The plane sat on the tarmac just briefly last Saturday evening.
It was a charter flight from Detroit to Chicago carrying the
Northwestern football team, which itself was carrying a spirit
that had not been felt in Evanston, Ill., for a very long time.
The plane sat only long enough for box lunches to be
distributed, luggage to be stowed and seat belts fastened. Then
it moved ahead of all the other flights and climbed into the
twilit sky, because, as the flight attendant announced, "Winning
has its privileges."
Before the charter reached its destination, the flight attendant
asked all the players to join her in doing the Wave, and it
seemed silly, so none did. But she persisted, and soon enough a
little Wave cruised through the cabin as hulking, bruised
athletes raised their mitts to the ceiling and flopped them back
into their laps in celebration of the Wildcats' 19-13 upset of
Michigan. In Chicago the players boarded two buses for the ride
north to campus, and on treelined Central Street in Evanston
they were joined by a phalanx of police cars and escorted to the
Dyche Stadium parking lot, where some 250 students and fans
awaited. CALIFORNIA, HERE WE COME. GO CATS read one fan's sign.
If you weren't watching closely, it all seemed to have happened
so swiftly: On Labor Day weekend there was this marvelous
victory in South Bend, where Northwestern's 17-15 upset of Notre
Dame so surprised people that it was presumed to represent some
awful low in Golden Dome history. And now, on Columbus Day
weekend, just 35 days later, on the hallowed turf of Michigan
Stadium, the Wildcats had done it again. In downtown Evanston, a
store owner silk-screened on the front of a T-shirt MAIZE AND
BLUE? BLACK AND BLUE and on the back, BOWL BOUND. It was all so
sweet, smelling of the success that others had for so long
enjoyed at Northwestern's expense.
This is what the man had planned, right from the start.
October 15, 1995
Gary Barnett came to Northwestern on Dec. 18, 1991, hired for a
hopeless job. The school's football program had been a failure
factory for two decades; it seemed to exist to give opposing
teams a week's respite from the bruising battles of the Big Ten.
For a stretch between 1975 and '82 the Wildcats won three out of
75 games. Dennis Green signed on as coach in 1981 and tried for
five years to win. He went 10-45. So rare were victories that
students would tear down the goalposts and carry them into Lake
Michigan after every win. Instead of watching the play on the
field, fans would try to throw marshmallows into the band's tubas.
Barnett was naive enough to think he could change all of that.
Introduced as the new football coach at a Northwestern
basketball game in the winter of '92, he promised, "We're gonna
take the Purple to Pasadena." He introduced a slogan (Expect
victory), banned marshmallows from Dyche and installed
goalposts that cannot be uprooted. It was as if he were trying
to will success.
"I felt like I walked into a sleeping sloth of a program,"
recalls Barnett, who had been an assistant at Colorado. "It
needed awakening. We had to come in and light a fire."
Before upsetting Notre Dame, Barnett told his players not to
dump Gatorade on his head or carry him from the field. "Act like
you've been there before," he told them. The past would be
expunged. Northwestern would look only forward, accept only
But it is one thing to put a dream into words, another to make
it come true. Any politician can promise to slash taxes, but how
many can deliver? Well, with Saturday's victory over Michigan,
the Wildcats' first win in Ann Arbor since 1959, Northwestern is
2-0 in the Big Ten, 4-1 overall and playing for a bowl berth,
which would be only the school's second bowl appearance ever and
its first since 1949. "I truly believe that we can beat
anybody--everybody--on the rest of our schedule," says
Northwestern kicker Sam Valenzisi.
The Wildcats have even made it necessary to reevaluate the
embarrassment of any team that loses to Northwestern. Perhaps it
is not an embarrassment at all.
What was most telling in Saturday's game was that the Wildcats
stared down one of the giants of the conference--of the country,
for that matter--in a tense defensive game that Bo Schembechler
or Woody Hayes might have cherished, and in the end it was
Michigan that collapsed. If beating Notre Dame had earned the
Wildcats respect, then losing to Miami of Ohio two weeks later
matured and hardened them for opponents like Michigan.
