In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Northwestern football went four straight years without a Big Ten win. Meanwhile, in non-conference play during that time, the Wildcats weren't much better, winning just once. Between 1972 and 1991, Northwestern won four or more games in a season just once. "I mean, even Purdue wins a few games here and there," says longtime Northwestern football radio play-by-play guy Dave Eanet. "That team, back then, they didn't."
But in 1992, Northwestern hired Colorado offensive coordinator Gary Barnett. Barnett immediately began a process of reinvigoration and restructuring. Improvement came gradually, and at times indiscernibly. The Wildcats made big strides in 1994, but finished just 3-7-1.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, there was an explosion that not a soul outside of Evanston saw coming. Twenty years ago, in 1995, Barnett and the Wildcats produced one of the greatest underdog stories that college football — heck, that the entire sporting world — has ever seen.
The following is that story.
1: Beginnings | 2: Marcel | 3: Kenosha | 4: The Mind | 5: Pennies | 6: South Bend
7: Same Old Northwestern | 8: Recovery | 9: Michigan | 10: Revenge
11: Cheating Death | 12: Penn State | 13: Iowa | 14: Champions | 15: Roses
16: City of Angels | 17: The Rose Bowl | 18: Reflections
(Notes: Identifiers reflect the titles that interviewees held in 1995, not the present day, unless noted. The following story contains explicit language.)
Chapter 1: Beginnings
Brian Kardos (Junior offensive tackle): It was early January, and we had just gotten back to school. We got our first workouts of the winter lifting period. Everybody's gotta hit the weight room, get weighed in, you couldn't just come early and leave.
Rob Johnson (Senior center): I called a meeting. We had just finished up the previous year, and there was a lot of nonsense with the gambling scandal going on.
Former running back Dennis Lundy and three other players were accused of throwing games, and later indicted for perjury, after Lundy purposefully fumbled in 1994 against Iowa. Lundy eventually pled guilty.
Brian Musso (Sophomore wide receiver): Barnett's first two recruiting classes bought in pretty hard to turning the place around, but there were a lot of legacy guys stuck in the way of doing things. In '94, there were really two parts to the team. There were the guys that really bought in and a few veteran guys, and then some legacy guys.
Gary Barnett (Head coach): I remember one of our players, Todd Baczek, in 1994, said, "You know what coach, you're gonna be just fine when you get us out of here." And I laughed, and I didn't want him to feel that way, but there was some truth to it.
Brian Kardos: We basically purged any of that blood from the roster. So we got all the guys in this room.
Rob Johnson: Everybody that was in that room from that year moving forward was there for the right reasons. We had very few seniors on that team. We all sat at the front of the stage.
Brian Kardos: And Rob said, for us up on this stage, this is our last shot, some of you younger guys, it might be your only shot. We're gonna do everything that it takes to win a championship. That means coming up here on Saturdays, getting up early, we're gonna work through the summer. Whether you're a freshman or a senior, it's an entire team effort here.
Rob Johnson: We called out the successive classes. [We told the junior] class to stand up. [We told the sophomore] class to stand up. And then the freshmen to stand up. Everybody had to hold each other accountable. That was kind of setting the tone. Hey, we're not missing workouts, there's no goofing around, there's no more of the nonsense.
Brian Kardos: Rob told a story. He went to the Big Ten luncheon, and looked across at guys from Iowa, and Wisconsin, and Michigan, and Michigan State, and all these guys had these big fat bowl rings on their fingers. And he said, "I want to get one of those. This is my last shot at it, and we're gonna throw everything at it."
Ryan Padgett (Senior offensive guard): That meeting was the start of the responsibility of our team to our fellow teammates. It no longer was top-down, here's what the coaches say we should do. There was now an accountability to each other.
Brian Kardos: We're putting this first, and we're asking for sacrifice and dedication from everybody. And if we have a problem, we're not gonna go to the coaches, we're not gonna whine about it... you're done. And everybody was stunned. But you could feel it, like, "Yeah, alright, let's do this."
Rob Johnson: One of my linemates on the offensive line didn't make a workout. He decided he was gonna come up and get training table that night even though he missed his workout. And a bit of a verbal altercation ensued, and myself and other guys on the team said, "Hey look, that's not acceptable. You can't do this." And we literally threw him out of [our team meal] that night.
Ray Robey (Sophomore defensive tackle): I remember some departing players, we were out one night just talking, and they were talking about how sad they were to miss what was about to happen. And we were asking them what they meant by that. And they said, "The way you guys are willing to sacrifice for each other is something we've never seen before." They were quite emotional about it. There were some tears shed.
Ryan Padgett: That summer, you had to answer to me and Rob, and the other guys. If you were gonna go home, why? We were gonna live together, we were gonna work out together.
Matt Rice (Junior defensive tackle): People used to go back home. Now it's unheard of. But in those days, in a lot of places, it wasn't expected that you would stay over the summer and work.
Brian Musso: My freshman year, we had 15 guys staying on campus to train together, and everyone else went home. In 1995, all but three guys stayed for the summer.
Paul Janus (Sophomore offensive tackle): It was abnormal if you were not gonna stick around and be pushed by your teammates. You know, there wasn't a huge difference between our ‘94 team and ‘95 team in regards to the athletes we had. Everyone just decided we had had enough losing.
