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Ryan Field - Northwestern Wildcats

Photos by Marc Heiden, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.43

Ryan Field 1501 Central St Evanston, IL 60201

Year Opened: 1926

Capacity: 49,256

Northwestern Football at Ryan Field

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 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.

Food & Beverage 4

The best food is at the south end of the stadium, where a long row of grills awaits. Burgers and hot dogs ($4), brats ($6), and chicken ($7) are better here, as are the tasty desserts (funnel cakes are a favorite, $7/$8). The star attraction is Real Urban Barbecue, with brisket and pulled pork sandwiches ($9), mac ‘n cheese ($4), and variations on the noble tater tot ($5/$9). However, this area is absolutely crushed at halftime – I wouldn’t want to walk through there, let alone fight through a line, so stop here early.

A runner up is the open-air grill in the outer concourse on the west side of the stadium, just inside Gate N – still crowded, but nowhere near as bad. In addition to the usual suspects, there’s a black bean veggie burger with chips ($6).

The main concession stands are okay (hot dogs $3.50, Polish sausages $4.50, snacks like soft pretzels $4.50) but the quality is a step down from the aforementioned grills. Note that stands in the outer concourse have the same options and shorter lines than ones in the inner concourse. There is decent hot cocoa ($3.50 at stands, $5 from vendors) if you need a quick warm-up. Soda and bottled water are $4, and no alcohol is sold.

If you just need some quick food in your stomach, grab a hot dog ($4) from one of the Mustard’s Last Stand carts outside on Central before you head in.

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.

Atmosphere 3

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.

The video screen blends well with its surroundings and the quality is sharp. The camera operator doesn’t always seem to know what to do between plays, but there are some charmingly nerdy videos during breaks in the action. The public address system is kind of ridiculous, relying on one speaker on a pole above the north end zone, though at least it’s audible throughout the seating area.

Neighborhood 4

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 it 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 game day bar, Bat 17 (1709 Benson Ave.) has good sandwiches, and Firehouse Grill (750 Chicago Ave.) will keep kids entertained 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 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.).

Fans 3

Northwestern fans are sometimes outnumbered in their own stadium, especially when the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, or Wisconsin are in town. While it’s not fair to pin that 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, but they appear to feel welcome throughout the stadium. The only area that’s completely set aside for home fans is the southeast corner, where a tightly packed student section and the student band are situated.

The term “Midwestern hospitality” comes to mind as you watch 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, 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.

Access 4

The CTA Purple Line and Metra Union Pacific North Line have stations on Central Ave. 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 easy, but getting away takes some patience. Central is a sleepy little station near the end of the Purple Line. It does all right before games, but it’s an unholy disaster afterward. 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 Purple Line cope with postgame crowds.

Much better, if weather permits, to follow the march of fans 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. Leaving after the game will be tough, as narrow Central Ave gets backed up.

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. Figure about $5 from the CTA station or $10 from one of the closer campus lots.

Inside the stadium, the small and grimy restrooms show the stadium’s age. There are pockets of port-a-potties in a few corners of the stadium to help deal with the crowds. The upper-level restrooms are a lot less crowded.

There is seating for disabled fans in the east and west stands and elevators in the west stands (it’s a very long walk to the upper deck). The corridors of the stadium are narrow and difficult to traverse, so plan your entrance gate in advance, and definitely do not try to traverse the south end zone food court. Disabled parking for single games on the west side of the stadium is first come, first served.

Return on Investment 3

On average, tickets range from $35 in the end zones 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 most annoying fans. The upper deck is a good value as long as you don’t mind the long walk up there.

Extras 3

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.

A second bonus point for purple harmony. Northwestern seems to have convinced most of the sponsors to allow their ads to be rendered in purple and white, avoiding the usual clash between corporate logos and everything else. It’s all about the purple and white and black at Ryan Field. On the whole, the game production is pitched to the character of their fans. Playing a lolcat video during a break in the action seemed to epitomize that – Northwestern fans are a smart, fun-loving bunch but they aren’t screaming meatheads and the stadium isn’t trying to coerce them into it.

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.

Final Thoughts

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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