Why us? Why now?
"Fairly simple," says Rick Taylor, athletic director at
Northwestern. Then he begins to explain it all: how a team like
the Wildcats, formerly a purple wall of mewling kittens that had
not had a winning season in 24 years, that had not won the Big
Ten title in 59 years, that once had a rushing leader with 162
yards for the season, that had a receiving leader with 122
yards, that won only 18 games in the 1980s--how this team could
suddenly be a national powerhouse with a 10-1 record, including
victories over Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State. And it's not
simple at all.
Well, it starts out simply enough.
"The foundation was set when school president Arnold Weber hired
Gary," says Taylor. That would be Gary Barnett, Northwestern's
fourth-year football coach, who had been an assistant to Bill
McCartney at Colorado. The 49-year-old Barnett, who looks like a
slim-bellied, middle-aged pool boy, has molded the Wildcats into
earnest, unerring, opportunistic nasties.
But quickly you recall that you were once a defensive back at
this gentle school and that every new coach who marched onto
campus in the last two decades declared that he would win, do it
the "right way" and capture some championship. It dawns on you
that every college coach in creation has said this--including
You think back to your own Wildcat coach, Alex Agase, a World
War II marine hero and three-time All-America (at Illinois and
Purdue), and how he somehow got you and your freethinking pals
to go 6-1 in the Big Ten during your senior season, in 1970. You
recall Agase, an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth,
catching wicked passes at practice with his stubby lineman's
fingers and saying, "Damn it! If I can catch this stuff, so can
In 1971 old Ag led the Wildcats to a 7-4 season, 6-3 in the Big
Ten, and after the '72 campaign he bolted for Purdue. He was
succeeded at Northwestern by four dyspeptic coaches (John Pont,
Rick Venturi, Dennis Green and Francis Peay), none of whom
finished a season with a record better than 4-7.
What's different about Barnett? "Gary was a good college coach,"
continues Taylor. "He'd been through a rebuilding program at
Colorado. He was not a pro coach, and he was a good fit at
Northwestern." That, of course, would mean he dressed well,
spoke well and could hold a teacup with pinkie extended. So this
proper man came to Evanston, Ill., in 1992, went 3-8, 2-9 and
3-7-1 in his first three seasons--which is normal Northwestern
stuff, mind you--and then abruptly delivered this ... lunacy?
"Well, the second thing is that the school upped the pay for
assistant coaches," says Taylor. "Before Gary, Northwestern
assistants were low-paid; now their salaries are comparable to
those in the rest of the Big Ten. Gary brought in assistants who
were teachers and recruiters. And the higher pay helped bring
continuity: Almost all of the assistants have stayed all four
years. In the preceding five years there had been three
offensive coordinators and five defensive coordinators. One
coach wants you to backpedal this way, another wants you to do
it this way."
That's the difference, backpedaling?
"It's the continuity," explains Taylor patiently. "Repetition
makes you react and not think."
Big problem there. That's all anybody does at this school:
think. Northwestern is small (enrollment 7,400), private and,
academically, a beast. The average SAT score of incoming
freshmen over the last four years was 1,250. You want champions
here, you can find them inventing stuff in the Technological
Institute (now being rehabbed for $120 million) or organizing
stuff at the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management (perhaps
the nation's finest business school) or just reading stuff in
the College of Arts and Sciences, where two-time national debate
champions Sean McCaffity and Jody Terry, both seniors, are
expanding their noggins. They whipped Harvard in the finals the
last two years to make Northwestern the winningest school (eight
titles) in the history of the National Debate Tournament.
But football? Here is third-ranked Northwestern, improbably
poised to play Southern California on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl,
which will be the Wildcats' first bowl appearance since 1949.
