Dr. Shepard's Note: I followed Northwestern's odyssey with great interest. I was so impressed with how physical they looked and played that I just had to call Strength Coach Larry Lilja. From what I saw on TV, I was pretty sure they did a mainstream type of program. When I got there, I was impressed. The players were excited and intense. They were anxious to learn and get better. And, yes, the Wildcats do a mainstream type program. Players were also analyzing their speed on video. After the photo sessions and interview, Coach Lilja winked and said, "Keep up the good work. . .spreading the secret!"
The college football story of the decade, perhaps the century, started during the halftime of a men's basketball game in January of 1992. Gary Barnett, unheralded and little known, was introduced to the Northwestern student body as the new head football coach. Coach Barnett closed his remarks and drew his biggest applause when he boldly prophesied, "we're taking the Purple to Pasadena."
To realize just how bold a prophesy that was, one must know the ugly history of Northwestern football. And boy is it ugly. They had not won a Big Ten title in 59 years. They once had a rushing leader with 162 yards for the season. Northwestern won only 18 games in the 1980's. From 1984 to 1994, Northwestern placed only seven football players on the All-Big Ten first team but 55 players on the academic All-Big Ten Team. Then, there was the streak which saw the Wildcats create history by losing 34 straight games, a Division I-A record which still stands today. The streak ended in 1982 when they beat Northern Illinois.
But wait. It gets worse. When the Wildcats broke the losing record, the students tore down the goal posts and chanted, "We're the worst! We're the worst!" That became kind of a tradition. On those rare days of victory, they would tear down the goal posts and carry them into Lake Michigan. The students had more fun trying to throw marshmallows into the band's tubas than watching the team try to play football.
There was talk from time to time about dropping out of the Big Ten because it was impossible to achieve an Ivy League education and be successful in Big Ten football. Slogans were born like, "We're smart, we don't have to win" and "You may beat us today, but you'll work for us tomorrow." The San Francisco Examiner explained this attitude, "Oh, I'm sorry, we were busy producing Nobel Prize winners. Were we supposed to beat Purdue last Saturday, too?"
Coach Barnett's plan was to get rid of all negatives and create a winning atmosphere. He learned much from his eight years as an assistant at the University of Colorado under Bill Mccartney. "What I learned from Mac," said Barnett, "is that you have to just keep looking straight ahead. I didn't understand it then, but I do now. The scenery may be nice or ugly on either side, but you can't look. All that matters is what's in front of you."
With that philosophy, Coach Barnett signed his autographs with his name and "Expect Victory". He's got a small rock on his desk with the word "BELIEVE" inscribed on it. On a table there is a glass encased Rose Bowl ticket. It's from 1949 when Northwestern played California. Coach Barnett has kept it in his office to help people believe that his dream was possible.
Barnett added black to the school colors of purple and white because he thought kids would dig it. One of his prized recruits was so impressed with the colors mixing together that he came first for academics but second for the uniforms. Barnett actually had marshmallows banned from the stadium and had goal posts installed that could not be uprooted. "I felt like I walked into a sleeping sloth of a program," stated Barnett. "It needed awakening. We had to come in and light a fire."
Barnett promised to be a relentless recruiter. Quarterback Steve Schnur said, "Its hard to talk to Coach Barnett about Northwestern football without coming away thinking one of two things: Either the guy is completely crazy, or he's pretty dang determined. I chose #2: That's why I'm here."
Coach Barnett believes continuity is the key. He got the pay scale up to Big Ten standards for his assistants and the result has been hardly any turnover for his four year coaching reign. He turned Northwestern's academic reputation and location into a positive.
Northwestern is a small (enrollment 7,400) private school and academically awesome. The average SAT score over the last four years has been 1,250. I mean, they actually beat Harvard the last two years, making Northwestern the winningest school in history...when it comes to the National Debate Tournament.
Northwestern was founded in 1851 and now has students from all fifty states and more than 50 foreign countries. The campus lies on Lake Michigan and is less than 35 minutes by elevated train from Chicago. They have CEO alumni galore, giants like Charlton Heston, in the entertainment industry as alums and their medical, math and science departments are replete with achievements which have had world-wide impact.
