One bit of educational reform that has done wonders for the Wildcat football program has been the NCAA's reduction in scholarships from virtually unlimited numbers per school to the current 85. When Northwestern beat Notre Dame 17-15 in the 1995 season opener—the Wildcats' first win in South Bend in 34 years—the Irish team suited up just 76 scholarship players.
"The biggest thing has to be that the largest schools aren't hoarding all the good linemen anymore," says Wisconsin attorney John Voorhees, the middle linebacker and MVP of Northwestern's 1971 team. "Linemen don't come out of high school as stars. It takes years for them to develop. Think how many of them have just been sitting on the bench at Michigan, Oklahoma and Nebraska all these years."
O.K., so the Wildcats picked off a few linemen, building offensive and defensive fronts to equal those of every team they played this season. And maybe Northwestern snagged a few skill-position players away from the heavy dudes, kids like sophomore running back Darnell Autry and senior free safety William Bennett.
Bennett was around for the second alumni-varsity spring game, in 1993, in which you and some of your fleshy, gray-haired buddies suited up and laid some serious lumber on those little schoolboys in purple. Well, maybe you didn't do any wood-laying, but some of the other geezers did. You recall tavern-bellied quarterback Mitch Anderson (class of 75) tossing some bombs to stockbroker/wideout Todd Jenkins ('84) right in the varsity kids' faces.
You punted once in that game and thought it might be amusing to fake the next punt and run around end. You believed there was a no-tackling rule in effect on kicks and the like. You were wrong. A young linebacker named Geoff Shein came up and dropped some ammo on your butt. Not long ago you tried to find him in the Northwestern locker room to lecture him on respect for his elders, but he was nowhere to be found. It wasn't until you watched the highlights of this year's win over Penn State that you realized the once buzz-cut Shein now has locks down to his shoulders.
Not long after the next alumni game, in 1994, one of your pals who had made some tackles had to check in for triple-bypass heart surgery. But the gentleman had been wounded far more by 30 years of smoking than by anything the young Cats had done to him.
Explain that, Coach.
"I started the alum games to bring back as many people as possible." Barnett said after a mid-November practice. "To light a fire in the program. It helps us. It's not a great practice for us, but it's not bad. That first year you guys gave us all we could handle."
But then why wasn't there an alumni game last spring? Was Barnett worried that some of the fat old guys would actually be killed by his improved squad? "No," he said, shrugging. "It's just that not enough of you guys signed up. We'll do it again next spring. I don't care about the alums."