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 Hopped 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 North-western'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.
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 success.
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.