Amid the many museum-quality paintings that decorate the walls
of Northwestern president Henry Bienen's office is a small
collage of pictures and press clippings from the school's
remarkable 1995 football season. The collage stands out like a
jockstrap would at Brooks Brothers, yet it holds far more
memories for Bienen than any of the canvases. At the center is a
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover depicting Wildcats tailback Darnell
Autry slashing through the Penn State defense in a 21-10 victory
that certified Northwestern as something more than the fluke of
the month and paved the way to the Rose Bowl. "It's possible to
win games and do it your own way, that's what people said about
us," says Bienen, alluding to the rare mix of academic
excellence and athletic success. "The season was so sensational."
This is an article from the Oct. 19, 1998 issue
It was like no other in recent history. In this age of fewer
scholarships and growing parity in college football, upstart
schools seem to pop up every weekend. But no team in the modern
era rose as abruptly from punch line to powerhouse as
Northwestern did. The Wildcats, who hadn't had a winning season
in 24 years, hadn't played in a bowl game in 47 and who had
served as an automatic W for every team in the Big Ten, won 10
regular-season games and the conference title in '95 before
losing to USC in the Rose Bowl.
The Wildcats made academic integrity an asset instead of a curse
and flushed a generation of famous alumni into the open, led,
naturally, by Charlton Heston. Opponents and other observers
stood slack-jawed. "I saw them keep winning, and I just said,
'Wow.' I couldn't believe it was happening," says Wisconsin
senior fullback Cecil Martin, who grew up in Evanston, Ill. It
happened again in '96, when the Wildcats went 9-3, shared the
Big Ten championship and played in the Citrus Bowl.
Now on this warm October afternoon Bienen is asked whether there
soon will be another football keepsake crowding his artwork.
Bienen smiles wanly and answers, "Not this year."
This season is the miracle in reverse. In '95 and '96 starters
stayed healthy, and Northwestern won close games. Now, after
clawing their way through a 5-7 year in which they lost three
games by a total of eight points, the Wildcats are young,
banged-up and unlucky. Take last Saturday in Iowa City, for
instance, when they dropped to 2-4 (0-3 in the Big Ten) with a
26-24 loss to Iowa. Northwestern was stung by a fourth-quarter
safety on an intentional-grounding call in the end zone. (The
Wildcats say quarterback Gavin Hoffman's intended receiver was
impeded by an official, which explains why Hoffman's pass might
have looked like a throwaway.) Iowa eventually scored the
deciding points when quarterback Randy Reiners escaped a sure
sack and, on the run, fired a 49-yard rope for a touchdown,
getting knocked cold in the process. Those were the types of
plays that Northwestern, almost hauntingly, benefited from in
'95 and '96. "For two years Northwestern never, ever, ever beat
itself, never made mistakes," said Iowa All-America senior
defensive tackle Jared DeVries after last Saturday's game. "They
always made their own breaks."
That was the past. This year the Wildcats have beaten only UNLV
and Rice, which are 1-10 combined. With games remaining against
Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Penn State and
Hawaii, Northwestern is looking at a potential 0-for-Big Ten and
3-9 season. Even the possibility of such ugly numbers screams
the question: Is Northwestern headed back to the cellar, or is
this season a blip? "I won't accept mediocrity," says coach Gary
Barnett. "We're in a valley right now, but we're going to be
something special again."
There are several factors at work in the Wildcats' struggle. Not
in dispute is the talent level. Barnett's recruiting class of
February 1996 was good, and his class of '97 was outstanding. "No
question, there's more physical ability around here than when I
came in," says senior linebacker Barry Gardner.
Yet talent guarantees nothing, or Ohio State would have three
consecutive national titles at this moment. In '95 Northwestern
had something else as well. "That team," says Barnett, "was just
sick of losing, so it overachieved like crazy. It accelerated
the process." Northwestern's current young players are a
different breed from those who first bought into Barnett's
promises. They were recruited by strong programs, and they also
practice in sparkling new facilities (indoor field, new locker
rooms, weight room soon to be built), into which the school has
poured $35 million--in large part from alumni donations that
came rolling in on the heels of the Rose Bowl season. These
players have no knowledge of the hunger that drove the '95 and
'96 teams. "I had never even heard of Northwestern--good or
bad--until they played in the Rose Bowl," says sophomore strong
safety Mycal Jones.
The result is a softer team. "There's a sense of entitlement
about the younger guys," says Sam Valenzisi, the spunky
placekicker who co-captained the '95 squad and who now works for
a Chicago brokerage and as a statistician on Northwestern radio
broadcasts. Older players accustomed to ratty old locker rooms
were stunned when the underclassmen would discard used tape on
the floor of the new digs. The veterans would scoop up the trash
and put it in a can. "Fact is, there's still work to be done by
these young guys, and that might mean some adversity," says
fifth-year senior wideout D'Wayne Bates, the best player on the
team. "We got [our rebuilding] off to a fast start, but building
a tradition is a slow process."
