Northwestern making room for more than just football in Dublin, and that’s how it should be

There’s plenty of pleasure — more than some tightly wound college coaches would allow — built into the Wildcats’ “business trip” for Saturday’s season-opening game against Nebraska.

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Northwestern and Nebraska will renew acquaintances Saturday in Dublin.

Northwestern and Nebraska will renew acquaintances Saturday in Dublin.

Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Four words we’ve all heard put together so many times in sports, they’ve ceased to have any impact or meaning:

“It’s a business trip.”

That’s how Northwestern’s football team is describing a visit to Ireland to play Nebraska in the College Football Classic at Dublin’s 51,700-seat Aviva Stadium. In a related and utterly unsurprising development, that’s how Nebraska’s team is describing its trip, too.

Then again, you’d better mean business when you’re coming off a demoralizing 3-9 season, as both the Wildcats and the Huskers are.

But we can talk closer to Saturday’s “Week 0” opener about the X’s and O’s, the buttonhooks and slobberknockers, the reasons why one 47-year-old coach — the Wildcats’ Pat Fitzgerald or the Huskers’ Scott Frost — will come home 1-0 while the other goes back to the drawing board. The business at hand, if you will.

In the meantime, let’s talk about something else: Northwestern’s Dublin itinerary. Truth be told, there’s plenty of pleasure built into it — more than some of the college game’s tightly wound, winning-is-everything coaches would allow — and that’s a very nice, healthy thing. These gladiators of the gridiron also happen to be students, after all, and an “overwhelming majority” of them are, according to Fitzgerald, traveling out of the country for the first time. Their minds ought to be encouraged to wander beyond the confines of a locker room and a painted field.

“This is something unique,” Fitzgerald said. “We want them to experience it and enjoy being in a foreign country, meeting new people, building relationships, experiencing a new culture and just soaking it all in.”

There are college coaches so self-obsessed, their ideal itinerary for an international game would involve a plane, a few buses, a hotel, a stadium and maybe, if time allowed, a demand for a pay raise. That’s it, that’s all, now let’s get the heck back to campus and get to work on whoever’s next.

But Northwestern’s players will have enough experiences to pack a thick, delicious Irish stew. They’ll cap Wednesday, their first full day in Dublin, by taking in an Irish cabaret show. On Thursday, they’ll see sights on a double-decker bus and dine at the famed Guinness Storehouse. After the game Saturday, they’ll get busy relaxing and staying awhile. Look around the city some more? By all means, do. The return flight isn’t until Monday.

“Hopefully, after we find a way to win, there will be a great celebration,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald has been sky-high on this trip since the spring, when he and wife Stacy were brought to Dublin by game organizers for a look-see. While there, Fitzgerald, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the United States, connected with a cousin, got to see where his grandmother was baptized and went to church and school, and was deeply moved by the experience.

“It was a very emotional time,” he said.

Fitzgerald expects about 40 members of his Chicagoland family to be at the game, along with 10 to 15 relatives who live in Ireland. That doesn’t include the friends — some of them former Northwestern teammates — who got to Dublin ahead of the team and have been texting the coach photos of them bellied up to bars and holding luscious pints of beer.

You see, folks, there’s more to life than football — although that most definitely will not be the case on Sunday night in Dublin, which is six hours ahead of Chicago. Beginning at noon our time, Fitzgerald will be glued to a television as Loyola Academy takes on Cincinnati powerhouse St. Xavier on ESPN from Hoerster Field in Wilmette. Son Jack, a Northwestern commit, is a senior tight end for the Ramblers.

“I’ll be in my room watching that game and fired up,” Fitzgerald said.

Dublin hasn’t hosted a major college football game since 2016, when Boston College tangled with Georgia Tech. Notre Dame was supposed to face Navy at Aviva Stadium in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic made that impossible. Nebraska and Illinois were scheduled to play at Aviva in 2021, but the pandemic scuttled that, too.

So this meeting of the Wildcats and Huskers is, in a sense, a long time coming. Win or lose, it’ll be worth it and getting down to business will be a pleasure.

“Nothing compares to this,” Fitzgerald said. “The chance to take our program, the Big Ten Conference, Nebraska on the international stage, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We’re really excited about this.”

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