The Evanston express: Northwestern’s game-changing rise in athletics

It was about 25 years ago that Pat Fitzgerald first started poking around at Northwestern. A linebacker from Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Fitzgerald discovered what all recruits did then in Evanston: third-rate football facilities, student apathy toward athletics and a seeming disconnect from anything resembling the big-time.

Ah, well. It was close to home. Technically, it was the Big Ten. For a recruit with modest options, it would do.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, when a small group of media gazed out upon a kingdom of splendor from Fitzgerald’s new office inside the $265 million Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center. Goodness, how fortunes have changed at the school that likes to bill itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten team.”

In all, Northwestern has approximately $400 million in athletic-building projects underway, including large-scale renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena, the home court of the surging men’s basketball program. Fitzgerald’s office — little more than a concrete slab for now — sits high in the southeast corner of an all-sports practice and training complex to be opened in 2018, with views below of the football program’s outdoor practice space (completed in 2016) and the shimmering lakefront and, in the distance, the brilliant Chicago skyline.

The view from Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald's next office. (Steve Greenberg/Chicago Sun-Times)

There simply will be no better setting in the Big Ten.

“I come out here and look at the lake and think, ‘Man, I really wish I was in there,’ ” quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “Secondly, I look at the city and I’m like, ‘I want to go.’ This is pretty cool. It can be just surreal. I think this is the best location in the nation. You just can’t top it.”

What, exactly, is happening in Evanston, where the basketball team is coming off the first NCAA Tournament in school history, the football team is widely viewed as a contender in the Big Ten West this season and the facilities soon will rival those of much bigger traditional powers? One could call it a renaissance or a rebirth, but that would imply that times have ever been this good and promising before.

For those of you scoring at home, they haven’t.

“Northwestern is a winner,” Fitzgerald said. “And the narrative has changed since when I was in high school. I think it’s exciting and a lot of fun, and I think our fans are stoked up about that.”

Every now and then, the 42-year-old Fitzgerald can’t help but share have-not anecdotes with his players from his own time as an All-American linebacker. “What you guys have now is unbelievable!” he’ll shout, with all the credibility of a guy who willed his own out-of-nowhere team to a Rose Bowl.

These days, though, he’s mostly just thankful for all the program has to offer. Northwestern football’s days of failing the on-campus eye test would seem to be resoundingly over.

“Even without all this, we’ve been a consistent winner,” he said. “But now, to have it? I think it could be a catalyst to a big step forward. And that’s exciting.”

And just think what taking the next step — a division title and appearance in the Big Ten title game — might bring. Thorson, a junior, is one of the most complete quarterbacks in the conference. Senior Justin Jackson is one of the best running backs. The defense is looking pretty gnarly. West favorite Wisconsin had better be ready to rock and roll when the Wildcats his Madison for each team’s league opener on September 30.

Yet if this isn’t the year, just know that the time is coming fast. Take a look around Northwestern’s lakefront facilities, and the only conclusion is that it has to be.

“We haven’t gotten to the place we want to get to,” athletic director Jim Phillips said, “but why shouldn’t we? You can do it without compromising who you are academically and socially and those types of things. The last missing piece to me has been the facilities part of it — and here we are.”

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

RELATED STORIES

UIC had a new AD

NU football fan base ranked No. 9 happiest