Leading up to this weekend, I noticed something pretty incredible. Nearly every Northwestern fan or alum I spoke with could not stop talking about Evanston hosting ESPN's College GameDay and the Wildcats' matchup with Ohio State on Saturday.
There is a deep, rich sense of pride in the school, and a sense of accomplishment for what coach Pat Fitzgerald has achieved during his tenure with the program. This Saturday could bring arguably the biggest game in Northwestern history, if only because it validates the team's struggles up to this point since its apex in 1995 and 1996.
A little taste of success has galvanized the fan base – even if Chicago as a whole hasn't bought in yet – and it's very possible Fitzgerald's job isn't done.
@Champaign_Room Chicago's Big Ten team pic.twitter.com/f6uBcR3zwe
— Mark (@TheRealMCR) October 3, 2013
This game means quite a bit to a lot of former Wildcats, and I was lucky enough to get some of their takes (listed alphabetically) on GameDay, Ohio State, Fitzgerald and what it means to be a 'Cat.
• J.A. Adande, '92, ESPN.com columnist and regular contributor to Around The Horn: "I can remember being a Washington Post intern assigned to write a story about college football doormats, simply because my editor figured a Northwestern student would have insight into that. So it's a testament to the work put in by everyone associated with NU's football program that now the team is bringing this grand moment to campus. (And I'm proud to pass my homecoming grand marshalship to ESPN co-worker Mike Greenberg!)"
• Peter Alexander, '98, NBC White House Correspondent: “Simply put, this is the biggest game since I was a student. And we’re talking Rose Bowl seasons back then. Saturday night, I will be definitively be traveling with the President to Asia or parked in the stands at Evanston, shutdown permitting. There’s just this deep pride in this program for Northwestern alums right now, not just that its football team is doing so well, but that the entire program is representing all of us so well from Pat Fitzgerald to the guys on his team. It’s fun to wake up Saturday mornings and know there’s a better than good chance these days you’re on national TV in a game with real implications. I have an two-month-old daughter who is already wearing out her Wildcat onesie.”
• Darnell Autry, NU football '94-'96; running back who finished fourth in Heisman voting: "What an exciting opportunity for the Cats. What an unbelievable game to take the first step to getting back to the Rose Bowl. It gives me the goosebumps remembering how I felt before a game like this Saturday. If you're in that locker room, you have to believe that if you can beat OSU (It was ND for me back in 94-95), you can beat anyone. Trust in each other, Execute the game plan, and make a play when its your time, and we will win! The stage IS set as they say, but OSU is only the first step to earning a Big Ten championship. The pressure only increases after a game like this. If you win, you have raised the bar for yourself so you must work harder to stay the course. If you lose, you have to work even harder to get back on course so it doesn't happen again. Either way only hard work and pressure follows. What an exciting opportunity for the Cats."
• Christine Brennan, B.A. '80/M.A. '81, USA Today columnist and ABC News, PBS and NPR commentator: "I remember the days when we chanted “Rose Bowl! Rose Bowl!” when we got a first down against Ohio State in the midst of another bad loss. And now this. For those of us who have loved Northwestern for more than a generation, it’s almost too good to be true. But because we lived through all the bad times, it makes the buildup to this game so much sweeter."
• Jeremy Ebert, NU football '08-'11, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver: "College GameDay coming to Northwestern means that Coach Fitz has this program going in the right direction. All the hard work and sacrifices that my class and the classes before made have built this program up to what it is today. It means a lot.”
• Rahm Emanuel, M.A. '85, Mayor of Chicago: "Chicago is a great sports town that is proud to root on Northwestern in this Saturday’s Big Ten matchup. I am sure the game will be enjoyable for Chicagoans and visitors, and I look forward to another page in Chicago’s rich sporting history.”
