Fitzgerald is the football-crazy linebacker from suburban Chicago who was weaned on NFL Films' homages to linebackers Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. The returning first team All-America is still recovering from a broken left leg suffered in the 10th game of last season, so he spent most of spring practice among his teammates, coordinating drills in a hands-off orange jersey as if he were a coach, understanding better than most the meaning of '96. "Our goals are the same as always," says Fitzgerald, "but there's a lot more riding on it now. There's a lot more attention on us."
The coach is running through the streets of Evanston on another windy spring afternoon, using lunchtime workouts to try to preserve the youthfulness that makes a man who will be 50 later this month look closer to 35. He trucks through the tony neighborhoods that border the campus, wearing a Northwestern hat and sweats, full of energy and blueprints for the future. At the end of the run he stands outside the football complex and points to the site where an indoor facility will be built; he turns to the stadium and with a sweep of his hand indicates the location of the new locker rooms. Sweat rolls off his forehead as he enters the Nicolet Football Center. "The best thing of all," says Barnett, "is that now we've been to Pasadena. Last year we had two kids who had seen the Rose Bowl, and that was when they drove by it on the freeway." Above his head hangs a Rose Bowl banner. "I'm an idealist," Barnett says. "That's why I'm here."
The coach, then, is a good match for the challenge: to win again and to preserve some slice of the innocence.