Now we know miracles come with expiration dates. Now we know
Northwestern's was 1/1/96. The tag teams of leprechauns,
chimeras and guardian angels who had carried it along to the
most unthinkable of college football seasons in 1995 finally
punched out on New Year's Day.
After a mystical season of happy bounces and goose bump wins,
after they had inexplicably gone from 23 straight losing seasons
to 10-1 and the Big Ten championship, after waiting 47 years to
return to a bowl, all the bounces went suddenly wrong, the
breaks went begging, and the calls went against the Wildcats.
And so a bunch of nonbelievers known as the Trojans of USC
stepped on Cinderella's dress, 41-32, in an utterly
unforgettable Rose Bowl.
"Well," said Northwestern's unsinkable coach, Gary Barnett, "I
guess we'll have to come back next year and win it."
You did not know until the very end that the magic was drained
out of Northwestern. After three-plus hours of battling USC's
bigger and faster and soon-to-be-richer players, the Wildcats
found themselves down by nine points with three minutes left.
And yet back they came. Quarterback Steve Schnur threw a
touchdown pass to a sticky-fingered wide receiver named D'Wayne
Bates, but a holding penalty brought it back. Luck had never
turned on Northwestern before. Now Brian Gowins set up for a
48-yard field goal try with 41 seconds left that would have
given the Wildcats a ghost of a chance. It hit the left upright
so full and flush that it bounced back 10 yards.
On the sidelines Barnett actually smiled. Game over. Jig up. Fun
meter at zero.
It was a game that must have killed popcorn sales, since you did
not dare look away. There was one tie, two lead changes and nine
touchdowns, and there were incomparable performances by USC
quarterback Brad Otton and fast-talking, fast-running wideout
Keyshawn Johnson, with 12 catches, all of them good for first
downs and for a Rose Bowl--record 216 yards, a nice little
recommendation for making him the first pick in the NFL draft
And yet as remarkably as Otton, Johnson and USC played, it was
Northwestern that ended the Northwestern dream. With his team
down 17-7 and a little more than three minutes left in the first
half, Northwestern wide receiver Brian Musso was streaking near
midfield when he was stripped of the ball; a USC dervish named
Daylon McCutcheon scooped it up and returned it 53 yards to make
it 24-7. And later, in the fourth quarter, trailing 34-32,
Schnur overthrew a wide-open Matt Hartl at the USC 35 and was
intercepted by Jesse Davis. That's when you knew there was no
point in kissing any more frogs. All princes had taken the last
"It is hard enough to beat one opponent," Barnett groaned. "But
two is too much."
Going into it, you would have hated to be USC, playing the evil
stepmother to Northwestern's Cinderella. Could two more
opposites have been thrown together? This was USC's 38th bowl
game. It was Northwestern's second. USC has had four Heisman
Trophy winners and eight national championships. Northwestern
has had zero and zero. This was Northwestern's first bowl
appearance in 47 years. It was USC's first in 12. Months. And
yet, against all logic and odds, here it was: Bill Gates versus
Uncle Morty's Toaster Repair.
It takes a lot to get noticed in L.A., but everywhere you looked
tan-challenged Purple People were walking around with grins that
said, Whoa! I never thought I'd be here for New Year's Day.
Northwestern sold out its initial allotment of 21,000 tickets in
one week. A dozen NU alums semi-swaggered into a Santa Monica
restaurant looking like they had finally kicked sand in the
bully's face. "Oh, yeah!" said a little bespectacled man dressed
entirely in purple. "We're a football factory!"
It was almost too delicious to swallow. You had the feeling that
even USC graduates were wearing purple underwear, what with
8-2-1 Troy having lost to both UCLA and Notre Dame this
season--what else matters?--and having backed into a very thorny
Rose with only two wins in its last five games.
Naturally, only wet blankets chose to point out that
Northwestern was ranked third in the country to USC's 17th. Or
that Northwestern's defense had given up only 21 second-half
points in the last nine games. And what kind of killjoy would
mention that Northwestern had gone 5-0 against bowl teams, while
USC had beaten one in four? What fun was that?
Las Vegas made the Wildcats three-point underdogs, and, besides,
didn't you just want to hang 'em from your rearview mirror? Who
could resist a team that three out of eight season-preview
magazines picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten and the other
five picked to finish 11th? A team with a very good chance of
having exactly nobody selected in the '96 NFL draft? (USC
figures to have eight to 10.) A team with a dozen engineers?
This was the most huggable Hollywood underdog since Benji.
L.A. loves a good mystery, and how Northwestern got here was a
regular X file. Every football in 1995 bounced like a trained
poodle into the Wildcats' numbers. (Nine times a Northwestern
opponent's turnover in the fourth quarter led to a Wildcat
score.) Every dead-end alley came with a hidden escape door.