• Mike Greenberg, '89, ESPN anchor and radio host of Mike & Mike: “For Northwestern football, it is an opportunity to earn the national respect I believe has been too slow coming in recent years. For me, it is by far the most important game played on campus in the nearly thirty years I have been connected to the school. I can't wait.”
• Stewart Mandel, '98, SI.com: "Even though Northwestern has enjoyed a lot of highs since 1995, and has become an annually competitive and consistent bowl team under Pat Fitzgerald, the scars of its 'lovable loser' days have left most alums of my age or older with a bit of an inferiority complex. I'm sure GameDay coming to town is a big deal in Athens or Columbus, etc., but to come to Evanston, it's something much bigger. It's validation. When I was a student during the Rose Bowl run in '95 there was very much a lightning-in-a-bottle mentality still. Let's enjoy this while it lasts. When Keith Jackson came to town for the Penn State game, it was a pinch-me moment. GameDay and Musburger/Herbstreit is the 2013 equivalent of that, but I don't think any self-respecting NU fan feels this is lightning in a bottle. It's excitement, but more of the thanks-for-the-recognition-of-what-we're-doing variety."
• Todd Martin, NU Tennis '89-'90, Two-time Grand Slam finalist and career-high No. 4 singles ranking: "Very exciting to have GameDay in Evanston. Coach Fitzgerald embodies everything great about Northwestern. I'm excited for the school having the opportunity to take down the Buckeyes, and thrilled to have someone like Pat representing the school."
• Daryl Morey, '96, Houston Rockets General Manager: "I would like to say this is a key rivalry game, but that is hard to pull off given we have defeated Ohio State two times in 43 years. As JFK once said, "Why does Northwestern play Ohio State? Not because it is easy, because it is hard!" That said, I will be cheering with all the good Wildcat fans Saturday and Expect Victory. Finally, I would like to note that Pat Fitzgerald's success in getting us on College GameDay, along with Seth Meyers taking over Late Night this year, shows the rising power of the unparalleled Northwestern graduating class of 1996."
• Adam Schefter, M.A. '90, ESPN NFL Insider: "Both my alma maters [Michigan and Northwestern] have something in common – a desire to beat Ohio State. It would be tremendous to see coach Fitzgerald, one of the top young coaches in the game, see all his work pay off and have Northwestern take the next step in its pigskin ascension. Let's just say it would be something that would make a lot of people happy to report and discuss.”
• Rodger Sherman, '12, SB Nation writer and founder of NU website Sippin' On Purple: "When you lose every single game for 70,000 years, you can't just be good for about eight years and expect people to notice. You have to be good for about eight years, then host college football's biggest show, then upset a national title contender in prime time in front of a rowdy crowd. Then maybe people will realize Northwestern has a solid football team and at least two dozen fans. Personally, I'm just too hype. I run two miles at the gym every day, but on Tuesday I was about 30 seconds from wrapping up my run when a "Northwestern vs. Ohio State watch it because the fate of the world depends on it" promo came on the TV showing ESPN, so instead of two miles I ended up running almost four. And that was with four days until GameDay." • Michael Wilbon, '80, ESPN host/commentator and former Washington Post writer: “If I coached or played football at Northwestern now I'd be so resentful of any talk about the dark ages (1976-1994) of the program. But it's virtually impossible for anybody affiliated with Northwestern over the long haul to be as excited about this Ohio State week and the hype surrounding it as people like me. The four-year football record for my years as an NU student (1976-1980): 3-40-1, with the one being the 0-0 scoreless tie with Illinois to start the 1978 season which an optimistic Northwestern athletic department marketed as "Expect the Unexpected." I try at all costs to avoid mentioning the dark ages any time I'm with Pat Fitzgerald or Jim Phillips, who've done miraculous work in leading us to six straight bowl games and 10 wins last year. But everything has context. And to go from those pitiful days to our own Brent Musburger calling a ranked and 4-0 NU vs. Ohio State on ABC in prime time from a packed house in Evanston is almost too much to comprehend.”