Amid the many museum-quality paintings that decorate the walls of Northwestern president Henry Bienen's office is a small collage of pictures and press clippings from the school's remarkable 1995 football season. The collage stands out like a jockstrap would at Brooks Brothers, yet it holds far more memories for Bienen than any of the canvases. At the center is a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover depicting Wildcats tailback Darnell Autry slashing through the Penn State defense in a 21-10 victory that certified Northwestern as something more than the fluke of the month and paved the way to the Rose Bowl. "It's possible to win games and do it your own way, that's what people said about us," says Bienen, alluding to the rare mix of academic excellence and athletic success. "The season was so sensational."
It was like no other in recent history. In this age of fewer scholarships and growing parity in college football, upstart schools seem to pop up every weekend. But no team in the modern era rose as abruptly from punch line to powerhouse as Northwestern did. The Wildcats, who hadn't had a winning season in 24 years, hadn't played in a bowl game in 47 and who had served as an automatic W for every team in the Big Ten, won 10 regular-season games and the conference title in '95 before losing to USC in the Rose Bowl.
The Wildcats made academic integrity an asset instead of a curse and flushed a generation of famous alumni into the open, led, naturally, by Charlton Heston. Opponents and other observers stood slack-jawed. "I saw them keep winning, and I just said, 'Wow.' I couldn't believe it was happening," says Wisconsin senior fullback Cecil Martin, who grew up in Evanston, Ill. It happened again in '96, when the Wildcats went 9-3, shared the Big Ten championship and played in the Citrus Bowl.
Now on this warm October afternoon Bienen is asked whether there soon will be another football keepsake crowding his artwork. Bienen smiles wanly and answers, "Not this year."
This season is the miracle in reverse. In '95 and '96 starters stayed healthy, and Northwestern won close games. Now, after clawing their way through a 5-7 year in which they lost three games by a total of eight points, the Wildcats are young, banged-up and unlucky. Take last Saturday in Iowa City, for instance, when they dropped to 2-4 (0-3 in the Big Ten) with a 26-24 loss to Iowa. Northwestern was stung by a fourth-quarter safety on an intentional-grounding call in the end zone. (The Wildcats say quarterback Gavin Hoffman's intended receiver was impeded by an official, which explains why Hoffman's pass might have looked like a throwaway.) Iowa eventually scored the deciding points when quarterback Randy Reiners escaped a sure sack and, on the run, fired a 49-yard rope for a touchdown, getting knocked cold in the process. Those were the types of plays that Northwestern, almost hauntingly, benefited from in '95 and '96. "For two years Northwestern never, ever, ever beat itself, never made mistakes," said Iowa All-America senior defensive tackle Jared DeVries after last Saturday's game. "They always made their own breaks."
That was the past. This year the Wildcats have beaten only UNLV and Rice, which are 1-10 combined. With games remaining against Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Penn State and Hawaii, Northwestern is looking at a potential 0-for-Big Ten and 3-9 season. Even the possibility of such ugly numbers screams the question: Is Northwestern headed back to the cellar, or is this season a blip? "I won't accept mediocrity," says coach Gary Barnett. "We're in a valley right now, but we're going to be something special again."
There are several factors at work in the Wildcats' struggle. Not in dispute is the talent level. Barnett's recruiting class of February 1996 was good, and his class of '97 was outstanding. "No question, there's more physical ability around here than when I came in," says senior linebacker Barry Gardner.
Yet talent guarantees nothing, or Ohio State would have three consecutive national titles at this moment. In '95 Northwestern had something else as well. "That team," says Barnett, "was just sick of losing, so it overachieved like crazy. It accelerated the process." Northwestern's current young players are a different breed from those who first bought into Barnett's promises. They were recruited by strong programs, and they also practice in sparkling new facilities (indoor field, new locker rooms, weight room soon to be built), into which the school has poured $35 million—in large part from alumni donations that came rolling in on the heels of the Rose Bowl season. These players have no knowledge of the hunger that drove the '95 and '96 teams. "I had never even heard of Northwestern—good or bad—until they played in the Rose Bowl," says sophomore strong safety Mycal Jones.
The result is a softer team. "There's a sense of entitlement about the younger guys," says Sam Valenzisi, the spunky place-kicker who co-captained the '95 squad and who now works for a Chicago brokerage and as a statistician on Northwestern radio broadcasts. Older players accustomed to ratty old locker rooms were stunned when the underclassmen would discard used tape on the floor of the new digs. The veterans would scoop up the trash and put it in a can. "Fact is, there's still work to be done by these young guys, and that might mean some adversity," says fifth-year senior wideout D'Wayne Bates, the best player on the team. "We got [our rebuilding] off to a fast start, but building a tradition is a slow process."
Hampering that process has been damaging innuendo and tragedy, as if the sweet serendipity of autumns past had to be paid for.