Continuity? How's this for continuity: Northwestern football has
stunk so continuously since its last winning team, in 1971, that
when the Wildcats went 4-7 in '73 and again in '86, many alumni
were euphoric. You recall Jeff Jacobs, class of '85, standing in
the rain with a few other souls in that heady year of '86,
watching Northwestern humble Princeton 37-0 in that Ivy League
stadium in New Jersey. Jacobs was roaring with bloodlust and
denouncing the Tigers as "sissies." Weber was there too, smiling
cruelly. "We understand it is painful for them, but they wanted
it," Weber said of the host school, which, despite giving no
football scholarships, thought it could play with the Wildcats.
"Hubris is a terrible thing."
So is wretchedness, which used to have a death grip on the
Wildcat program, the grip's five fingers being the lack of a
winning tradition; lack of support from boosters, alumni and the
administration; tough academic standards; questionable coaches;
and tough academic standards. After those spurts to 4-7, for
example, Northwestern quickly headed back to more comfortable
ground, whining about grades and test scores all the way.
One of your favorite helmeted eggheads was a kid named Roosevelt
Groves, a starting cornerback from 1979 to '82. Groves still
holds the Wildcat career touchdown-save record, 15, and in your
montage memory he is a skinny defensive back endlessly being
dragged closer to the goal line by faceless wide receivers and
tailbacks. Groves had a double major--nuclear engineering and
mechanical engineering--and he once told you that his goal was to
do design work for a nuclear power plant and to make good money.
He noted that his academic and athletic aspirations didn't
"really fit together" unless you figured that "splitting a
receiver from the ball is like splitting an atom."
Then, too, there was that piquant moment you shared in the Los
Angeles Coliseum in 1969 with your pal and teammate Mike Adamle,
who would win the Big Ten MVP award in 1970. You were playing
Southern Cal on a hot night, and the scoreboard could barely
register USC's rising score. After each touchdown the Southern
Cal mascot, a man dressed as a Trojan warrior, would gallop
around the stadium in celebration on his great white horse,
Traveler II. Then ... well, let Adamle himself take over the
"After Southern Cal had scored its fifth or sixth touchdown and
the Trojan guy and the horse were circumnavigating the interior
of the Coliseum, the horse collapsed in the end zone. You, me
and our trainer, Dick Hoover, were watching from the bench, and
I remember saying, 'My god, we killed Traveler II.'"
Time for some numbers.
From 1985 to '94 Northwestern placed only seven football
players on the All-Big Ten first team but 55 players on the
academic All-Big Ten team.
From that last winning season in '71 until the start of this
year, the Mildcats won 46 games. For the mathematically
impaired, that's an average of two wins a year for 23 years.
From 1976 to '81, which is sometimes referred to as the
Tranquil Period by Northwestern football historians, the
Wildcats had a record of 3-62-1, a numerical sequence that one
can study for hours and still find provocative.
In the middle of that string, which was the handiwork of three
coaches, resides the crystalline fabrication of Venturi, coach
from 1978 to '80. Venturi is a former Northwestern player and
was your defensive backfield coach in '70. He had rushed you
during your first weeks on campus, urging you to join his
fraternity, Delta Upsilon, which you agreed to do because you
couldn't look into his fiery eyes and say no. You never showed
up for Pledge Night, however, and he did not talk about the
betrayal while he was your position coach. At any rate, the
Wildcats went 1-31-1 during Venturi's three years at the helm.
His reign started on a high note, a 0-0 tie with Illinois, but
degenerated so far that over the course of his tenure,
Northwestern was outscored 1,270 to 358. Venturi's lone win was
a 27-22 comeback squeaker over Wyoming in '79. You often wished
that he had been allowed to engineer two more losses, so that
his final record as a Northwestern coach would have the elegant
symmetry of a numerical palindrome.
Then there was the Streak itself. By losing the game after the
victory over Wyoming--a 54-21 thrashing by Syracuse--and 19 games
after that, Venturi was able to hand a 20-game losing baton to
Green, who succeeded him in 1981. Green promptly lost 14
consecutive games. This gave Northwestern sole possession of the
longest Division I-A skid in history.
