End zone woes have turned historic Wrigley game into football mockery
Use of one end zone has turned a clever p.r. move into an arena football game
Safety concerns are valid, but why did the Big Ten take so long to make this call?
In light of embarrassing compromise, don't expect any more games at Wrigley
Northwestern AD Jim Phillips worked for nearly two years to make Saturday's historic game against Illinois at Wrigley Field a reality, and looked to be achieving his wildest dreams. The school's season ticket sales increased by more than 40 percent; the city of Chicago, not usually a college football town, has been abuzz all week; ESPN's GameDay is coming to town. With the stadium's purple marquee as a backdrop, the show will essentially serve as a two-hour commercial for the school.
But not all publicity is good publicity, and Friday's 11th-hour announcement by the Big Ten that safety concerns will force the teams to use only one end zone has turned a clever p.r. stunt into a mockery of football. Somebody dropped the ball before anyone even had the chance to collide into a heavily padded wall.
The schools had long ago signed off on the unusual field layout, in which the back of the east end zone would abut the heavily padded rightfield wall by as little as one foot. Players joked about it. Illinois coach Ron Zook suggested it would prepare his receivers for arena football. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said he'd developed different game plans for each end zone. The schools proudly held a media event at the stadium Monday to show off their work.
From that session, however, photographs emerged of the so-called "end zone of doom," and fans around the country started asking, "Are they really going to do that?"
On Friday, just more than 24 hours before kickoff, the Big Ten stepped in and announced a series of "adjustments" to ensure "the health and safety of our student athletes," said commissioner Jim Delany. The east end zone is off limits (except for defensive or punt return touchdowns) and the ball will be "repositioned" to face the west end zone after every possession.
Almost immediately, Twitter lit up with ridicule. "Will they use an alltime QB?" "What happens if someone's Mom calls him in for dinner?" Yep. An actual Big Ten football game -- one that will affect league standings, teams' bowl placements and, quite possibly, Zook's job status -- has been turned into a game of backyard football.
According to several reports, the NCAA became concerned about the layout as the publicity mounted this week, and with good reason: It's against the rules. On page 27 of the book NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations (which can be located with a quick Google search), in a section about field "dimensions," the NCAA clearly states: "Limit lines shall be marked ... 12 feet outside the sidelines and the end lines, except in stadiums where total field surface does not permit. In these stadiums, the limit lines shall not be less than six feet from the sidelines and end lines."
Six feet. Not one foot.
Which begs the obvious question: Why did it take until the day before the game to address this? And if it wasn't possible to accommodate said rule, why is the game being played at Wrigley to begin with?
The Cubs organization released a statement Friday blaming the Big Ten. "The field dimension layout was delivered to the Big Ten approximately eight months ago and was approved by the conference. Last month, the field was built exactly to the dimensions previously approved by the Big Ten. Last week, a Big Ten official performed an on-site visit at Wrigley Field, participated in a field walk-thru and raised no issue with the field dimensions, painted lines and boundaries previously approved by the Big Ten.
"This game would not have been scheduled if it did not pass the strict and meticulous standards of everyone involved, a process that began more than a year ago."
A message left for Delany was not immediately returned. In the conference's statement earlier Friday, Delany said: "Both Illinois and Northwestern did significant due diligence over the past 18 months, but after seeing the actual layout of the field, all parties felt that it was appropriate to adjust the rules."
What seemed like a cool idea has turned into a colossal embarrassment for the teams, the conference and the stadium. And fans who bought seats behind the east end zone can't be too pleased. They'll be seeing a lot of backsides.
Saturday's game should still produce an incredible atmosphere and a unique experience for teams and fans. But integrity of the game should come before aesthetics. Here's guessing the first college football game at the iconic venue since 1938 will be its last.
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