Coach Barnett remembered those first recruiting days, "When I got here there were only three players who had been offered another Division I Scholarship." It was difficult because many recruits would say, "I just came by as a courtesy." The physical conditioning was going to have to play a big part. Athletic facilities on campus were improved including a 5,000 square foot weight room, a 125 seat auditorium for team gatherings and film viewing, two spacious meeting areas and new offices for all the football coaches.
Coach Barnett made an important decision, "We're just going to 'grow a team'". Meaning no quick fixes but a development program to eventually play fourth and fifth year players instead of freshmen.
The results were players like fifth year senior center, Rob Johnson, who gained 61 pounds in five years. The Northwestern offensive line in 1992 averaged 264 pounds while last season they averaged 287 pounds. Rob reflected, "I'd spend 20 to 25 hours a week in the weight room and eat until I was sick."
It is interesting to note that Northwestern has not been able to recruit any Parade High School All-Americans. Michigan got 10, Penn State 7 and Michigan State signed 6 players. Their #1 strength and conditioning goal is to prevent injuries while Northwestern had to grow and develop their players to compete.
Coach Barnett explained, "When I got here, I saw how these kids got barraged by negative stuff. That's why we started taking these kids to Kenosha before the season. We could plant the seeds that we wanted planted, fertilize and bring it along before they had to come back on campus."
The first year of Barnett's grand experiment produced an unmiraculous 3-8 season. The next season saw the Wildcats slip to a two win season then up to a 3-7-1 effort in 1994. However, the scores were closer and there were victories over Boston College and Air Force. The Wildcats also recorded back-to-back road wins over Minnesota and Indiana.
As the miracle season approached, Coach Barnett pondered about how to take his team to the next level. "Your kids have to believe in the vision," he preached, "so it's all one heartbeat coming at 'em." A new slogan was embraced: Belief Without Evidence. The 11-day pre-season training camp was again held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha where Steve Musseau, a 72 year old self-esteem expert, had them sing along with a Frank Sinatra recording.
You may well ask if Musseau's elevator went all the way to the top. How can young, smart football players relate to a corny song like "High Hopes"? Well, as you can imagine, Barnett squirmed as his troops were polite but reluctant. Musseau persisted.
Life, like football, is full of surprises. You just never know. Musseau finally won them over and they sang old blue eyes' song all together, real loud. Barnett was convinced, so the Wildcats sang "High Hopes" before and after every Thursday practice. Maybe not so strange. This was the same group who after winter workouts would chant, "Rose Bowl . . Rose Bowl . ."
If they believed, no one else did. Las Vegas posted the odds at 200-1 against Northwestern winning the 1995 Big Ten Championship. They opened at Notre Dame as a 27 1/2 point underdog. After all, they hadn't beaten the Irish since 1962 and the last three years Notre Dame had outscored the Wildcats 111-34. The smart money was on Lou Holtz's troops as the press talked about a Notre Dame National Championship.
But they didn't know about "High Hopes". They didn't know Coach Barnett told his freshmen four years ago they would beat Notre Dame as seniors. The Wildcats believed without much evidence at all. Sam Valenzisi, their Lou Groza Award finalist stated, "We trusted ourselves to go jaw-to-jaw with Notre Dame. We knew we could play with them."
To top it all off, Barnett had one more mental trump card up his sleeve. Just before the game, he told his team in all seriousness, "Don't carry me across the field when we win." He had actually planned the outcome in his head. Barnett just wanted his players to act like this was supposed to happen. No big deal. Wait until bigger wins before you carry him off.
Towards the end of the game, Notre Dame goes for it on a 4th and two situation. Irish tailback Randy Kinder blasted into the line. He was stopped cold. Matt Rice, defensive tackle and National Honor Society member, was part of that defensive stand. Rice gushed, "The whole defense was playing with its hair on fire."
Rob Johnson remembered, "Notre Dame was an incredible high because nobody gave us a chance. That game proved something to us; it was an awakening." After the game, Lou Holtz was asked to explain Notre Dame's defeat. The normally glib Holtz could only shake his head, "I really have no idea." If somebody would have told him it was because the Wildcats sang "High Hopes", Holtz would have shot the guy on the spot.
The next game made things even worse in South Bend. Northwestern lost to Miami of Ohio which proved to the press that the Wildcat victory was indeed a miracle. They would not be favored again for a long time. The Wildcats came back with decisive wins over Air Force and Indiana. However, the next game was against Michigan at their place in front of 104,642 fans.