You attended the 29th loss in the skein, a 61-14 throttling by
Michigan State in 1981, which pushed the Wildcats beyond the
0-28 streaks of then record holders Kansas State and Virginia.
At the end of that contest Northwestern students tore down the
goalposts, giddily chanting, "We're the worst! We're the worst!"
As the Streak progressed, students became intrigued by their own
passive participation in the historic event. In the stands
before a game against Northern Illinois in 1982, which the
Wildcats would win to end their slide, you spoke with a senior
named David Gaines, from Stamford, Conn. "I haven't seen the
team win," he said evenly. "I've been to all the home games
except the Wyoming game, on the day I arrived, in 1979. I didn't
go because I decided I'd rather unpack my bags than watch a
football game. I regret that extremely." As Gaines spoke, the
people around him threw marshmallows and generally ignored the
teams as they warmed up. "I don't know what it's like to see
them win," Gaines continued. "The only feeling that might
compare to winning was tearing down the goalposts after the loss
to Michigan State. There was tremendous excitement then." Gaines
thought for a moment. "As a student, the Streak hasn't affected
me," he said, "but it's been a nice conversation starter with
After the momentous 31-6 win over Northern Illinois, Wildcat
kicker Rick Salvino evaluated the victory in the terms of his
major, philosophy: "Jean-Paul Sartre said you secrete your
essence through time; you could have been this, you could have
been that--but in the end, you're nothing but your actions. Our
actions say we're 1 and 3."
True, the worst was over. But the good was a long way off. In
fact, careful study of the Northwestern record book leaves no
question that Green's 1981 team, loaded as it was with Venturi
recruits, was the worst in the Wildcats' 112-year history. Not
only did this team score only 82 points, the fewest by
Northwestern in 24 years, but it also gave up 505, the most in
Wildcat history. Robert H. Strotz, then president of the
university, said of the carnage, "In a subtle way we may be
proving the problems inherent in maintaining high academic
Oh, the moaning over the brain cells needed just to get into the
Harvard of the Midwest! The average SAT of incoming Wildcat
scholarship players from 1991 to '94 was 1,037, 213 points lower
than the student body's average but higher than that of every
other Division I-A football squad except Stanford's. But to hear
the apologias through the years for Northwestern's pathetic
performance, you might think only young Einsteins and pupal
Fermis could strap on Wildcat headgear.
One bit of educational reform that has done wonders for the
Wildcat football program has been the NCAA's reduction in
scholarships from virtually unlimited numbers per school to the
current 85. When Northwestern beat Notre Dame 17-15 in the 1995
season opener--the Wildcats' first win in South Bend in 34
years--the Irish team suited up just 76 scholarship players.
"The biggest thing has to be that the largest schools aren't
hoarding all the good linemen anymore," says Wisconsin attorney
John Voorhees, the middle linebacker and MVP of Northwestern's
1971 team. "Linemen don't come out of high school as stars. It
takes years for them to develop. Think how many of them have
just been sitting on the bench at Michigan, Oklahoma and
Nebraska all these years."
O.K., so the Wildcats picked off a few linemen, building
offensive and defensive fronts to equal those of every team they
played this season. And maybe Northwestern snagged a few
skill-position players away from the heavy dudes, kids like
sophomore running back Darnell Autry and senior free safety
Bennett was around for the second alumni-varsity spring game, in
1993, in which you and some of your fleshy, gray-haired buddies
suited up and laid some serious lumber on those little
schoolboys in purple. Well, maybe you didn't do any wood-laying,
but some of the other geezers did. You recall tavern-bellied
quarterback Mitch Anderson (class of '75) tossing some bombs to
stockbroker/wideout Todd Jenkins ('84) right in the varsity
You punted once in that game and thought it might be amusing to
fake the next punt and run around end. You believed there was a
no-tackling rule in effect on kicks and the like. You were
wrong. A young linebacker named Geoff Shein came up and dropped
some ammo on your butt. Not long ago you tried to find him in
the Northwestern locker room to lecture him on respect for his
elders, but he was nowhere to be found. It wasn't until you
watched the highlights of this year's win over Penn State that
you realized the once buzz-cut Shein now has locks down to his
Not long after the next alumni game, in 1994, one of your pals
who had made some tackles had to check in for triple-bypass
heart surgery. But the gentleman had been wounded far more by 30
years of smoking than by anything the young Cats had done to him.