(The Cats came from behind to beat Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois
and Iowa.) Every giant seemed to provide a slingshot.
(Northwestern won at South Bend for the first time since 1961
and at Ann Arbor for the first time since 1959.)
People came out of L.A. restaurants, napkins still tucked in
their collars, to shake hands with Northwestern players. Barnett
was in such demand, he could have signed a three-picture deal.
Good dialogue just dripped from his mouth. "More than anything,"
he said, trying to explain the turnaround, "your kids have to
believe in the vision, so it's all one heartbeat coming at 'em."
Barnett's team slogan was, Belief without evidence. He had the
Wildcats open and close Thursday practices by singing High Hopes.
There are high hopes, and then there are nosebleed hopes.
Forty-seven years is a long time between Rose Bowls, especially
when you haven't played in any other bowl in between. You half
expected the Wildcats to show up in raccoon coats and try to
make reservations at the Brown Derby. "Our guys don't know what
to do with themselves," Barnett said one day, laughing. The
Wildcats' superb tailback, Darnell Autry, a sophomore theater
major, kept hoping somebody would slide a Schwab's stool under
him and turn him into the next Mel Gibson. "Who knows?" Autry
kept saying. "I might get discovered!"
If they didn't discover him this trip, maybe it's time for him
to switch majors. That's because most of the Screen Actors Guild
seemed to be Northwestern alumni. David (Friends) Schwimmer
showed up at practice one day. The entire team made an
appearance on The Tonight Show; Barnett sat in the guest's
chair, and the players sang High Hopes a cappella from the
audience. Charlton Heston joined the squad at Universal Studios
to "part the Purple Sea," and he handed Barnett a tablet with
the commandment THOU SHALL NOT LOSE. (Recap on what was fake
that day: Heston's sea, Heston's staff, Heston's tablet,
All of which made the ignored Trojans grumpy young men. If they
were invited to a tribute in their honor, the invitation must
have got held up in the Christmas mail. The Trojans' job seemed
to be to show up in Pasadena, run into each other a lot and lose
to the Bad News Bears. "All that Cinderella crap," said Johnson.
"Get it out." Maybe Johnson was grumpy from lack of sleep: His
live-in girlfriend, Shikiri Hightower, gave birth to seven-pound
daughter Maia two weeks before the game. ("Hey, I'm 23," Johnson
said. "I'm not getting any younger.") Or maybe he was riled
because the Trojans suddenly couldn't get arrested in their own
town. Just about every article last week was either about
Northwestern or about USC's thoughts on Northwestern, with a
note about USC coach John Robinson going 0-5-1 against Notre
Dame and UCLA the last three years thrown in for good measure.
"Most of our players have injuries on their toes from you people
stepping on us to get to the other guys," Robinson said after
the game. "I don't feel we were ignored. We were ignored."
Still, it was lost on nobody in Southern California that both
Robinson and Barnett had traveled to Notre Dame this season, and
only one had come away with glory: Barnett, 17-15. With USC's
cross-Babylon rival, UCLA, looking for a head football coach,
Barnett looked like the prettiest starlet at the audition. Any
contact from UCLA this week, Coach?
"I.. uh...no," he said in the Mushy Denial of the Month. But
Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor admitted that UCLA
had asked for and received permission to talk to Barnett. (The
Wildcat coach is in the fourth year of a five-year contract,
which was extended last season for an additional two years, and
has discussed a new long-term deal of up to 12 years with school
officials.) Then a Wildcat assistant coach called a USC
assistant to ask about L.A.'s cost of living versus Evanston's.
Well, you save on earmuffs. At press time Barnett was UCLA's No.
1 choice, but everybody was making like Joe Clam.
After the game, though, Barnett told his players, "I can't think
of anywhere I'd rather be than standing in this locker room next
year at the Rose Bowl."
Either way, USC was in a win-or-lose situation, which is to say,
win or lose, the story was Northwestern. "I don't mind ruinin'
their happy ending," Johnson said before the game. "They've had
their fun. It's our turn now."
The Trojans had their fun and then some. "This saves our
season," a defiant Robinson said in a jubilant USC locker room.
"Let's see you all write that down."
"Everywhere I went, people wanted purple this and purple that,"
Johnson said. "They had Wheaties boxes with their pictures on it
and all. I think they started to really believe it all." And
then he shook his head and laughed, as if to say, Get real.
So it's time to face up to it. Ants can't carry away rubber tree
plants, and rams don't knock holes in 1,000-kilowatt dams, and
Northwesterns don't beat USCs in Rose Bowls.