Northwestern had Miami beaten on Sept. 16 at Dyche until backup
long snapper Larry Curry botched two field goal snaps and, in
the closing minute, bounced a punt snap, leading to a Miami
touchdown and a 30-28 Wildcat defeat. "[That loss] just took my
breath away," says Barnett. "I remember telling my wife, 'I
don't know if I can survive this.'" But decisive wins over Air
Force and Indiana followed, helping to restore the Wildcats'
confidence for the Michigan game.
That Northwestern was able to hold its own against Michigan in a
wet, muscular Big Ten battle speaks volumes about the Wildcats'
improvement under Barnett. Consider fifth-year senior center Rob
Johnson, who has gained 61 pounds in five years. The
Northwestern offensive line that opposed Michigan in 1992
averaged 264 pounds; this year it averages 287 pounds. "I'd
spend 20 to 25 hours a week in the weight room and eat until I
was sick," says Johnson.
That line now opens gaping holes for running back Darnell Autry,
a sophomore from Tempe, Ariz., who went into Saturday's game
averaging 166 yards rushing. Against the Wolverines he gained
103 tough yards on 26 carries. Autry has now rushed for 100
yards in each of the six games he has started, dating back to
last year's season finale against Penn State. But Autry also
twice tried to be released from his scholarship, first in
December and then in June, because he was desperately homesick.
"I felt like I was on an island," he says. "I felt like I had a
good life at home, and I wanted that life back." But Autry's
father, Gene, told Darnell to get back in the saddle again. "I
told him, 'Darnell, you have to go back,'" Gene says. "He didn't
understand the full implications of being a collegiate football
On Saturday, while the Wildcats' offense did a slow dance, their
attacking defense unnerved Michigan quarterback Brian Griese
(the son of NFL Hall of Famer Bob Griese), an inexperienced
sophomore who completed just 14 of 34 attempts for 96 yards,
with two interceptions, both in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile,
Wolverine tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka rushed for 205 yards on
34 carries. "We ran the ball and did the things you have to do,
but the big problem is that we did not execute in the passing
game," said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.
Says Barnett, "We went by the rule of thumb: You defend a
veteran and blitz a rookie."
The strategy worked well enough that Michigan led only 13-9
going into the fourth quarter, with all of Northwestern's points
coming on three field goals by Valenzisi. The Wildcats took
their first lead of the game when senior quarterback Steve
Schnur threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Matt Hartl with 12:42
If Barnett is Northwestern's salesman and Autry its star, Schnur
is its survivor. Last fall, when Northwestern sputtered to a
3-7-1 finish, Schnur split the quarterbacking duties with junior
college transfer Tim Hughes. They were ineffective enough for
the student newspaper to dub them Beavis and Butt-head. Coming
out of spring drills this year, Schnur was third-string behind
highly-recruited redshirt freshman Lloyd Abramson and third-year
sophomore Chris Hamdorf. But Abramson left school, and Schnur
beat out Hamdorf in fall camp, earning the job on toughness and
leadership. He completed only 11 of 23 passes against Michigan,
but his 11th won the game.
And now the Wildcats are allowed to dream even loftier dreams.
The Rose Bowl? Why not? Northwestern doesn't play Ohio State, so
the powerful Buckeyes, who are currently undefeated and have
only Big Ten opponents remaining, must lose to give the Wildcats
a shot. (If both teams finish undefeated in conference play,
Ohio State goes to Pasadena by virtue of its better overall
record.) Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State are still ahead on
Northwestern's schedule; the Buckeyes must also face the
Badgers, the Illini and the Wolverines. Says Wildcat guard Ryan
Padgett wishfully, "We win the next six, and we go to the Rose
Bowl." Belief is infectious, like doing the Wave on an airplane.
It was a year ago that Valenzisi wrote a paper for his Law and
Ethics of Journalism class entitled "Ethical Analysis of the
Associated Press College Football Poll." It was a high-minded
work, drawing from Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, among others.
And who could have known? One year later, look at the poll.
No. 14: Northwestern. Expecting to win and actually winning.
It was all so sweet, smelling of the success others had for so
long enjoyed at Northwestern's expense.
The Wildcats stared down one of the giants, and in the end it
was Michigan that collapsed.