Explain that, Coach.
"I started the alum games to bring back as many people as
possible," Barnett said after a mid-November practice. "To light
a fire in the program. It helps us. It's not a great practice
for us, but it's not bad. That first year you guys gave us all
we could handle."
But then why wasn't there an alumni game last spring? Was
Barnett worried that some of the fat old guys would actually be
killed by his improved squad? "No," he said, shrugging. "It's
just that not enough of you guys signed up. We'll do it again
next spring. I don't care about the alums."
He smiled, but he was serious too.
You look at Barnett, a man so dedicated, rational and reeking of
integrity that it dawns on you he has actually had a plan for
success ever since he walked onto the Northwestern campus, a
plan that has to do with dedication and belief and sacrifice and
togetherness and all the other dumb cliches that are cliches
only because, when truly adhered to, they work.
Barnett has a punter, Paul Burton, who is so dedicated that he
doesn't even date. "When I got here there were only three
players who had been offered another Division I scholarship, not
counting offers from the Mid-American Conference," said Barnett.
"That first year we took anybody we could. We got William
Bennett and [tight end] Shane Graham because I'd been recruiting
them at Colorado. But later we narrowed in on players with the
right fit and the right profile. We'd been going after
everybody, but we'd just gotten discouraged. Kids would say, 'I
just came by as a courtesy.' We'll still go after high school
All-Americas, but most of them we can't get into the school."
So how has this turnaround happened?
"I don't know if it's one thing you can put your finger on. If
you could, you'd make a lot of money selling it to businesses."
Each preseason Barnett takes his players up to a small college
in Kenosha, Wis., to get away from naysayers, to bond, to
believe and to do exquisitely silly things, such as sing the old
kids' song High Hopes as loud as possible.
"If he told me I could run through a brick wall," says
supposedly intelligent kicker Sam Valenzisi, a grad student
working toward his master's in journalism, "I'd believe him, I'd
try it, and I'd probably do it."
Barnett was an average wide receiver at Missouri, and his heart
was broken more than once when his alma mater turned him down
and hired other men as its coach. At Colorado he worked
alongside the fanatical McCartney as McCartney took a 1-10 team
in 1984 and built it into a national champion by '90. When
Barnett took this death-watch job at Loser U in '92, he vowed he
would make the Wildcats the best they could be or flame out
trying. "What I learned from Mac is that you have to just keep
looking straight ahead," says Barnett. "I didn't understand it
then, but now I do. The scenery may be nice or ugly on either
side, but you can't look. All that matters is what's in front of
So here's the Notre Dame game to start this season. It's early
September, sunny and gorgeous in the environs of the Golden
Dome, and the Irish fans have turned out to see the first lamb
slaughtered en route to the national championship.
Only the lamb won't die. Northwestern holds a 17-15 lead late in
the game, and it seems obvious that a now alert Notre Dame will
drive downfield, kick a last-second field goal and win by a
point. Your basic Gipper/Rockne/Rudy finale.
Fourth-and-two at the Notre Dame 44. Four minutes left. Irish
tailback Randy Kinder blasts into the line. And is stopped cold
by a Wildcat wave that features at its crest National Honor
Society member turned defensive tackle Matt Rice. "I felt I
could bench-press 6,000 pounds," Rice says afterward. "The whole
defense was playing with its hair on fire." End of Irish title
hopes, undefeated season and so on. Start of Northwestern's
strange journey into alien territory.
