Barnett became America's Coaching Candidate, a by-product of success that is flattering, lucrative and also disruptive. When a major-college coaching job opens, his name invariably comes up. After the '95 season he turned down offers from Georgia and UCLA. "They cost me a lot of money," says Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor, who signed Barnett to a 12-year contract worth an estimated but unconfirmed $500,000 a year.
A year later either Barnett spurned Notre Dame or the Irish passed on him (each side tells a different story), and Texas romanced him after last season before hiring Mack Brown away from North Carolina. Barnett admits to following his suitors more closely than he watches most other teams, to letting the December feeding season distract him more than it should and, most of all, to growing increasingly angry because rival recruiters tell prospects not to sign with Northwestern because the coach will soon be gone. "That I have no control over, and it's bad," says Barnett.
Last winter a federal gambling investigation that uncovered point shaving by former Northwestern basketball player Dion Lee reached into the football program, in the form of an ongoing probe into the 1994 season. To its credit Northwestern has since enacted one of the most forceful anti-gambling programs of any Division I school.
More distressing is senior fullback Matt Haiti's battle with cancer. Hartl started as a redshirt freshman on the Rose Bowl team but twice since has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. Haiti missed the '96 season after a tumor was discovered in his chest. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation, which seemed to have eradicated the tumor, and started 11 games last fall, even though his left lung had become useless from the effects of the tumor pressing against it. "I'd get tired," Hartl says, "but no more than you'd expect from somebody with one lung."
In May, Hartl was working out in preparation for this season when persistent side stitches became unbearable. Doctors confirmed what Hartl suspected—the tumor was growing again. He is undergoing more weekly chemotherapy sessions in an attempt to shrink it enough to allow a stem-cell transplant to be performed. As one of four captains, Hartl has remained close to the team, attending most practices and making the ceremonial march to midfield, in game jersey and sweats, for pregame coin tosses. For this and his buoyant good spirit he has been portrayed as heroic, a status that escapes him and, in a strange way, reminds him of '95. "People say to me, I don't know how you're getting through this,' " says Hartl. "I tell them, 'You don't have to know, because you don't have to go through it.' I don't know if it's making me tougher, or if I'm learning something, because I'm in the middle of it. Maybe later I'll know. It's like '95. We had no idea exactly what we were doing. Now I understand, but I didn't at the time."
Hartl understands, too, what he sees at practice: more talent than Northwestern has ever fielded. Yet a spate of injuries has left Northwestern with six first-or second-year players on the offensive line's two-deep. This is troublesome for a team already starting a redshirt freshman quarterback and rotating a sophomore and redshirt freshman at running back. "You want answers about Northwestern, there's your answer—all those young kids," says Duke coach Fred Goldsmith, whose Blue Devils lost to Northwestern in '96 and '97 before crushing the Wildcats 44-10 on Sept. 12.
The Wildcats get an opponent's A game these days, which was not the case prior to '95. "Northwestern has elevated itself in our minds," says Wisconsin senior linebacker Bob Adamov, who lost twice to the Wildcats and has now beaten them twice. "There's always been 'Michigan week' or 'Ohio State week,' in practice. The last couple of years there's been a 'Northwestern week,' too. Nobody looks past them anymore."
A miracle turnaround, it seems, leaves baggage, and the next step—consistency—will be more difficult for Northwestern to attain. Alumni and fans are spoiled. "Expectations are higher," says Bienen. "We all enjoy winning more than losing."
Barnett likes to say he doesn't yearn for the good old days, but that's hard to believe. After last Saturday's loss Iowa fans wearing foam-rubber corn heads screamed, "Go home, Gary!" Meanwhile, up in a corner of Kinnick Stadium veterans from North-western's '95 and '96 teams sat and applauded as the Wildcats trudged off the field.
Among the players walking off was Gardner, who had made 19 tackles in a spectacular individual performance. Spent and frustrated, Gardner shook his head and looked down at the turf. "Just like this, man, every week," he said. "Just like this." Sometimes two or three years can seem like a very long time ago.