It was almost too delicious to swallow. You had the feeling that even USC graduates were wearing purple underwear, what with 8-2-1 Troy having lost to both UCLA and Notre Dame this season—what else matters?—and having backed into a very thorny Rose with only two wins in its last five games.
Naturally, only wet blankets chose to point out that Northwestern was ranked third in the country to USC's 17th. Or that Northwestern's defense had given up only 21 second-half points in the last nine games. And what kind of killjoy would mention that Northwestern had gone 5-0 against bowl teams, while USC had beaten one in four? What fun was that?
Las Vegas made the Wildcats three-point underdogs, and, besides, didn't you just want to hang 'em from your rearview mirror? Who could resist a team that three out of eight season-preview magazines picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten and the other five picked to finish 11th? A team with a very good chance of having exactly nobody selected in the '96 NFL draft? ( USC figures to have eight to 10.) A team with a dozen engineers? This was the most huggable Hollywood underdog since Benji.
L.A. loves a good mystery, and how Northwestern got here was a regular X file. Every football in 1995 bounced like a trained poodle into the Wildcats' numbers. (Nine times a Northwestern opponent's turnover in the fourth quarter led to a Wildcat score.) Every dead-end alley came with a hidden escape door. (The Cats came from behind to beat Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.) Every giant seemed to provide a slingshot. (Northwestern won at South Bend for the first time since 1961 and at Ann Arbor for the first time since 1959.)
People came out of L.A. restaurants, napkins still tucked in their collars, to shake hands with Northwestern players. Barnett was in such demand, he could have signed a three-picture deal. Good dialogue just dripped from his mouth. "More than anything," he said, trying to explain the turnaround, "your kids have to believe in the vision, so it's all one heartbeat coming at 'em." Barnett's team slogan was, Belief without evidence. He had the Wildcats open and close Thursday practices by singing High Hopes.
There are high hopes, and then there are nosebleed hopes. Forty-seven years is a long time between Rose Bowls, especially when you haven't played in any other bowl in between. You half expected the Wildcats to show up in raccoon coats and try to make reservations at the Brown Derby. "Our guys don't know what to do with themselves," Barnett said one day, laughing. The Wildcats' superb tailback, Darnell Autry, a sophomore theater major, kept hoping somebody would slide a Schwab's stool under him and turn him into the next Mel Gibson. "Who knows?" Autry kept saying. "I might get discovered!"
If they didn't discover him this trip, maybe it's time for him to switch majors. That's because most of the Screen Actors Guild seemed to be Northwestern alumni. David (Friends) Schwimmer showed up at practice one day. The entire team made an appearance on The Tonight Show; Barnett sat in the guest's chair, and the players sang High Hopes a cappella from the audience. Charlton Heston joined the squad at Universal Studios to "part the Purple Sea," and he handed Barnett a tablet with the commandment THOU SHALL NOT LOSE. (Recap on what was fake that day: Heston's sea, Heston's staff, Heston's tablet, Heston's hair.)
All of which made the ignored Trojans grumpy young men. If they were invited to a tribute in their honor, the invitation must have got held up in the Christmas mail. The Trojans' job seemed to be to show up in Pasadena, run into each other a lot and lose to the Bad News Bears. "All that Cinderella crap," said Johnson. "Get it out." Maybe Johnson was grumpy from lack of sleep: His live-in girlfriend, Shikiri Hightower, gave birth to seven-pound daughter Maia two weeks before the game. ("Hey, I'm 23," Johnson said. "I'm not getting any younger.") Or maybe he was riled because the Trojans suddenly couldn't get arrested in their own town. Just about every article last week was either about Northwestern or about USC's thoughts on Northwestern, with a note about USC coach John Robinson going 0-5-1 against Notre Dame and UCLA the last three years thrown in for good measure.
"Most of our players have injuries on their toes from you people stepping on us to get to the other guys," Robinson said after the game. "I don't feel we were ignored. We were ignored."
Still, it was lost on nobody in Southern California that both Robinson and Barnett had traveled to Notre Dame this season, and only one had come away with glory: Barnett, 17-15. With USC's cross-Babylon rival, UCLA, looking for a head football coach, Barnett looked like the prettiest starlet at the audition. Any contact from UCLA this week, Coach?