That first victory made three things obvious about the Wildcats:
1) They were unafraid. "There was no fear in any of us," said
the 5'7", 156-pound Valenzisi, whose booming kickoffs kept the
Irish pinned deep all afternoon. "Respect, yes. But no fear."
2) The Northwestern defense was something special. The defensive
line, usually one of the Wildcats' weak points, was rugged and
quick. The linebackers, led by human bloodhound Pat Fitzgerald,
were relentless. And the secondary of Bennett, Eric Collier,
Chris Martin and Rodney Ray was plainly the best in school
history. Plus there was a nickelback named Hudhaifa Ismaeli who
was a blitzing housewrecker.
3) Northwestern had a very special tailback. He carried the ball
33 times for 160 yards against Notre Dame and showed a
dart-and-bash style akin to Emmitt Smith's. Just 19 and a
theater major, the 6'1", 211-pound Autry would go on to break
almost every Wildcat single-season rushing record, including
those for most carries (355), most yards (1,675), most
touchdowns (14) and most 100-yard games (11). He has not rushed
for less than 100 yards in any of his 12 starts, dating back to
the last game of 1994.
So how had he shown up in Evanston? "He had a funny running
style," says Barnett. "Everybody saw him as a safety."
Except guess who.
Still, it has not been a smooth ride for Autry, who hails from
Tempe, Ariz. Last spring he tried to transfer to Arizona State.
He says he was lonely, cold, overwhelmed and miserable in
Evanston. "I had a good life back home, and here I was out of
the spotlight, an unknown, starting at ground level," says
Autry. "It's fine now. But it wasn't then. It was all about
becoming a man."
But it was a close shave for Barnett. When Autry asked for his
release, Barnett refused to give it to him. "We'd built the
whole offense around him," the coach says. "With just 85
scholarships, there has to be some kind of accountability."
"I was hot," recalls Autry. "There was friction. But I'd never
yell at him. Never."
But Autry did leave school in June and go back to Tempe. His
father, Gene (not that Gene), was so opposed to the move that he
eventually threw Darnell out of the house. "I want you to go
back to school," said Gene. "I can't have you here."
Deeply wounded, Darnell moved into the house of his older
brother, Byron, sulked and pondered enrolling at a junior
college. Darnell and his father no longer spoke to one another,
and the son suffered as he never had before. "It was the worst
10 days of my life," he says. "Then I woke up and smelled the
roses, so to speak, and came back to Evanston in late June. Now
I'm happy, and not just about football. I'm doing things for me.
Last year I really closed myself off."
One thing he's open to these days is dramatic advice. He's been
getting calls from casting agents who want him to audition for
bit movie parts, but he's turning them down. One can only wonder
how quickly those agents will be replaced by another kind, the
NFL type. But Autry is quick to add that someday he wants to be
an actor. "My dream role would be anything that gave me the
lead," he says. "But I'd take anything--the loser, the bad guy,
the guy who gets killed in the opening sequence."
To prepare himself for auditions, Autry is planning a field trip
soon to Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo so he can study the animals
and learn about emotion from the bottom up. His theater
classmates have already imitated penguins, orangutans and
giraffes for classroom critique, but Autry wants something more
difficult. "I don't know what it will be," he says. "But it
won't be a snake or something that just lies there."
That would be out of character for anybody on this upstart team.
The Wildcats are so aggressive that their 32 takeaways this
season were a school record, and their turnover margin of +1.82
per game is third-best nationally. Northwestern beat Michigan
and Penn State by playing nearly flawless football and
capitalizing on turnovers. Actually the Wildcats beat almost
everybody that way. Their only loss, a 30-28 slapstick giveaway
to Miami of Ohio after Northwestern led 28-7 in the third
quarter, was so uncharacteristic that it made Wildcat fans
realize how slender is the thread that holds their team above
But even that loss, which came after a blown punt snap rolled 35
yards and was recovered by the punter at the Wildcat one-yard
line, served its purpose. "It worked as motivation," says tight
end Darren Drexler, whose apparent catch in the fourth quarter,
which would have helped ice the game for the Wildcats, was ruled
Eight weeks later, after Northwestern came back from a 14-3
deficit to beat Iowa 31-20 for its first win over the Hawkeyes
in 22 years, Drexler said, "A loss today never crossed our minds."
