Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald said that his players and those on the opposing Pittsburgh team will reflect decades from now, telling their grandchildren about what they will do Wednesday: run out on the Yankee Stadium field for the Pinstripe Bowl. The durability of that memory might be the perfect tribute to a man who never forgot his 1955 season as assistant football coach at Northwestern.
Long before George Steinbrenner was The Boss, he was a member of head coach Lou Saban’s staff at the Chicago area university. He obviously did not let the squad’s 0-8-1 record — and the fact that all the coaches were fired afterward — hinder his ambitions. Steinbrenner realized outsized dreams, not the least of which was a new Stadium, which he insisted would host college football.
Although he did not live to see the first Pinstripe Bowl, the Yankees front office goes to great lengths to host the event in his honor.
“This is as first-class a bowl as I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to the Rose and the Cotton,” Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said during the coaches news conference at the Stadium on Tuesday. “This is first class, run by first-class people.”
The game has been held annually since 2010, but this is Northwestern’s first appearance. That would have gone over just fine with Steinbrenner, said his friend Gene Budig, the former American League president and University of Kansas chancellor who helped organize it.
“He always talked about his association with football, and it was always collegiate football,” Budig said at the news conference. “And yes, he took enormous pride in his time at Northwestern. In fact, he sometimes found it easier to talk about football than baseball and he was equally knowledgeable in both.”
Among those attending Wednesday will be Yankees manager Joe Girardi, an engineering major at Northwestern and a good friend of the current football coach.
“He’s what I think makes Northwestern really great. He was an All-Big Ten baseball player, he had an unbelievable major-league career and was an Academic All-America, too. I’m just honored to be in his locker room, honored to be in the locker room of the New York Yankees and Mr. Steinbrenner,” Fitzgerald said as he and Narduzzi sat near the George M. Steinbrenner Trophy, which will be presented to the winner.
Pittsburgh, which beat both Clemson and Penn State, will have its own sentimental anchor. This will be the final game for running back James Conner, a former ACC player of the year. He was diagnosed with cancer last December, endured grueling chemotherapy, inspired other patients and returned to have a 1,000-plus yard season.
Conner will enter the NFL Draft, but unlike other future pros, never considered skipping a bowl game to avoid injury.
“He said, ‘Coach, I’m playing,’ ” Narduzzi said. “He wants to play the game with his teammates. That’s what you want. That’s what every NFL team wants, too.”
A certain former Yankees owner no doubt would have seen it the same way.