In the minutes preceding their first practice of spring, Northwestern football players filed loosely through the doors of the team meeting room on the ground floor of the Nicolet Football Center and fell into its purple-and-gray theater seats. It was such a warm, familiar place. The path to Northwestern's magical autumn of 1995—10 victories, a Big Ten championship and the school's first Rose Bowl appearance since 1949—began within the spare concrete walls of this bunker.
It was here that the Wildcats first sang High Hopes, the hokey kids' song that coach Gary Barnett made them warble and that became their anthem last fall. It was here also that they gathered on the last Saturday in November to watch Michigan shock Ohio State, knocking the Buckeyes out of a tie at the top of the Big Ten and sending the Purple to Pasadena, as Barnett had once promised. There were roses all around that day.
This afternoon Barnett called his most-decorated returning players to the stage and handed each a placard listing his honors from the previous season. Each was given his own moment of applause. Even Barnett held a board listing his honors, including 15 coach of the year awards. Then Barnett walked to a corner of the stage and stuffed his placard into a large gray trash can with a 1995 sign affixed to it. Each player on the stage followed in turn. Barnett flipped on an overhead projector, illuminating a transparency entitled ALL BIG TEN, 1996. Next to each position was a blank line. "Who's going to fill these spots?" Barnett asked, not expecting an answer. "What we did last year was the product of our humility, our hunger and our hard work. The only way any of our names are going to appear on this list is if we can recapture that."
They left the room together that day and walked through a biting, late-March wind to Dyche Stadium. More than a month and 15 practices have since passed, culminating last Saturday in the Wildcats' spring game. But the central message of Barnett's skit remains: Northwestern is embarking on an unusual encore.
The glow created by the Wildcats hasn't dimmed. The most endearing, improbable season in recent college football history ended on Jan. 1 when Northwestern lost to USC 41-32 in the Rose Bowl, but the Wildcats' effect on the American public persists as if the season had never ended and as if the last game had not been lost.
Senior defensive end Casey Dailey wore Northwestern sweats to a dental appointment at his home in the San Gabriel foothills of Southern California during spring break and for two hours in the chair couldn't quiet his dentist's praise. Senior defensive back Hudhaifa Ismaeli wore a souvenir NFL jersey with his name on the back to a sporting goods store at a mall in Pittsburgh, and a shopper asked him, "Are you any relation to the Ismaeli kid who plays for Northwestern?" Beaming, Ismaeli said, "I am that person." Improbably, Saturday's spring game was carried live to several markets by Sports-Channel, which bumped a Notre Dame spring game to tape delay to show the Wildcats in Chicago. Even more improbably, there is even a possibility that the Rose Bowl loss itself could be overturned, depending on the outcome of NCAA and Pac-10 investigations into the eligibility of several USC players.
Barnett has become the inspirational attraction of the moment. Requests for his presence come at the rate of 30 per day. Corporations are clamoring for him to motivate their employees the way he motivated Northwestern, which is a switch from the previous three years (combined record: 8-24-1), when no one wanted to hear his wisdom.
Now everything is different in Evanston for one simple reason: Winning alters the landscape. There was a beauty to the Wildcats' 1995 season that captured the ideal of college sport. The term student-athlete became less an oxymoron and more a real description. "For one autumn everything was the way it was supposed to be," says Sam Valenzisi, a senior and All-Big Ten kicker last season. It was Barnett who created the catchphrase "Expect victory," when it seemed ridiculous. "Now," says Valenzisi, "it's going to be 'Demand victory.' "
Away from the games, the issues are even more complex. Reality struck in December when Barnett was encouraged by three prominent college football personalities to pursue the vacant head coaching job at the University of Georgia, which in football terms has been to Northwestern what Ferrari is to Schwinn. Also, UCLA vigorously pursued Barnett during Northwestern's preparations for the Rose Bowl. Barnett ultimately turned down both offers and has agreed to a long-term contract (for at least 10 years, at what is believed to be roughly $500,000 per year, which would be commensurate with the highest-paid Big Ten coaches' contracts).
But the process itself did much to strip Northwestern of its innocence. On the day before the Rose Bowl, even as UCLA courted Barnett, Northwestern president Henry Bienen said publicly that he had made his last offer, that he hoped Barnett would accept it, but that regardless of what Barnett did, "Northwestern will be Northwestern." That is a position that Bienen recently reiterated. "I'll be only too happy if we have 10 years of football success," he said, "but the football team doesn't define the character of Northwestern in any fundamental way."