Safety First – Even for a Northwestern Football Game at Wrigley Field?


I'm really excited that I'm going to be attending tomorrow's Northwestern football game that's being played at Wrigley Field, the legendary baseball stadium that opened in 1912. This will be the first college game played there since 1938 and the first pro game since 1970 (yes, the Bears used to play there).

It's going to be a really unique experience, but I hope the game ends up being safe for all of the players.

I'm not wringing my hands over the usual unfortunate injuries that can occur. But there is a special risk for Saturday's game that you might have heard about on ESPN.

The football field used by the Bears back in the day ran from left field down toward home plate. It barely fit, as shown below. Rumor had it that the end zones were only 8 yards deep, instead of the usual 10 (or something to that effect).

Embed from Getty Images

Wrigley has been modified since 1970 to add a few more pricey seats for the Cubbies. With the modifications (and even with removing a few seats along the third base side), the field barely fits, once again. This time it rights down the right field line, as shown in this picture.

The problem is that there are only about 6 inches of space behind the right field end zone before you get to the pads that are covering the famous ivy wall, as shown here in the full image from this article (you really need to click on that link to appreciate what I'm talking about).

There's such a lack of space that the goal post is mounted onto the right field wall (and as a fun aside, field goals may fly out onto Sheffield Avenue, as there's no net for the goal posts). And, of course, if Northwestern fans catch an Illinois field goal, we'll throw it back as they do for visitor home runs at Cubs games.

Back to the issue at hand — is that safe having the wall that close to the field? I'll basically turn off my “lean brain” on Saturday, but it's a legitimate issue for a “workplace” (the players get free tuition on scholarship, so it's a form of compensation).

A Lean organization makes safety the top priority, whether it's a factory or a hospital (where patient safety AND employee safety both matter). Here is what Toyota's Taiichi Ohno wrote on the subject:

“…we must never forget that safety is the foundation of all our activities. There are times when improvement activities do not proceed in the name of safety. In such instances, return to the starting point and take another look at the purpose of that operation.” 

The Wildcats and the Illini all say the situation is considered safe enough, that they're not worried. From this article:

Don't expect any deep routes with tiptoe reaches on the end line. But other than sensible play-calling, both coaches said they're confident the safety question has been asked and answered.

”Both universities felt great about it from a risk-management standpoint,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ”It will be an element in the game, but we'll plan accordingly.”

Like Fitzgerald, Illinois coach Ron Zook trusts that school officials investigated the safety issue fully before proceeding.

”If they don't make it in the NFL, they can go into the Arena (Football) League,” said Zook, who kidded with his receivers about the confining confines of Wrigley. ”There are a couple of areas that are tight. But I don't think it's as big a deal as everybody's trying to make it.”

I hope they're right. Generally, “hope is not a strategy” when it comes to safety or quality. I hope NU wins, I hope we have a great time, and I hope nobody gets hurt running into that brick wall. I won't drain the fun out of the game, but the P.R. bonanza for my alma mater (ESPN Gameday will be there) could turn into a real bust if somebody busts into that wall.

Safety first?

You can see a ton of pictures here at the Chicago Tribune website. More images via Getty Images.


What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleHoarders and Stashers? Ask Why…
Next articleA Sad Report from an M.D. Friend, Overprocessing Driven by the Legal System
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Isn’t this more like safety as an afterthought? It seems pretty funny that they will be using 1 end zone. It does seem better to make the rare (or maybe unprecedented, but I doubt it) decision to use only one end zone. they also are going to have both teams on the same side of the field (I think) instead of opposite sides, which I imagine is going to make substitutions challenging.

    • It’s sort of sad that my university was apparently wholly unaware of NCAA rules that require a bare minimum of 6 feet of space around the field (they consider 12 feet ideal).

      Ignorance of rules and regulations (or the law) is certainly no excuse.

  2. Hi Mark,

    It’s kind of like opting for a 3 foot aisle-way because that’s all you can fit. That type of thinking (including a lack of non-negotiable criteria) usually causes a bunch of problems from a safety and logistics perspective.

    Condolences on the Wildcat’s loss.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.