NOW FOR THE HARD PART ON THE HEELS OF A MAGICAL SEASON, NORTHWESTERN TRIES TO MAINTAIN ITS INTEGRITY WHILE IT KEEPS ON WINNING

May 05, 1996

In the minutes preceding their first practice of spring,
Northwestern football players filed loosely through the doors of
the team meeting room on the ground floor of the Nicolet
Football Center and fell into its purple-and-gray theater seats.
It was such a warm, familiar place. The path to Northwestern's
magical autumn of 1995--10 victories, a Big Ten championship and
the school's first Rose Bowl appearance since 1949--began within
the spare concrete walls of this bunker.

It was here that the Wildcats first sang High Hopes, the hokey
kids' song that coach Gary Barnett made them warble and that
became their anthem last fall. It was here also that they
gathered on the last Saturday in November to watch Michigan
shock Ohio State, knocking the Buckeyes out of a tie at the top
of the Big Ten and sending the Purple to Pasadena, as Barnett
had once promised. There were roses all around that day.

This afternoon Barnett called his most-decorated returning
players to the stage and handed each a placard listing his
honors from the previous season. Each was given his own moment
of applause. Even Barnett held a board listing his honors,
including 15 coach of the year awards. Then Barnett walked to a
corner of the stage and stuffed his placard into a large gray
trash can with a 1995 sign affixed to it. Each player on the
stage followed in turn. Barnett flipped on an overhead
projector, illuminating a transparency entitled ALL BIG TEN,
1996. Next to each position was a blank line. "Who's going to
fill these spots?" Barnett asked, not expecting an answer. "What
we did last year was the product of our humility, our hunger and
our hard work. The only way any of our names are going to appear
on this list is if we can recapture that."

They left the room together that day and walked through a
biting, late-March wind to Dyche Stadium. More than a month and
15 practices have since passed, culminating last Saturday in the
Wildcats' spring game. But the central message of Barnett's skit
remains: Northwestern is embarking on an unusual encore.

The glow created by the Wildcats hasn't dimmed. The most
endearing, improbable season in recent college football history
ended on Jan. 1 when Northwestern lost to USC 41-32 in the Rose
Bowl, but the Wildcats' effect on the American public persists
as if the season had never ended and as if the last game had not
been lost.

Senior defensive end Casey Dailey wore Northwestern sweats to a
dental appointment at his home in the San Gabriel foothills of
Southern California during spring break and for two hours in the
chair couldn't quiet his dentist's praise. Senior defensive back
Hudhaifa Ismaeli wore a souvenir NFL jersey with his name on the
back to a sporting goods store at a mall in Pittsburgh, and a
shopper asked him, "Are you any relation to the Ismaeli kid who
plays for Northwestern?" Beaming, Ismaeli said, "I am that
person." Improbably, Saturday's spring game was carried live to
several markets by SportsChannel, which bumped a Notre Dame
spring game to tape delay to show the Wildcats in Chicago. Even
more improbably, there is even a possibility that the Rose Bowl
loss itself could be overturned, depending on the outcome of
NCAA and Pac-10 investigations into the eligibility of several
USC players.

Barnett has become the inspirational attraction of the moment.
Requests for his presence come at the rate of 30 per day.
Corporations are clamoring for him to motivate their employees
the way he motivated Northwestern, which is a switch from the
previous three years (combined record: 8-24-1), when no one
wanted to hear his wisdom.

Now everything is different in Evanston for one simple reason:
Winning alters the landscape. There was a beauty to the
Wildcats' 1995 season that captured the ideal of college sport.
The term student-athlete became less an oxymoron and more a real
description. "For one autumn everything was the way it was
supposed to be," says Sam Valenzisi, a senior and All-Big Ten
kicker last season. It was Barnett who created the catchphrase
"Expect victory," when it seemed ridiculous. "Now," says
Valenzisi, "it's going to be 'Demand victory.'"

Away from the games, the issues are even more complex. Reality
struck in December when Barnett was encouraged by three
prominent college football personalities to pursue the vacant
head coaching job at the University of Georgia, which in
football terms has been to Northwestern what Ferrari is to
Schwinn. Also, UCLA vigorously pursued Barnett during
Northwestern's preparations for the Rose Bowl. Barnett
ultimately turned down both offers and has agreed to a long-term
contract (for at least 10 years, at what is believed to be
roughly $500,000 per year, which would be commensurate with the
highest-paid Big Ten coaches' contracts).

But the process itself did much to strip Northwestern of its
innocence. On the day before the Rose Bowl, even as UCLA courted
Barnett, Northwestern president Henry Bienen said publicly that
he had made his last offer, that he hoped Barnett would accept
it, but that regardless of what Barnett did, "Northwestern will
be Northwestern." That is a position that Bienen recently
reiterated. "I'll be only too happy if we have 10 years of
football success," he said, "but the football team doesn't
define the character of Northwestern in any fundamental way."

It isn't accidental that Northwestern's applications have jumped
more than 20% since the Rose Bowl, that revenue from the sale of
Northwestern-related paraphernalia increased from $40,000 to
$400,000 for the fiscal year ending in March and that season
ticket sales are up from 4,200 in '95 to more than 14,000 and
counting. Bienen is an academician, protecting the considerable
reputation of Northwestern, but he has no academic vehicle that
can generate the exposure and the community pride that a
successful football program can. Bienen himself has approved a
$20 million campaign to upgrade Northwestern's athletic
facilities.

Barnett's players are a bright and worldly bunch. They knew that
their coach might leave, but having been inspired by him, they
remained in denial. "I just couldn't see him coming into the
team room and telling us he was leaving," says senior wide
receiver Brian Musso.

