It was midnight on the eve of the 82nd Rose Bowl in Pasadena. A lone figure sat in the partially lit stands gazing out at the fabled field in the near darkness.
Gary Barnett was fulfilling a personal wish to visit the stadium the night before the 1996 Rose Bowl game. Alone with his thoughts, the Northwestern coach couldn’t help but smile at seeing the purple-painted end zone that saluted his Cinderella Wildcats. “We’re taking the Purple to Pasadena,” he had boldly predicted four years earlier, when he first stepped onto the Evanston, Ill., campus. Few believed him then. Now, incredibly, Northwestern had burst from the constraints of a dead-and-buried program and shocked the world of college football. Twenty-four eternally long seasons had come and gone since the Wildcats’ last winning season. It had been 47 years since the school’s last bowl appearance, when halfback Frank Aschenbrenner was the hero in the 1949 Rose Bowl win over California; 59 autumns had intervened since Northwestern had last captured a Big Ten championship. But all that changed when the Wildcats went 10–1 through the 1995 regular season, stunning such perennial powers as Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State to claim the Big Ten title and the automatic Rose Bowl invitation that went with it.
“We were the school that wasn’t supposed to be able to do it,” says Barnett, now 66. “We took a lot of pride in that.”
It was easy to remember when there was little pride in the Purple. A deep-seated pigskin pall had fallen over the Northwestern student body in the preceding decades that had hardened into a shell of apathetic disinterest.
“We had given them really no reason to expect winning,” says Chris Martin, an All-Big Ten cornerback on that Rose Bowl team. “On most Saturdays, the library was more crowded than our football stadium.” Barnett, he said, had taken over “a moribund program.”
Far from being embraced, football was viewed as a scourge on campus. “We were a necessary evil, I suppose,” remembers Darnell Autry, a sophomore star that year, whose 1,785 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns brought him All-America recognition and a fourth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting.
“And the professors there … you didn’t want to go in and tout that you were a football player,” recalls Mike McGrew, a fullback and ’96 co-captain.
Beating the odds
The season started with a shocking 17–15 victory over Notre Dame atSouth Bend. “We were 29-point underdogs,” remembers quarterback Steve Schnur. “There was a big third-down conversion we threw a pass on. Barnett let me call my own play and that was telling.”
Indeed, that belief in his quarterback and the game’s eventual outcome told a nation that Barnett, improbably, could field a team of winners at an elite academic institution. In the first year of full recruiting following his initial 1992 campaign at Northwestern, Barnett ran smack into the reality of what he was up against: Ninety-five percent of kids playing Division I football were athletes he could not recruit. Strict Northwestern standards demanded that players maintain a 3.0 GPA and score well over 1,000 on their SATs.
“We had Hines Ward and a bunch of guys we were recruiting,” recalls Barnett. “We took 100 applications over to the admissions office and they only let us have 10 of those in school.”
The Wildcats coach nearly made a fateful mistake. “We almost said, ‘Well, there you go. That’s why we can’t win here. We can’t get kids in school.’ But instead we said, ‘Okay, we now know what that profile looks like, so let’s not worry about those other 90. Let’s just make sure that the rest of the guys we recruit look like the profiles of these 10.’”
That meant Barnett and his staff would have to scour the country for their talent. The athletes they signed were not being courted by the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan, but rather second-tier football programs like Tulane, Iowa State, Boston College, Syracuse, and Cincinnati. Still, to come to this center of football inertia, Barnett had to attract them in some way.
“We sold the city. We sold Michael Jordan. And we sold Mike Ditka,” says Barnett, laughing. “We just tried to make a city school into something attractive and looked at it from a different perspective than how it had been conventionally looked at.”
Some players came for a chance to play in the Big Ten; some came for the challenge of playing at a school like Northwestern. “Of course, we probably got a kid or two because of the academics, but for the most part it was just something within our program that we found a way to use to attract.”
That something, for many of the recruits, was the coaches. “We had Gary Barnett,” says Autry simply. “He had a different vision for what he saw in this program. He changed the culture in terms of how we thought about ourselves and how we thought about the program.”
