Why us? Why now?
"Fairly simple," says Rick Taylor, athletic-director at Northwestern. Then he begins to explain it all: how a team like the Wildcats, formerly a purple wall of mewling kittens that had not had a winning season in 24 years, that had not won the Big Ten title in 59 years, that once had a rushing leader with 162 yards for the season, that had a receiving leader with 122 yards, that won only 18 games in the 1980s—how this team could suddenly be a national powerhouse with a 10-1 record, including victories over Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State. And it's not simple at all.
Well, it starts out simply enough.
"The foundation was set when school president Arnold Weber hired Gary," says Taylor. That would be Gary Barnett, North-western's fourth-year football coach, who had been an assistant to Bill McCartney at Colorado. The 49-year-old Barnett, who looks like a slim-bellied, middle-aged pool boy, has molded die Wildcats into earnest, unerring, opportunistic nasties.
But quickly you recall that you were once a defensive back at this gentle school and that every new coach who marched onto campus in the last two decades declared that he would win, do it the "right way" and capture some championship. It dawns on you that every college coach in creation has said this—including Barnett.
You think back to your own Wildcat coach, Alex Agase, a World War II marine hero and three-time All-America (at Illinois and Purdue), and how he somehow got you and your freethinking pals to go 6-1 in the Big Ten during your senior season, in 1970. You recall Agase, an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth, catching wicked passes at practice with his stubby lineman's fingers and saying, "Damn it! If I can catch this stuff, so can you."
In 1971 old Ag led the Wildcats to a 7-4 season, 6-3 in the Big Ten, and after the '72 campaign he bolted for Purdue. He was succeeded at Northwestern by four dyspeptic coaches (John Pont, Rick Venturi, Dennis Green and Francis Peay), none of whom finished a season with a record better than 4-7.
What's different about Barnett? "Gary was a good college coach," continues Taylor. "He'd been through a rebuilding program at Colorado. He was not a pro coach, and he was a good fit at Northwestern." That, of course, would mean he dressed well, spoke well and could hold a teacup with pinkie extended. So this proper man came to Evanston, Ill., in 1992, went 3-8, 2-9 and 3-7-1 in his first three seasons—which is normal Northwestern stuff, mind you—and then abruptly delivered this...lunacy?
"Well, the second thing is that the school upped the pay for assistant coaches," says Taylor. "Before Gary, Northwestern assistants were low-paid; now their salaries are comparable to those in the rest of the Big Ten. Gary brought in assistants who were teachers and recruiters. And the higher pay helped bring continuity: Almost all of the assistants have stayed all four years. In the preceding five years there had been three offensive coordinators and five defensive coordinators. One coach wants you to backpedal this way, another wants you to do it this way."
That's the difference, backpedaling?