Chris Fowler stepped on stage before a large crowd of football fans assembled on the shore of Lake Michigan on Saturday morning and addressed them like a preacher giving a sermon.
"We'll be back sooner than 18 years," the ESPN broadcaster said as the masses howled with joy.
Had you closed your eyes at that moment, you may well have forgotten you were on Northwestern's campus.
Evanston's about as well-known for being a college town as Northwestern is for being a football school. But for about 18 glorious hours Saturday, that all evaporated.
Tailgaters were out on campus early and in full force, bars were packed to the gills and there was purple everywhere. Literally everywhere. Signs, shirts, jerseys—even fountains at a plaza downtown bore the school's familiar purple hue. It was the polar opposite of seemingly every other game day experience in Evanston, electric, exciting, THE place to be if you were a sports fan in Chicago, even if you didn't have ties to Northwestern or Ohio State.
The crowd that showed up for the first "College GameDay" set in Evanston since 1995 was relatively small but raucous. Standing about eight feet in front of Fowler and his crew on the "GameDay" set, I couldn't hear a word they were saying over the chants and cheers of the masses.
Fowler's words resonated with a crowd that desperately wanted for the circus to come to town again. And if the showing on and off the field Saturday was any indication, the national spotlight isn't leaving the Wildcats anytime soon.
Northwestern's two-headed monster at quarterback, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemien, showed two can be better than one at that position, nearly leading the Wildcats to an upset. The defense made Ohio State all-world quarterback Braxton Miller look pedestrian, forcing him to turn the ball over three times while keeping him out of the end zone.
For recruits and fans watching the game, both on TV and in person, it was a sign of what could be at Northwestern. Ryan Field was positively electric from the opening kick until the bitter end (a 40-30 loss), Northwestern's fan base stepping up in much the same way you'd hope supporters of a major college football program in the nation's third largest market would.
It was Exhibit A of why Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips needs to haul coach Pat Fitzgerald into his office Monday, tear up his current $2.2 million contract and offer him whatever he wants for however long he wants to be here. Fitzgerald is to Northwestern what Ditka could've been to the Bears had Ditka's teams overachieved instead of underachieved, the rare Chicago coach somewhat deserving of the hype he receives.
Saturday in Evanston was nearly 20 years in the making, and just after the " GameDay" broadcast wrapped at 11 a.m., Fowler turned to the assembled masses one last time.
"We'll come back much, much sooner," he said as the crowd erupted yet again.
If Fitzgerald's Cats continue to play like they did Saturday, ESPN won't have much of a choice.
Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.
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