But it crossed other people's minds. No matter how many games
the Wildcats won, critics and oddsmakers never believed they
were for real. Even when Northwestern was 5-1, ranked 11th and
playing a 2-2-1 Wisconsin team at home, the Wildcats were listed
as two-point underdogs. So they slaughtered the Badgers 35-zip.
They moved on to Illinois, another unranked team, and still were
picked to lose. The Northwestern players, so surgical and
focused afield, ignored the slights. "Overachievers is how they
label us," says Martin, the 5'9", 180-pound cornerback who just
happens to own five interceptions and a punt block and can
bench-press 400 pounds. "But I don't think we're overachievers."
And it won't be long before these upstarts get refurbished
facilities to match their accomplishments. A 1994 evaluation of
rickety Dyche Stadium by a team of architects and engineers
said, "The visual impact on the spectators and athletes is one
of neglect. The stadium no longer reflects the image of a
university with Northwestern's stature.... Coaching staffs of
eight or more cannot function in booths designed for four. The
toilet facilities are an embarrassment.... Spectators sitting in
the first five rows cannot see over the heads of the players."
Yeah, but who cared when you could sit anywhere you wanted for
any game? Last year you went to any game you wanted with your
four kids, bought tickets at the gate, cut the kids loose and
knew they would show up at the end of the game, because you
could watch them as they frolicked over the nearly empty
bleachers. But such innocence has vanished along with the losing
and the buffoonery, and recently the university announced that a
multimillion-dollar rehab of Old Lady Dyche will start soon.
Florida State-style fund-raising flyers from the athletic
department seem to appear in your mailbox weekly.
What else could one expect now that such honored alums as Warren
Beatty, George McGovern, Ann-Margret, Saul Bellow, Tony Randall,
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Richard Gephardt and Charlton Heston have
been shaken from their torpor? Quoth Heston, the erstwhile
Moses, of his Northwestern days: "The football thing was like
you had a crazy uncle in the attic, and you didn't like to talk
about him much. 'Old Uncle Fred, he'll be O.K.'" Now Uncle Fred
Barnett sits in his sunlit office, wearing a powder-blue sweater
the precise color of his eyes and thumbing through a 1963 Look
magazine that has an article listing Northwestern as the
sixth-ranked team in the country. That was back when Ara
Parseghian was the Wildcat coach--before he bailed out for Notre
Dame, conceding that bigger things just weren't possible at
On Barnett's desk is a small rock with the word BELIEVE chiseled
into it. If this were any other season, you, being a smart
aleck, would have said something like, "Believe in what, Coach?
Law boards?" But this is eerie. These simple things that Barnett
does and professes--"Where your butt is, that's where your head
should be" is one of them--they work.
Most of Northwestern's players were not high school superstars.
There's not a single Parade or USA Today All-America among them.
But they do believe. Barnett rambles on about some of his boys,
smiling: "Chris Martin, he was so short. Only being recruited
seriously by Temple. He wasn't around [when I made my visit], so
I met with his mom and dad and dog.
"[Guard] Ryan Padgett left our preseason three-a-days and took
the eight-hour medical boards on a Sunday.
"[Wideout and biomedical engineering major] Toussaint Waterman
took an engineering midterm in Novi [Mich.] with a proctor the
night before the Michigan game. He had three big catches in the
"[Cornerback] Rodney Ray, his mom made him go here.
"[Groza Award finalist] Valenzisi was a walk-on.
"[Punter] Burton, he just showed up one day. He had no idea what
he was going to play. We tried him a little at quarterback, a
little at defensive back, then he learned how to punt.
