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 compute.
"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 Faster 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 that all' "
Fitz shrugs in disgust. "Yeah, that's all."