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Northwestern University Wildcats at Ryan Field

Long the home of Northwestern football, Ryan Field in Evanston — born Dyche Stadium in 1926 and now seating more than 47,000 — may lack the bells and whistles of other big-time stadiums, but a game here has always been a memorable and lively college football experience. Despite long stretches when the team didn't enjoy a winning record, the fans were no less enthusiastic and got creative in finding other reasons to celebrate. Tailgates were boisterous affairs, and quirky traditions took root, such as students tossing marshmallows into the mouths of the marching band tubas. But in the 21st century, the football itself has been the main draw. 

Northwestern University Wildcats History

Has any team with lower lows than Northwestern experienced higher highs? For years the Wildcats were a laughingstock of college football. From 1972 to 1994, Northwestern never managed to win more than four games in a season. The program went winless four times in that span. One coach, Rick Venturi, compiled a record of 1-31-1 in three seasons. In 1982, NU broke a 34-game losing streak with a win over Northern Illinois, causing students to storm the field, pull down the goalposts and toss them into Lake Michigan.

Today the Wildcats are annual contenders in the Big Ten, and bowl games are an expectation, recalling and in many ways exceeding the glory days of Otto Graham, the record-breaking Northwestern quarterback from the 1940s. The gains made by coach Gary Barnett, who in 1995 fulfilled his promise to take Northwestern to the Rose Bowl, were consolidated by his successors. Randy Walker brought an entertaining and wildly influential brand of football to Evanston, beating Michigan 54-51 in 2000 in one of the all-time great college football games. Pat Fitzgerald, a star linebacker under Barnett, took over coaching duties after Walker's untimely death in 2006. Fitzgerald took the program to bowl games in each of his first five seasons. In 2018, the Cats won their first Big Ten West Division title, going 8-1 in conference play.