"[Wide receiver] Dave Beazley--his nickname is Big Money--I don't
think anybody else was recruiting him.
"[Defensive end] Casey Dailey, it was us and Fresno State. We
recruited him to be our punter.
"[Linebacker] Danny Sutter--us and Illinois State. But he had a
good bloodline. [His brother Ed, a former Northwestern
linebacker, now plays for the Cleveland Browns.]
"[Nickelback] Ismaeli was taught at home in Pittsburgh until
10th grade. He has a special training table, because his food
has to be blessed.
"And Fitz [linebacker Fitzgerald] ... he's a guy who just
studies the game. A coach on the field."
Barnett stops for a moment and looks at a glass-encased Rose
Bowl ticket on a table. It's from 1949, when admission to the
game cost $5.50. Northwestern versus California. Barnett has
kept it in his office as a kind of carrot.
Because he looks and acts like a grad student, Barnett tends to
disarm people, to make them feel calm and analytical. It's hard
to remember that this man is a coach, not to mention the runaway
winner of almost all the 1995 coach of the year awards. But his
approach to the game--levelheaded but intense, aggressive but
wise--is the magic cloak that has shielded the Wildcats from
self-doubt. Northwestern players don't thump chests, fire guns
or do the dance when they play well. They don't dump ice coolers
on Barnett's head or carry him off the field after big wins.
That's because Barnett told them that such things are foolish.
Do not carry me off the field after we beat Notre Dame at their
place for the first time in 34 years, he forewarned them. He
didn't say if. He said after.
"Every place has disadvantages," says Barnett, whose safety,
Bennett, was president of his high school senior class; whose
right tackle, Paul Janus, graduated third in his high school
class; whose backup tailback, Faraji Leary, was a four-year
member of his high school honor roll. "It's just that when
you're losing, everybody knows those disadvantages. When you're
winning, all they know are the advantages.
"At Colorado, when people said we had problems, it wasn't really
the players. I thought in all my time there that we had only one
thug. What we had were inner-city kids in a white community, and
they were under intense scrutiny--that was the problem. It's much
better here. Evanston is 29 percent minority. And we don't have
the kind of campus where kids are going to get into trouble. You
can't control what players do when they're out, but generally
the kids they're around here are first-class, leaders."
Betsy Mosher is Northwestern's associate athletic director for
intercollegiate services, which essentially means she's in
charge of NCAA compliance. She is proud that the NCAA has never
sent investigators to Northwestern.
Mosher was troubled last year when starting running back Dennis
Lundy was found to be gambling on football games. Lundy was
suspended for his final game, and Northwestern hired a private
detective to make sure nothing else unseemly was going on among
members of the team. Mosher feels certain nothing was. Still,
some of the players were called in to talk to FBI agents, and
although no charges have been filed, a gambling investigation by
the U.S. Attorney's office is not over. Mosher knows the
football team's success will bring even more scrutiny. "The
better we get, the more people will look and want to find
something," she says. "But compliance here is, amazingly, part
of the culture. I feel confident they won't find anything."
Weber, who is now Northwestern's chancellor, agrees. "The danger
[of corruption] is there," he says, "but I don't think it's
significant or imminent." He smiles, as well he might. Not only
does he preside over a university that increased its invested
assets from $661 million in 1985 to more than $1.6 billion in
'93--a university that pays its faculty the eighth-highest
average salary in the land--but he also has this unbelievable
football bauble on his hands.
"We did it right," Weber proclaims proudly. "Absolutely. Look at
these kids. The poise of Darnell Autry on TV--not saying 'you
know' 40 times. At the end of the Peay period [1986 to '91] we
had a whole bunch of players on probation, flunking out. The
trend line was not good."
So the team is better and smarter these days? This doesn't
"Gary gets 99 percent of the kudos for the success," says Weber.
"You know, I hired Bill McCartney [when Weber was president at
Colorado]. I asked him if Gary was ready for this. Bill said
Gary is a great recruiter, a great motivator and levelheaded."