Barnett stayed despite the ways Northwestern limits him with
tough entrance standards and with facilities that are only
slowly rising to the level of those of other Big Ten schools. He
remained because he couldn't abandon his players--"I think some
guys can take the kids out of the equation; I couldn't," Barnett
says--and because he has a genuine passion for the balance that
the university provides. "It could be a lot easier someplace
else," he says. "But this is the ranch I bought. And ranches
have fences. I knew what was inside the fence. And there are
some problems that I don't have. We had two guys, total, who
needed summer school for eligibility. When other [coaches]
screamed about the new [NCAA academic] eligibility rules, I
didn't."

Barnett's presence will give Northwestern a shot at prolonging
the magic of '95, but it won't be easy. Because of the school's
academic standards, Northwestern will never accumulate high
school All-Americas the way a USC or a Florida can, simply
because many top recruits won't be admitted. The success and the
exposure of last fall have enlarged Northwestern's recruiting
pool, but it remains far smaller than Ohio State's, Michigan's
or Penn State's, and, says Bienen, "we're not going to lower our
standards."

Barnett's first postmiracle recruiting class, signed on Feb. 7,
is similar to his last two: solid but not of the quality that
has recruiting gurus gushing. Among the signees were 6'4",
220-pound linebacker Anwawn Jones of Van Nuys, Calif., who might
play as a true freshman, and 6'7", 275-pound offensive lineman
Jack Harnedy of Mount Carmel High in Chicago. But the Wildcats'
recruiting crops will always include more unknowns than
knowns--players like the ones who won 10 games last season (not a
single Northwestern player was taken in last month's NFL draft).
Barnett understands that the team's continued success rests not
with suddenly stockpiling talent but with following the '95
formula: a few good players, a gifted coach and much conviction.

There are less tangible issues for Northwestern than keeping and
compensating a hot coach and signing recruits. Is it
coincidental that NCAA violations or other off-the-field
problems followed success at Miami, Florida State, Nebraska and
Alabama? Can Northwestern expect its elite academic status to
exempt it from similar pitfalls?

"I wonder how long everything can stay innocent and pure," says
Valenzisi. "How long will it be before corrupting forces start
to pull at the program, before people start scrutinizing our
academic processes, before you get the NFL and agents hanging
around? That creates potential for problems. I go out to dinner
now and people say, 'Hey, forget about [the check].' That's
fine, I'm not a player anymore. But what about the younger guys?
All it takes is one error in judgment. In the past nobody would
care. Nobody was watching. But we're not a gee-whiz story
anymore."

Says junior tailback Darnell Autry, "Let's just hope we make the
jump from innocence to maturity."

For the immediate future one could pick the Wildcats to repeat
as Big Ten champs and defend that selection. Michigan, Ohio
State and Penn State suffered heavy losses. Fourteen
Northwestern starters are back, nine on offense. Senior
quarterback Steve Schnur, who threw for 336 yards in the Rose
Bowl, is back, along with three first stringers on the offensive
line and the top four wideouts. Defensively, Ismaeli is expected
to fill one of three vacancies in the secondary, while Dailey
and 6'3", 270-pound senior Matt Rice should keep the front
effective.

But at the core of Northwestern's returning group are Autry and
Pat Fitzgerald. Autry is the spotlight performer, a Heisman
Trophy contender who fumbled exactly once in 387 carries last
season and who spent this winter studying at Northwestern's
prestigious theater program. Many of his teammates went to the
university's Wallace Theater to watch his portrayal of Angelo, a
character in Italian playwright Ugo Betti's play, Crime on Goat
Island. They giggled when he tried to smoke a cigarette and
rolled their eyes when he hoisted a woman into the air. But in
the end they were awed. It was Autry's first play (which was
closely followed by another), and the NCAA has given him
permission to appear in two scenes of a movie that will be
filmed in Italy in July.

Fitzgerald is the football-crazy linebacker from suburban
Chicago who was weaned on NFL Films' homages to linebackers Dick
Butkus and Mike Singletary. The returning first team All-America
is still recovering from a broken left leg suffered in the 10th
game of last season, so he spent most of spring practice among
his teammates, coordinating drills in a hands-off orange jersey
as if he were a coach, understanding better than most the
meaning of '96. "Our goals are the same as always," says
Fitzgerald, "but there's a lot more riding on it now. There's a
lot more attention on us."

The coach is running through the streets of Evanston on another
windy spring afternoon, using lunchtime workouts to try to
preserve the youthfulness that makes a man who will be 50 later
this month look closer to 35. He trucks through the tony
neighborhoods that border the campus, wearing a Northwestern hat
and sweats, full of energy and blueprints for the future. At the
end of the run he stands outside the football complex and points
to the site where an indoor facility will be built; he turns to
the stadium and with a sweep of his hand indicates the location
of the new locker rooms. Sweat rolls off his forehead as he
enters the Nicolet Football Center. "The best thing of all,"
says Barnett, "is that now we've been to Pasadena. Last year we
had two kids who had seen the Rose Bowl, and that was when they
drove by it on the freeway." Above his head hangs a Rose Bowl
banner. "I'm an idealist," Barnett says. "That's why I'm here."

The coach, then, is a good match for the challenge: to win again
and to preserve some slice of the innocence.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN Backup QB Tim Hughes drew a crowd in Saturday's game, which was televised for the first time.COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN Autry, an aspiring star of stage and screen, will reprise his role as the Wildcats' leading man next fall. [Darnell Autry] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JONATHAN DANIEL (2) After the spring game things still looked rosy to senior tackle Justin Chabot (61) and Wildcats fans. [Justin Chabot signing autograph; license plate reading: "NU RS BWL"]

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