and there isn't much leg room in between rows.
There isn't a lot of glitz and glamour surrounding the presentation of the football experience. This can be seen as either a positive or a negative. On the one side, there is very little to interfere with your enjoyment of the action on the field. On the other hand, there aren't any of the enhancements that you find in many big time venues these days. This includes the current necessity for upgrades in the sound system and the main scoreboard, which is barely readable from the far end zone.
The tailgating scene around Ryan Field is nothing to write home about. The lots to the east and west of the stadium are mostly filled with season ticket holders who have parking passes, and so visiting operations have few options unless they have connections, or can find a parking pass.
Luckily, downtown Evanston is just a few train stops away on the elevated Purple Line. From the Davis stop, you can find plenty of great bars and restaurants including Tommy Nevin's Pub (1450 Sherman Ave), Celtic Knot Public House (626 Church St), or Tapas Barcelona (1615 Chicago Ave).
If you wanted to stay closer to Ryan Field, but aren't planning on tailgating, then you may try Bluestone (about a 1/2 mile away) for outstanding food, and a nice bar menu. Just know that they can get a bit crowded so come early if you want to get a table.
Another classic place to stop either before or after a Northwestern game is Mustard's Last Stand. You may also find a cart along Central Street hawking the famous sausage from Mustard's Last Stand, but there's nothing better than the original. Many teams when they come to Evanston make a plan to visit and get a Chicago style sausage, and the pictures on the wall alone are enough to try and make a stop.
Northwestern fans seem to have a bit of a chip on their shoulders. They are proud to be of a respected academic institution, but feel somewhat insulted that they don't get the same respect when it comes to athletics. So while they cheer loudly and seem full of clever, but inoffensive quips, the problem is they just don't show up in large enough numbers.
This could be a very special fan base if they could find a way to crowd a small contingent of visiting fans into a corner, instead of expanding throughout the stadium and equaling the Wildcat student and alumni sections.
If you don't mind walking a little bit, then there is plenty of free street parking to be found. Just be sure to read all signs. I walked about a mile, which felt like a good penance for the food I planned to eat. Parking in downtown Evanston and taking advantage of the train (get off at the Central stop of the Purple line) is a great idea and allows you to see the beautiful town of Evanston, as well as the campus and stadium.
Once inside Ryan Field, you will find extremely narrow concourses, long lines for the bathroom (both men's and women's). Try to make your way to the middle of the stadium for the shortest lines for bathrooms and concessions.
End zone seats will cost you $35, and the most expensive ticket goes for $50 for the regular reserved seats. I sat in a "corner seat" which cost $40, and felt like my view was very good, even though I was behind the back of the end zone.
The food wasn't very expensive, but frankly it shouldn't be. Parking is free if you're willing to walk for 10-15 minutes, and the stadium is small, but doesn't feel "special." Overall, the cost fit well with the experience that is delivered.
Anytime you can experience a college football game in a stadium that is 85+ years old, you can't help but feel a little nostalgic, and it adds to the experience. Add another extra point for the great town of Evanston, a solid option for any tourist who wants to spend some time in Chicago, and some time in a less bustling city.
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.
1932 Central St
Evanston, IL 60201
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