Returning NU alumni swept up in big-game atmosphere

Enthusiasm on campus over Ohio State game a hit with media luminaries

ESPN personality Mike Greenberg discusses the energy on Northwestern's campus a day before the Ohio State game.

His day started with a 3:50 a.m. wakeup call. Yet Mike Greenberg called it his best morning in more than a decade.

"I walked around campus and can't believe the enthusiasm and the spirit," the Northwestern alumnus said after signing off on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike" morning show. "For me it's a little emotional, to be honest."

OK, a word of warning: If you're an Illinois alumnus, you might want to stop reading. This story might make you say: We get it. Northwestern football used to be a joke and now it's not and please stop reminding us.

Well, the media all-stars who descended upon Evanston on Friday would say: Too bad.

Christine Brennan of USA Today and ABC News recalled during a panel discussion that NU students once viewed football games as a study break. When the Wildcats gained a first down, they would chant: "Rose Bowl! Rose Bowl!"

Northwestern went 3-40-1 while Michael Wilbon earned his journalism degree — and he did not experience any of the three wins as a fan. (He covered the Wildcats' 1979 victory over Wyoming for the Washington Post.)

"I have to admit," Wilbon said during "Mike & Mike," "that I am totally swept up in this."

He was not alone.

J.A. Adande of ESPN's "Around the Horn" recalled having plucked some purple-painted grass from the Rose Bowl field on Jan. 1, 1996.

First-year men's basketball coach Chris Collins came out to Deering Meadow, in the heart of NU's campus, to watch "Mike & Mike" and rev up a huge recruiting weekend for his program. His team will scrimmage at 3:15 p.m. Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

"The vibe, the excitement," he said, "it's a great motivator."

A half-mile away, workers put the final touches on ESPN's "College GameDay" stage south of Lakeside Field. The backdrop of Lake Michigan glistened in the Friday morning sun.

NU coach Pat Fitzgerald will join Saturday's show at about 8:15 a.m., and NU alumnus/ABC play-by-play man Brent Musburger will serve as guest picker, though he's not expected to predict the winner of the main event. That would be Ohio State-Northwestern, a battle of top-20 unbeatens.

ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell introduced Fitzgerald at a Northwestern Gridiron Network luncheon at the Orrington Hotel, remarking: "We are no longer satisfied with an eight-win season. Sorry, Fitz, it's your doing."

The crowd rose as Fitzgerald stepped to the lectern. The coach responded: "Hey, Darren, is that your first standing ovation? Great job!"

After delivering the news that Ryan Field parking lots would open early Saturday, a departure from the usual four-hours-before-kickoff policy, Fitzgerald said: "If we're going to open the parking lots at noon, there's no excuse for you not to be ready at 7:12."

Fitzgerald also asked those attending Saturday's game to be kind to Ohio State fans, adding: "The way to make 'em really mad is to make a lot of noise when their team is on offense."

Fitzgerald and the players in attendance — Venric Mark, Ibraheim Campbell, Trevor Siemian and Tony Jones — made no predictions about the game.

Greenberg, the grand marshal of the Friday night homecoming parade, said of the football team's rise: "We belong on this stage and we're not going away."

His larger point: "We're No. 16 in the AP and No. 12 in the US News & World Report (rankings). And when I texted President Morty Schapiro to congratulate him on 'GameDay' coming, he said: 'Yeah, plus we have Nobel Prize announcements this week and we have some really good chances.' That's why I'm so proud to say I went to Northwestern."

Asked if there's a better chance for a Nobel Prize or a Wildcats victory over Ohio State, Schapiro replied: "This is Northwestern. We can do both."

tgreenstein@tribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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