And so the deal was done.
Now Northwestern is the darling of college football. Fans who
have never been within 100 miles of Evanston get a kick out of
this unexpected team dressed in uniforms that would look more
natural adorning Easter baskets. But don't dare think those
uniforms haven't been a calculated part of the turnaround.
Though in formation the Wildcats can resemble a nasty bruise,
the colors are just another way to kiss the old days goodbye.
Barnett added black to the school colors of purple and white,
because he knew kids would dig it. "I just loved those colors
mixing together," affirms Ismaeli. "The Number 1 reason I came
here was academics. The second was the uniforms."
A few days before the game against Iowa, Valenzisi is resting in
a chair in the sports information office. His left knee is in a
cast because he tore his anterior cruciate ligament while
jumping joyfully into the air after a deep kickoff against
Wisconsin. "To me, there is closure to my career," he says,
trying to put a happy spin on a bad deal. "I made my last extra
point and my last field goal, and my last kickoff was great.
Maybe [the injury] was for a reason."
As he gropes for that reason, he is joined by Fitzgerald, the
brilliant linebacker from Orland Park, Ill., who was seriously
recruited by Georgia Tech and nobody else but Northwestern. "I
see you won the Pat Fitzgerald Award again," says Valenzisi,
meaning that Fitz, a 6'4" junior, has been named Big Ten
Defensive Player of the Week. It's the fourth time this season
that he has won or shared the honor.
But Fitz shrugs off the compliment. At 225 pounds, he looks
about as ferocious as a tuba player, and he has no way of
knowing that next Saturday's game will be his last of the
season. In the third quarter he will break two bones in his left
leg and will need surgery. Nor can he know that despite the
injury, he will be named Big Ten defensive MVP. What Fitz is
concerned about just now is that nobody believes him when he
explains why the Wildcats have done what they have done.
"These interviewers are driving me nuts," he says. "They ask me
why we're winning, and I say, 'Coach Barnett.' And they say, 'Is
that all? Is that all?' And I say, 'Coach Barnett. That's
enough. He made us believe we could do it.' And they say, 'Is
Fitz shrugs in disgust. "Yeah, that's all."
You recall that one of your compatriots in the 1993 alumni game
was none other than Ron Burton, All-America halfback in 1959. He
was smiling, looking fit (if not totally rational) for a man in
his 50's. He certainly looked proud. All five of his children
have gone to Northwestern, and all four of his sons have played
football there, including current punter Paul. Every one of his
boys was suited up that day as well.
When good old Ron caught a swing pass and then was leveled near
the line of scrimmage by his second-youngest son, Phil, some of
the alums feared they might have a funeral on their hands. But
Pop popped up, and when it was all over, he and his brood bonded
wonderfully. Ron played on the last Northwestern team to beat
both Notre Dame and Michigan in the same season, and to say he
has waited feverishly for his alma mater to rise up and smite
such giants again would not be an exaggeration.
Ron, a gentle man who works with disadvantaged kids and gives
inspirational speeches around the country, could not bring
himself to attend this season's opener against Notre Dame. He
had watched Paul work so hard all summer, and he was deeply
touched when his son, upon leaving for school, said, "I've done
everything I can."
"I wanted them to win so badly," Ron says of his son and his
beloved Wildcats. "I was a wreck, really. I cry too easily.
Tears come to my eyes, good or bad."
So while most of his family traveled to South Bend, Ron stayed
at home in suburban Boston and watched the game at his son
Steven's house. When the deed was accomplished, Ron stood
silently, and he and Steven embraced. "I better leave" was all
Ron could say. And he quickly left the house and got into his car.
"That's where I broke down," he says.
He wept unabashedly, and when he reached his house, he was so
exhausted that although it was broad daylight, he went straight
to bed. "I just feel so ... blessed" is all he can say now about
his alma mater and his kids.
Beyond that, he can't explain a darned thing.