Barnett went mental again, by telling his players not to dump Gatorade on his head. "Act like you've been there before." When the dust had settled, the Wildcats had their first victory in Ann Arbor since 1959 and with a 2-0 Big Ten and 4-1 overall record, there was actually talk about a bowl berth. Northwestern had 47 years worth of alums who had never been to any bowl game. You had to go back to their one and only bowl appearance which was in 1949. Kicker Sam Valenzisi was convinced after beating the Wolverines, "I truly believe that we can beat anybody - everybody - on the rest of our schedule."
They just kept on wining as underdogs. Minnesota 27-17, Wisconsin 35-0, Illinois 17-14, Penn State 21-10, Iowa 31-20 and finally they were favored to beat Purdue which they did by a 23-8 score. They finished with a 10-1 overall record and a 8-0 Big Ten record. Ohio State lost to Michigan in their season finale and that paved the way for the prophesy to come true. The Northwestern Wildcats were headed for the Grand Daddy of all bowls. Everything was coming up roses. The Purple were going to Pasadena.
The Wildcats were ranked third in the nation before the bowl games just behind Florida and Nebraska. Coach Barnett won almost every Coach of the Year Award. Six All-Big Ten players from Northwestern garnered first team honors: guard Ryan Padgett, center Rob Johnson, injured kicker Sam Valenzisi, injured linebacker Pat Fitzgerald and running back and 1996 Heisman Trophy Candidate Darnell Autry, who rushed for a school record 1,675 yards and 14 touchdowns. Four more players made second team and another four were honorable mention.
The Wildcats were #1 in the nation in scoring defense (12.7 points per game), #3 nationally in turnover margin, #9 nationally in punt returns thanks to Brian Musso and #11 nationally in pass defense. The offense turned the ball over a school-record low of 12 times. Nine of 11 starters return on offense and 8 of 11 on defense. That, perhaps, takes some of the sting out of losing to Southern Cal in a close Rose Bowl game.
The players are really into strength and conditioning. Brian Musso praised, "Coach Lilja is really into his job. He is always finding new ways to help us." The football coaches have testified, "Coach Lilja is the best we've seen."
Coach Barnett has special feelings for his players, "This was a special group of guys. They are first class leaders." Betsy Mosher, NU's Associate Athletic Director in charge of NCAA compliance is proud that they have never sent investigators to Northwestern. The victories have had other amazing effects. Applications for admissions are up 23 percent.
The Wildcat players believe in Coach Barnett with a passion. Pat Fitzgerald was asked at interviews about why they were winning. He would reply, "Coach Barnett." Then, they would say, "Is that all?" Fitzgerald shot back, "Coach Barnett. That's enough. He made us believe we could do it." And they'd ask again if that was all. Fitzgerald shrugged impatiently and just shook his head, "Yeah, that's all."
"If he told me I could run through a brick wall," commented now grad student Sam Valenzisi, "I'd believe him, I'd try it and I'd probably do it." You just gotta believe without evidence and expect victory.
Letter from Coach Lilja:
How could A Divison I-A team that didn't have any high school All-Americans, and was never ranked in the top 20 for recruiting go undefeated in the BIG TEN? One of the biggest reasons was their dedication to the off-season strength and conditioning program.
Coach Barnett's first order of business when he took the job at Northwestern was to bring in athletes who were willing to pay the price for success. Attitude is everything. Our athletes were willing to "go the extra mile" to develop the size, strength and speed necessary to win a BIG TEN title.
Our strength program is based on free weight exercises. The Bench Press, Incline Press, Military Press, Squats and Power Cleans are the core of our program. It was the physical development we achieved through the use of free weight exercises and especially Squats and Power Cleans that enabled us to excel at every position.
Improving our team speed was also critical to our success. Our athletes performed plyometric, form running, overspeed, flexibility and conditioning programs three times a week during the off-season. We've experienced dramatic improvement in quickness and speed from these programs. Our athletes realize that developing all areas of conditioning are important to success. You can be the strongest guy in the league, but it's meaningless unless you can move!
Once again, one of the biggest reasons for our success was our athletes attitude toward off-season strength and conditioning.
THEY HAD THE WILL TO WIN!
Larry Lilja, Strength & Conditioning Coach,
Larry has been the Strength Coach for Northwestern University since 1981. He received his Master's Degree from N.E. Illinois University. He was team Captain and a 3-year starter for Northwestern 1973-75.