By Peter Schwartz
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For many years, it seemed like a pipe dream for a college football bowl game to not only come to New York, but to have lasting power.
But when the Yankees made plans to build the new Yankee Stadium, college football was going to be a staple at the Bombers’ new home.
Because that’s what “The Boss” wanted.
“We always believed it,” said Yankees president Randy Levine. “George Steinbrenner believed it because, as I’ve said over and over again, when we built this stadium, he insisted that it was built to accommodate college football.”
And not only has the new Yankee Stadium housed college football since opening its doors in 2009, but it has been the home of the Pinstripe Bowl since 2010. This year marks the seventh edition of the bowl game, as Northwestern takes on Pittsburgh at 2 p.m. on Dec. 28.
There weren’t a lot of people who thought a bowl game in New York City would be successful, but the Pinstripe Bowl, which is sponsored by New Era, has not just survived but has gotten stronger each year.
“I can’t believe it’s already our seventh game,” said Pinstripe Bowl executive director Mark Holtzman. “It seems like it was just yesterday that we were starting our first game with Kansas State and Syracuse. Seven years later, here we are, and the game has just grown so much.”
This year’s matchup has some interesting ties to the Yankees and to Yankee Stadium, both old and new.
Northwestern will be playing at Yankee Stadium, new or old, for the first time. But when it comes to the Wildcats, the connections start with Steinbrenner, who was an assistant football coach at Northwestern in 1955. “The Boss” cherished that year of his life very much and loved college football.
To see Northwestern in this game would certainly have made him proud.
“It sends chills,” Holtzman said. “He’s certainly smiling up there in heaven today with the choice of Northwestern. I could see him in the back room just pounding, ‘You better pick them, you better pick them!’”
Another Wildcats connection to the Yankees is Northwestern graduate and Yankees manager Joe Girardi. The Bombers’ skipper has been friends with Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald for a long time.
“It’s a great honor to be here,” said Fitzgerald, who guided the Wildcats to a 6-6 record during the regular season. “To be texting back and forth with him (Girardi) a week ago, to have a conversation with him and now to come and play in the stadium where Joe is in the dugout is a true honor for me and for our student-athletes.”
The Wildcats will be making their second straight bowl appearance, seventh in the last nine years and 13th all-time. They are led by senior wide receiver and 2016 All-Big Ten first-teamer Austin Carr, as well as junior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who has 10 sacks.
The selection of Pittsburgh is significant in terms of the history of Yankee Stadium. On Oct. 20, 1923, Pittsburgh played in the first college football game at the old Yankee Stadium, a 3-0 loss to Syracuse. Pitt came up victorious at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17, 1962, when it beat Army 7-6.
After an 8-4 regular season, including wins over No. 2 Clemson and No. 5 Penn State, the 23rd-ranked Panthers are excited about their third trip to the Bronx.
“I can’t tell you how honored our team and staff is to be selected to play in this bowl game here in the great city of New York,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said.
“When you think about champions and a classy organization, the New York Yankees are at the top. To be able to come here and participate in this bowl game is a huge deal for us.”
Players to watch on the Panthers include junior running back and All-ACC first-team honoree James Conner, along with senior defensive end and ACC Defensive Player of the Tear runner-up Ejuan Price, who entered the season as one of the top 100 college football players in the country, according to NFL.com.
Pittsburgh will be making its ninth straight bowl appearance and 33rd in the school’s history.
During their stay in New York City, Northwestern and Pit will take part in a number of special events, including visits to One World Observatory, the 9/11 Memorial, the New York Stock Exchange, and Radio City Music Hall. Coaches, players, staff, fans and alumni from both teams will certainly enjoy this bowl experience and not just on gameday.
“There’s no better place to be during the holidays than New York City,” Levine said. “This is the place they write songs about, produce Broadway shows about and make movies about during this time of year. There’s no place like New York City.”
Especially the New York City sports landscape that was enhanced seven years ago with the Pinstripe Bowl. This year, Northwestern and Pittsburgh represent a connection to the Yankees past and present.
You can follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @PinstripeBowl.