Hampering that process has been damaging innuendo and tragedy,
as if the sweet serendipity of autumns past had to be paid for.
Barnett became America's Coaching Candidate, a by-product of
success that is flattering, lucrative and also disruptive. When
a major-college coaching job opens, his name invariably comes
up. After the '95 season he turned down offers from Georgia and
UCLA. "They cost me a lot of money," says Northwestern athletic
director Rick Taylor, who signed Barnett to a 12-year contract
worth an estimated but unconfirmed $500,000 a year.
A year later either Barnett spurned Notre Dame or the Irish
passed on him (each side tells a different story), and Texas
romanced him after last season before hiring Mack Brown away
from North Carolina. Barnett admits to following his suitors
more closely than he watches most other teams, to letting the
December feeding season distract him more than it should and,
most of all, to growing increasingly angry because rival
recruiters tell prospects not to sign with Northwestern because
the coach will soon be gone. "That I have no control over, and
it's bad," says Barnett.
Last winter a federal gambling investigation that uncovered point
shaving by former Northwestern basketball player Dion Lee reached
into the football program, in the form of an ongoing probe into
the 1994 season. To its credit Northwestern has since enacted one
of the most forceful antigambling programs of any Division I
More distressing is senior fullback Matt Hartl's battle with
cancer. Hartl started as a redshirt freshman on the Rose Bowl
team but twice since has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.
Hartl missed the '96 season after a tumor was discovered in his
chest. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation, which seemed to
have eradicated the tumor, and started 11 games last fall, even
though his left lung had become useless from the effects of the
tumor pressing against it. "I'd get tired," Hartl says, "but no
more than you'd expect from somebody with one lung."
In May, Hartl was working out in preparation for this season
when persistent side stitches became unbearable. Doctors
confirmed what Hartl suspected--the tumor was growing again. He
is undergoing more weekly chemotherapy sessions in an attempt to
shrink it enough to allow a stem-cell transplant to be
performed. As one of four captains, Hartl has remained close to
the team, attending most practices and making the ceremonial
march to midfield, in game jersey and sweats, for pregame coin
tosses. For this and his buoyant good spirit he has been
portrayed as heroic, a status that escapes him and, in a strange
way, reminds him of '95. "People say to me, 'I don't know how
you're getting through this,'" says Hartl. "I tell them, 'You
don't have to know, because you don't have to go through it.' I
don't know if it's making me tougher, or if I'm learning
something, because I'm in the middle of it. Maybe later I'll
know. It's like '95. We had no idea exactly what we were doing.
Now I understand, but I didn't at the time."
Hartl understands, too, what he sees at practice: more talent
than Northwestern has ever fielded. Yet a spate of injuries has
left Northwestern with six first- or second-year players on the
offensive line's two-deep. This is troublesome for a team
already starting a redshirt freshman quarterback and rotating a
sophomore and redshirt freshman at running back. "You want
answers about Northwestern, there's your answer--all those young
kids," says Duke coach Fred Goldsmith, whose Blue Devils lost to
Northwestern in '96 and '97 before crushing the Wildcats 44-10
on Sept. 12.
The Wildcats get an opponent's A game these days, which was not
the case prior to '95. "Northwestern has elevated itself in our
minds," says Wisconsin senior linebacker Bob Adamov, who lost
twice to the Wildcats and has now beaten them twice. "There's
always been 'Michigan week' or 'Ohio State week,' in practice.
The last couple of years there's been a 'Northwestern week,'
too. Nobody looks past them anymore."
A miracle turnaround, it seems, leaves baggage, and the next
step--consistency--will be more difficult for Northwestern to
attain. Alumni and fans are spoiled. "Expectations are higher,"
says Bienen. "We all enjoy winning more than losing."
Barnett likes to say he doesn't yearn for the good old days, but
that's hard to believe. After last Saturday's loss Iowa fans
wearing foam-rubber corn heads screamed, "Go home, Gary!"
Meanwhile, up in a corner of Kinnick Stadium veterans from
Northwestern's '95 and '96 teams sat and applauded as the
Wildcats trudged off the field.
Among the players walking off was Gardner, who had made 19
tackles in a spectacular individual performance. Spent and
frustrated, Gardner shook his head and looked down at the turf.
"Just like this, man, every week," he said. "Just like this."
Sometimes two or three years can seem like a very long time ago.
step--consistency--will be more difficult for Northwestern to