By Dr. Greg Shepard
Published: Summer 1996
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 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 deep 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 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 or two tings: Either the 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 Northwesterns’ academic reputation and location into a positive.
Northwestern is small (enrollment 7,4000) 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 Winn ingest 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 a 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 ‘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 a 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 al 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. Not well, but 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 ½ 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