Still, after all the players were assembled, something made that team of good-but-not-great athletes very special. “Great chemistry,” says Schnur, in a response echoed by McGrew and others. “Chemistry and teamwork can take you further than a collection of individual talents. That’s what signified that team. We got as high as third in the country and felt like we could compete with and beat anyone. It was just a bunch of guys who believed in each other. We were willing to outwork anybody.”
That philosophy has carried over into the adult lives of those ’95 Wildcats, who are now between 35 and 37 years of age and have displayed resounding success in their respective career fields (see below). Though 10 players eventually went into the NFL, only one (Barry Gardner) played more than four years. But all, regardless of profession, find parallels today with their Northwestern football experience.
“The ability to inspire and motivate people, to tap into things that resonate with them, to get the most out of your folks to help cultivate an atmosphere that helps get people working together and focused on a common goal, those are all things I went through as part of that team at Northwestern,” says McGrew, now with W.W. Grainger, a Fortune 500 company. “It prepared me in helping our people achieve their goals and objectives.”
For McGrew and the other ’95 Wildcats, a Northwestern diploma has been a degree of difference.
“When I look back on our team, the one thing that strikes me is that most of the guys are successful, whether they’re teachers or CEOs or presidents of companies,” notes Justin Chabot, an offensive lineman in ’95. “Northwestern offers a national degree. And it translates everywhere you go.”
Pat Fitzgerald, heading into his seventh season as head coach of the Wildcats, sees instances everywhere of the positive influences from his playing days at Northwestern. “We’re all incredibly successful professionally now not just because of what we experienced on the field but because of what we experienced together as a group and how we were able to earn our degrees at such a great school,” says the former two-time consensus All-America linebacker, a defensive mainstay on the ’95 team. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in recruiting, but I can say wholeheartedly everything that Coach Barnett and his staff sold us on has come true.”
“Expect victory,” Gary Barnett once preached. To a man, his 1995 Northwestern Wildcats still do.
The 1995 Wildcats: Where They Are Now
Darnell Autry, running back - Online radio show host, “Outside the Spotlight,” on VoiceAmerica
Gary Barnett, head coach - Broadcast analyst, Sports USA Radio Network
D’Wayne Bates, wide receiver - Football defensive assistant/special teams coordinator, Evanston (Ill.) Township High School
William Bennett, defensive back - Branch manager, Scottsdale, Ariz., Kelly Services, a global workforce staffing company
Paul Burton, punter - General assignment reporter, WBZ-TV News, the CBS affiliate in Boston
Justin Chabot, offensive lineman - College scout, Southeast area, San Francisco 49ers
Darren Drexler, tight end - Vice president of operations, Courtesy Products, St. Louis, Mo., a provider of operating supplies to hotels and motels in the United States and Canada
Pat Fitzgerald, linebacker - Head football coach, Northwestern University
Rob Johnson, center - Sales manager and overseer of purchasing, operations, and marketing for Illco, Inc., a Countryside, Ill.-based privately held wholesale distributor of refrigeration, air conditioning, plumbing, pvc, and hydronic supplies
Brian Kardos, tackle - Security and assurance manager, BP, Houston
Keith Lozowski, defensive end - Regional director, Bankers Life and Casualty Co., Jacksonville, Fla., an insurance needs provider for the retirement market
Chris Martin, defensive back - Football analyst, Big Ten Network
Mike McGrew, fullback - Director of communications for W.W. Grainger, the largest supplier of industrial supplies and maintenance equipment for businesses and institutions in North America
Tucker Morrison, linebacker - Chief operating officer, Flightstar Aircraft Services, Inc., a heavy aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul provider in Jacksonville, Fla.
Brian Musso, wide receiver - Co-founder and managing partner, Promus Capital LLC, a family wealth management and alternative investment group in Chicago
Ryan Padgett, guard - Seattle-area emergency room doctor
Steve Schnur, quarterback - Senior vice president, Chicago operations, Duke Realty, a public real estate investment trust
Sam Valenzisi, kicker - Director, Lincoln International LLC, Chicago, specializing in merger and acquisitions advisory services
Jason Wendland, tackle - Senior futures and options broker, JP Morgan Chase, New York City
This story appeared in Athlon's 2012 Big Ten Preview Annual.
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