Northwestern will return to Wrigley Field in 2020, but won't play Illinois

Northwestern and Illinois played the most recent college football game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Update: June 5 – 11:15 a.m.

Northwestern confirmed Tuesday that it will play Wisconsin at historic Wrigley Field in Chicago on Nov. 7, 2020, as previously reported by the Chicago Tribune.

“We are thrilled to return to one of the truly iconic venues in all of sports,” said Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips. “We’re so appreciative of the collaboration with Tom Ricketts, Crane Kenney and the entire Cubs organization that made this a reality. This is a date that college football fans across the country will be looking forward to until it arrives.”

Added Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald: “This type of experience, just nine miles south of campus, is only available at a place like Northwestern. The opportunity to create a bowl game environment for our student-athletes and fans, in the midst of the November battle for the Big Ten West, is one we’re extremely thankful for. It’s one of many big games we’ll host in Chicagoland over the next several years.”

Original story: May 30 – 7 p.m.

Big Ten football is returning to Wrigley Field.

The Chicago Tribune reported Wednesday that Northwestern will once again host a game at the home of the Chicago Cubs. This time, on Nov. 7, 2020, the Wildcats will square off against Wisconsin.

The game is expected to be formally announced at a press conference next Tuesday before the Cubs host the Philadelphia Phillies.

Northwestern football makes its long-awaited return to Wrigley

That game will be played 10 years after the last college football game at Wrigley: Northwestern’s 48-27 loss to in-state foe Illinois on Nov. 20, 2010. Memorably, only one end zone was used for the game because of the stadium’s configuration, which allowed for a tight fit for a football field. That safety-related decision was made because of the potential for a player to run into Wrigley’s right field wall.

Aside from the blowout loss, the game was largely a success for Northwestern. It attracted ESPN’s College GameDay and drew a crowd of 41,058. NU athletic director Jim Phillips compared the atmosphere to a bowl game.

For the 2020 game, Northwestern could have faced Illinois again. Because the Cubs occupy the venue through October and the team has a bye Nov. 14 and an away game Nov. 21, there were only two games to choose from for the 2020 season: Nov. 7 vs. Wisconsin or Nov. 28 vs. Illinois. Wisconsin has consistently been one of the Big Ten’s top teams. Per the Tribune, that made the Badgers a more attractive opponent in the hopes of generating “national buzz,” including a potential return visit from College GameDay.

The 2010 game was the first college football game at Wrigley since 1938 when the park was DePaul’s home field. Wrigley was also the home of the Chicago Bears from 1921 to 1970, when the franchise made the move to Soldier Field.

Northwestern has a unique partnership with the Cubs

In 2013, Northwestern and the Cubs announced a partnership that aimed to showcase Wildcats programs at Wrigley Field. Phillips is a close friend of Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts.

The agreement brought Northwestern baseball and lacrosse games to Wrigley, but had yet to result in another football game — until now.

Northwestern football has been trying to return to Wrigley

Phillips told the Tribune back in 2016 that Northwestern was “anxious” to schedule another game at Wrigley.

“We’re anxious to get something done. I’m close with those guys. I talk to Tom (Ricketts) all the time. Everyone is motivated to do it. It’s really on their timeline,” he said.

Phillips was hoping something would come to fruition for the 2017 season, but that did not happen. Before that, the 2014 season was targeted, but renovations to Wrigley, which opened in 1914, complicated things.

Part of the stadium’s latest renovations included removable seats down the third-base line, according to the Tribune. Removing those seats would “accommodate a football field NCAA officials would approve.”

There also were talks of a potential bowl game at Wrigley.

Northwestern, Illinois battle for Chicago

Beyond Wisconsin’s stature as a football program, there was likely a bit more to Northwestern choosing UW has its opponent for the Wrigley Field game. As the Tribune put it, “Northwestern does not want its in-state rival to get a marketing boost” from the game.

The two schools have a bit of a turf war in Chicago. Northwestern refers to itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten team.” When Illinois announced that its home games against Northwestern would be moved to Soldier Field, then-Illini AD Mike Thomas made sure to note that Illinois is the “flagship university in the state” and that, in Chicago, it has “the largest base of any Big Ten institution.”

But when Josh Whitman took the reins as Illinois athletic director after Thomas was fired, he moved the final two Soldier Field games (in 2017 and 2019; the 2015 game was indeed played in Chicago) back to the Illini’s home stadium in Champaign. Northwestern was never going to move the 2016 and 2018 games away from Evanston, so why would Illinois give up home games?

Instead, Illinois will play a non-conference game at Soldier Field every four seasons, beginning with South Florida this upcoming season.

“We feel strongly that we should play our traditional rivalry games in Champaign, but at the same time we are committed to a strong presence in Chicago,” Whitman said in November 2016. “Our intent is to play a major non-conference opponent at Soldier Field once every four years. Our team and fans enjoyed the game against Washington in 2013. It is important to maintain exposure in Chicago, and this also allows our fans and student-athletes an opportunity to experience Soldier Field.”

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Sam Cooper is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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