It isn't accidental that Northwestern's applications have jumped more than 20% since the Rose Bowl, that revenue from the sale of Northwestern-related paraphernalia increased from $40,000 to $400,000 for the fiscal year ending in March and that season ticket sales are up from 4,200 in '95 to more than 14,000 and counting. Bienen is an academician, protecting the considerable reputation of Northwestern, but he has no academic vehicle that can generate the exposure and the community pride that a successful football program can. Bienen himself has approved a $20 million campaign to upgrade Northwestern's athletic facilities.
Barnett's players are a bright and worldly bunch. They knew that their coach might leave, but having been inspired by him, they remained in denial. "I just couldn't see him coming into the team room and telling us he was leaving," says senior wide receiver Brian Musso.
Barnett stayed despite the ways Northwestern limits him with tough entrance standards and with facilities that are only slowly rising to the level of those of other Big Ten schools. He remained because he couldn't abandon his players—"I think some guys can take the kids out of the equation; I couldn't," Barnett says—and because he has a genuine passion for the balance that the university provides. "It could be a lot easier someplace else," he says. "But this is the ranch I bought. And ranches have fences. I knew what was inside the fence. And there are some problems that I don't have. We had two guys, total, who needed summer school for eligibility. When other [coaches] screamed about the new [NCAA academic] eligibility rules, I didn't."
Barnett's presence will give Northwestern a shot at prolonging the magic of '95, but it won't be easy. Because of the school's academic standards, Northwestern will never accumulate high school All-Americas the way a USC or a Florida can, simply because many top recruits won't be admitted. The success and the exposure of last fall have enlarged Northwestern's recruiting pool, but it remains far smaller than Ohio State's, Michigan's or Penn State's, and, says Bienen, "we're not going to lower our standards."
Barnett's first postmiracle recruiting class, signed on Feb. 7, is similar to his last two: solid but not of the quality that has recruiting gurus gushing. Among the signees were 6'4", 220-pound linebacker Anwawn Jones of Van Nuys, Calif., who might play as a true freshman, and 6'7", 275-pound offensive lineman Jack Harnedy of Mount Carmel High in Chicago. But the Wildcats' recruiting crops will always include more unknowns than knowns—players like the ones who won 10 games last season (not a single Northwestern player was taken in last month's NFL draft). Barnett understands that the team's continued success rests not with suddenly stockpiling talent but with following the '95 formula: a few good players, a gifted coach and much conviction.
There are less tangible issues for Northwestern than keeping and compensating a hot coach and signing recruits. Is it coincidental that NCAA violations or other off-the-field problems followed success at Miami, Florida State, Nebraska and Alabama? Can Northwestern expect its elite academic status to exempt it from similar pitfalls?
"I wonder how long everything can stay innocent and pure," says Valenzisi. "How long will it be before corrupting forces start to pull at the program, before people start scrutinizing our academic processes, before you get the NFL and agents hanging around? That creates potential for problems. I go out to dinner now and people say, 'Hey, forget about [the check].' That's fine, I'm not a player anymore. But what about the younger guys? All it takes is one error in judgment. In the past nobody would care. Nobody was watching. But we're not a gee-whiz story anymore."
Says junior tailback Darnell Autry, "Let's just hope we make the jump from innocence to maturity."
For the immediate future one could pick the Wildcats to repeat as Big Ten champs and defend that selection. Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State suffered heavy losses. Fourteen Northwestern starters are back, nine on offense. Senior quarterback Steve Schnur, who threw for 336 yards in the Rose Bowl, is back, along with three first stringers on the offensive line and the top four wideouts. Defensively, Ismaeli is expected to fill one of three vacancies in the secondary, while Dailey and 6'3", 270-pound senior Matt Rice should keep the front effective.
But at the core of Northwestern's returning group are Autry and Pat Fitzgerald. Autry is the spotlight performer, a Heisman Trophy contender who fumbled exactly once in 387 carries last season and who spent this winter studying at Northwestern's prestigious theater program. Many of his teammates went to the university's Wallace Theater to watch his portrayal of Angelo, a character in Italian playwright Ugo Betti's play, Crime on Goat Island. They giggled when he tried to smoke a cigarette and rolled their eyes when he hoisted a woman into the air. But in the end they were awed. It was Autry's first play (which was closely followed by another), and the NCAA has given him permission to appear in two scenes of a movie that will be filmed in Italy in July.