The Big Ten has joined the club.
Unable to resist clipping that coupon out of the newspaper—ask your parents to explain—and getting down on its knees to search for that other dropped quarter—the Midwestern giant will play six Friday night football games next fall.
Michigan opted out, citing the logistical nightmare of forcing 100,000 fans, including a large number who face significant travel times to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines also just said no to Friday night road games. Ohio State and Penn State, who also envisioned Friday-night logistical nightmares at their immense stadiums, offered to play on the road, but were spared.
I’m going to guess that that allowing some marquee teams to opt out wasn’t a big deal. It makes sense to have big-name teams siphoning viewers away from other conferences on Saturday. On Friday night, the competition isn’t as stiff, although it is growing.
The one head-scratcher: Despite Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald’s grumbling about the encroachment on Friday-night high school turf, and despite his concerns for his players about having a short week, the Wildcats drew two of the 2017 Friday-night assignments:
Sept. 1: Washington at Rutgers.
Sept. 1: Utah State at Wisconsin
Sept. 8: Ohio at Purdue
Sept. 29: Nebraska at Illinois
Oct. 13: Northwestern at Maryland
Oct. 27: Michigan State at Northwestern
It was not immediately clear why the Big Ten allowed Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to say no, but slapped the reluctant Fitzgerald with two Friday night games.
But here’s the guess: While Michigan’s athletic director Warde Manuel went on record as opposing Friday-night games, Northwestern AD Jim Phillips was a team player.
Phillips, by the way, is among the best athletic directors in the nation. When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany retires, look for Phillips to be on the short list of successor candidates.
ILLINI DROP CHICAGO PLAN
In yet-another spot-on move by energetic young athletic director Josh Whitman, Illinois has pulled the plug on the plan to play its Northwestern home gams at Soldier Field in 2017 and 2019.
The Illini lost to NU 24-14 at Soldier Field on Thanksgiving weekend last year before an optimistically announced crowd of 33,514, which got lost in the 61,500-seat stadium. Needless to say, the Wildcats were delighted to play “at Illinois’’ while sleeping in their own beds.
I kind of like the idea of Northwestern and Illinois playing at Soldier Field. But if they’re going to do it, it only makes sense as an annual neutral-site deal in which NU gives up its home field, too.
When the two teams met at Wrigley Field in 2010, it was a raucous and wonderful atmosphere. Even the last-minute safety requirement that both offenses go from right field to home plate due to the unfriendly confines of the right-field wall didn’t dampen an entertaining sold-out scene.
It helped, of course, that both teams were decent.
I used to go to Bears games at Wrigley Field, and they were wonderful. The Bears played there from 1921 to 1970, and Wrigley held the record for most NFL games hosted (365) until it was passed by Giants Stadium in 2003.
Alterations that have added seats, unfortunately, have reduced the space for football at Wrigley Field, although Northwestern and the Cubs are reportedly exploring ways to work around that.
Meanwhile, Illinois’ purposes are best served by playing Northwestern in Champaign. The Illini will play occasonally at Soldier Field. Next up is a Sept. 15, 2018, date with South Florida.
Unless, of course, the Big Ten wants to play the game on Sept. 14, 2018.