The Fans Are Here to Stay

GameDay is here. More importantly, the fans are here to stay.

On Saturday night, one of my friends approached me at a party.

"I'm going to cry," he said.

Usually, this requires some intervention.

But in the crowded, boiling stairwell, all he needed was a quick pat on the back. An hour earlier, ESPN's Chris Fowler announced that College GameDay would travel to Evanston for the Oct. 5 game against Ohio State. My friend was actually emotional, and not the only one.

This is Northwestern, a school perennially trashed for its student apathy. The "nerds" were worried about the school year's four quarters than any four quarters of football, they said.

Come here, haters. My friend in the stairwell, the hundreds of individuals who embraced the "GameDay to Evanston" hashtag and the casual fans who will cheer for No. 2 and No. 5 ("They're good, right?") have something to say.

My colleague Sylvan Lane wrote about NU's arrival on the national stage late last week. Of course, I second that. I almost refrained from writing this column for fear of repetition. Thing is, our opinion has never found its voice before.

In February, I wrote one of my first PW features on the Wildside, the official student section of Northwestern athletics. I depicted them as some tragic figure caught in a greater problem: Everyone had something to do, and that rarely involved attending sporting events.

It's easy to rally around an impressive team with Big Ten Championship aspirations. We know that much. Anyone can coolly smile at the exposure, get weirdly drunk at 9 a.m. and boo at Lee Corso when he dons the Brutus mascot head.

Lane, to me, missed one important point. I don't think NU needs to "prove" anything on Saturday, as only select brave optimists think the Wildcats can even cover the spread. I also don't think continued hype and excitement is contingent on the result of this week's game.

I think the fans are here to stay. For a long time. Perhaps as long as Pat Fitzgerald roams the Ryan Field sidelines.

You see, regardless of this week's outcome or the next, no one views this as the final product. Like any prospect-heavy baseball franchise, we know they'll get even better. The 2014 recruiting class–loaded with four-star talent–might be the program's best haul in recent memory. The 2013 group isn't so bad either, with future stars in Matt Alviti, Tommy Fuessel (trust me, the guy's excellent), Matt Harris and Godwin Igwebuike.

The same doubters assume that if Saturday's game turns ugly, the students will retreat to depressing fraternity parties or struggle through Russian Literature homework. Maybe some will; maybe NU holds the weakest Big Ten student section. It's difficult to quantify.

Still, survey the student body and you'll be surprised. I, along with so many others, viewed the school's athletic tradition–however troubled–as a contributing factor to my college choice.

Things began to change, even last season. I've never seen so much elation surrounding a Gator Bowl victory. The success found NU students building a relationship with NU football—in some cases long overdue.

In last year's Nebraska game at Ryan Field, Kain Colter was forced to use a silent snap count in the waning minutes. It was well publicized, humiliating and set an awkward media precedent.

On Saturday, we'll see.

It could be the moment for this fan base to arrive, and to mirror the on-field results.

Consider the 1970 video remake of Dr. Seuss's legendary "Horton Hears a Who!" When the residents of Whoville finally force their voices through the speck of dust, they begin to shout: "We are here, we are here, we are here."

And that voice never relents. (Please ignore the buried social commentary for the sake of this article.)

It's a defining game for the football team, which could earn a top-10 ranking by beating Ohio State.

It's the defining moment for this fan base, as excited as ever.

Will my friend cry again if NU pulls off the victory? Yeah, probably. But win or loss, the fans are here. They're not leaving anytime soon.

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