Pat Fitzgerald grew up in the South Suburbs of Chicago. He went to Northwestern. Five years after graduation, he was back at Northwestern as an assistant coach. Five years later, he was the Wildcats' head football coach. To Fitzgerald, a Chicago winter is ... winter.
"Cold weather's a state of mind," Fitzgerald said Tuesday, one day before Northwestern took on Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl in the Bronx.
As a head coach, he's led Northwestern to three bowls in Florida and three in Texas. During his playing career at Northwestern, the Wildcats went to bowls in Pasadena and Orlando. He was a Northwestern assistant when the team played in the Motor City Bowl inside Detroit's Ford Field in 2003. But an outdoor northern bowl was new to the 42-year-old.
"I've been to a lot of bowl games," Fitzgerald said after Northwestern defeated Pitt, 31-24, Wednesday. "There's something about being in New York City for the holidays. This was first class in every manner and every fashion."
Second-year Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, previously an eight-year assistant at Michigan State, echoed Fitzgerald, saying, "This is as first-class a bowl I've ever been to. I've been to the Rose and the Cotton and this is first class run by first-class people."
So should college football reorganize its bowl season to include more cold-weather sites?
Of the 41 bowl games in 2016-17, 20 are played in Florida, Texas or California. Orlando's Camping World Stadium hosts three bowl games itself, while San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Tampa's Raymond James Stadium each get two.
The Pinstripe Bowl, which just finished its seventh season at Yankee Stadium, is one of three outdoor cold-weather bowl sites along with the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise and the Military Bowl in Annapolis. The Quick Lane Bowl is now the game being played at Ford Field in Detroit.
The Pinstripe Bowl, which has an averaged attendance of 40,996, works for two reasons: Theme and organization.
As cliché as it sounds, there is no place better to spend the holidays than New York. Players, coaches and fans do not see New York as a subordinate site to a Florida beach city. Instead, they see it as a different experience. Northwestern and Pitt players spent Christmas Day in One World Trade Center and touring the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Other activities included seeing The Rockettes, ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and viewing the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center. That all came before playing football in Yankee Stadium, one of the most famous sporting venues in the world.
"A lot of our guys had never been to New York City," Fitzgerald said. "Coming in from the airport and all of a sudden, we hit Manhattan, it's like, 'Yeah, we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. This is New York.' I could tell."
— NewEraPinstripeBowl (@PinstripeBowl) December 26, 2016
The New York area's history with postseason college football had been a dud before the Pinstripe Bowl. There was the Gotham Bowl (1961-1962) and the Garden State Bowl at the Meadowlands (1978-1981), which failed like outdoor bowls in Louisville, Seattle and Cleveland, and an indoor game, the International Bowl in Toronto (2006-2009).
Tourism can only go so far. It was 39 degrees at kickoff in this year's Pinstripe Bowl.
That is where the Yankees come in. For about four weeks, the Yankees' public relations and events staff devotes resources to two college football teams. The most high-powered, influential, experienced franchise treats the two teams they same way they would treat ... say, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. It's a good deal.
Most bowls are run by event organizations. For example, the Citrus Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowl are both run by Florida Citrus Sports, while the Holiday Bowl and Poinsettia Bowl are operated by San Diego Bowl Games. The Pinstripe Bowl's official operator is the New York Yankees. Mark Holtzman, Yankees executive director of non-baseball revenue, is executive director of the Pinstripe Bowl. Of course, the Yankees are also the owners of Yankee Stadium. This is not your standard bowl non-profit group. This is a sporting empire trying to add another layer to its internationally recognized name.
After the Pinstripe Bowl pregame conference, a Chicago media member asked me if the Yankee Stadium press box was really open-air. "Yeah, but don't worry, it was built for October," I said in the most privileged I was raised in New York while the Yankees were winning multiple World Series sort of way. But it's true. The Yankees know how to run a tight ship and the last thing they want is to be seen as any sort of failure. The Pinstripe Bowl provided all media with complimentary scarves and snow hats. The supply of coffee and hot chocolate was replenished throughout the game.
It is one thing to lay out some beach events, invite two teams and call it a day for bowl organizers in South Florida, Southern California and Texas. Northern bowl games take a little more elbow grease, but the Pinstripe Bowl has provided a working formula: Holiday activities paired with an experienced organization.
— WTAE-TV Pittsburgh (@WTAE) December 27, 2016
What college team is going to say no to the Cubby Bowl in at Wrigley Field or the Green Monster Bowl in Boston? A little weather never hurt a football player.
"I remember when we first announced the bowl game and there was a lot of criticism, 'How could you play in the cold weather?'" Randy Levine, Yankees team president, recalls. "I remember Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg, who was sitting next to me, said, 'Wasn't football supposed to be played in cold weather?' I think New York, Chicago, Boston, these are great cities.
"These great cities offer a lot of things to student-athletes that maybe some warm-weather places -- nothing against warm-weather places, I love them all -- but there are certain things that are offered that maybe some cities can't offer."
So Fitz, is it time for a bowl to come to The Windy City?
"From a Chicago standpoint, we had the privilege to play at Wrigley Field a few years ago," Fitzgerald says. "It was as good of a bowl environment as it was for a regular-season game as I've ever been a part of."
"I coach football. I don't make decisions on whether or not teams should play bowls in cities, but I'm all for the bowl season."
Good political answer. We have a feeling you would not turn down an invitation to the Cubby Bowl.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 7, 2016
Southern bowls, beware. If the Pinstripe Bowl's success is any indicator, bowls could be moving north soon.
And big names could be behind the scenes.