Rob Johnson: And that really set the tone going into that [offseason]. We set records in the weight room. It was a jumping off point for us.
Brian Kardos: I shattered my records. We were doing stuff that we did before, but we were doing it with a drive and intensity that you never saw. We were coming up on Saturdays to lift. We were staying extra. We were bothering the strength coach, "Hey, what else can I do to develop this, I need more explosiveness in my legs, or in my punch." And we just kept driving, and driving, and driving.
Ray Robey: There was more of a commitment to work. It wasn't five guys working, and a bunch of other guys reluctantly following. It was 30 guys working, and everybody else falling in line.
Brian Kardos: We had something called the Viking Feast. It was near the end of winter quarter, like late February.
Rob Johnson: Larry Lilja, our strength and conditioning coach, would have these very visceral lifting evenings.
Ryan Padgett: Larry Lilja was this classic weight coach. He's a Northwestern grad, he had like an econ degree, this is not just a gym rat sorta guy. But he just was passionate about building the body.
Brian Kardos: You did crazy lifts. One guy did 100 squats. And only about a handful of guys would go. But that Rose Bowl year, my god, we had like 50 or 60 guys lifting. We had guys who were never in the weight room, like wide receivers and quarterbacks, the backups, freshmen. I mean, we packed the damn gym.
Ryan Padgett: Literally you'd do an hour of lifting on an individual part. You'd do an hour of chest, you'd do an hour of back, you'd do an hour of legs... I think we ended up doing five or six hours, an hour of biceps, and hour of triceps, it was just absurd.
Jason Wendland (Junior offensive tackle): At some point, Larry Lilja would come out with a phone book, and he'd rip it in half and everybody would go crazy. We had Schwarzenegger movies going on the three or four TVs throughout the weight room.
Brian Kardos: You lifted all the way through the night, and then at 2 in the morning, we got a huge grill — I mean, 10 feet long — and doused it with lighter fluid, lighting it up, and there was this big tall flame over by Nicolet — the administration probably wouldn't be happy about that — and we feasted.
Jason Wendland: They were insane. And they were fun as hell.
Brian Kardos: In the summer, we would run up a huge landfill. They called it Mount Trashmore. The summer of ‘95, the heat killed like a thousand people in Chicago. And we were out working out in it.
Jason Wendland: It's an 100- or 150-yard sprint on a 45- or 50-degree incline. And at the top, Larry Lilja's got a sign that says "Rose Bowl." And they filmed it, and sent it out to the few guys that didn't stay. But I couldn't even name someone who didn't stay to be honest.
Brian Kardos: We got like 70 guys, and we're running up and down the hill. And I've run half marathons [later in life] with my wife, I've done some things that have made me exhausted, but never in my life was I more exhausted than after that workout. We had guys that were struggling, other guys came and picked them up and helped them up by the shoulders.
Steve Schnur (Junior quarterback): There were guys falling down all over the place.
Brian Kardos: We reached the top of the hill, and we're like, damn, we do have something special here.
However, the offseason also saw two major questions arise — questions which, if they remained unanswered, could have nipped a successful season in the bud. The first pertained to rising sophomore running back Darnell Autry.
Darnell Autry (Sophomore running back): My whole freshman year, I struggled mightily. I was really homesick, and I wasn't playing as much as I wanted to. Christmas break comes, and I basically told the coaches, "Listen, I'm done. I'm transferring." So I just packed my stuff up, avoided all calls, and came home.
Gary Barnett: His dad called and said, "Darnell wants a release." And I said, "Well I'm not gonna give him one." And back then, athletic directors would back coaches and not give him a release. And at the time, the way the NCAA rules read, if he leaves here now without a release, he's gonna be ineligible for two years.
Darnell Autry: Barnett and the running back coach fly down to Arizona. Basically they come in and we talk about it, and they say, "Give us the year, if you still don't like it in a year, then we'll release you from your scholarship."
Gary Barnett: So he came back, stayed through spring football, we never had any issues, never heard a word. We finished spring football, and guys were out recruiting, and I was playing golf, and one of my assistants comes on the golf course and said, "Darnell's taken his television and everything out of his apartment, and he's going home. And he wants a release."
Darnell Autry: I packed up all my stuff again, but this time, my dad was like, "Well you told him you'd give him the year." I said, "Well I gave him the end of the [school] year." And he said, "No, that's not how that works... If you're not gonna go back to Northwestern, then you can't live in this house."
Gary Barnett: This time, his dad calls me and says, "Don't give him a release."
Darnell Autry: So begrudgingly, I decided to come back.
So Northwestern had a running back. The second question: did Northwestern have a quarterback? And as the saying goes, if you have two quarterbacks (or more), you don't have one. So heading into preseason camp, Northwestern didn't have a quarterback.
Gary Barnett: We had recruited a kid — Lloyd Abramson — out of Detroit who was the No. 2 ranked quarterback in the country. He was there in the spring, and he had a pretty good spring, talented, so we felt like he was the guy who would lead us. We had made him the starter. [Chris] Hamdorf and Schnur fought it out for No. 2 and 3.
Steve Schnur: Coming out of spring practice, I was probably third [on the depth chart]. I didn't play that well in the spring, so they were switching some things around.
Gary Barnett: Steve was mad at me. I don't blame him.
Steve Schnur: I actually broke my foot in the spring game as well as being demoted, so it was a tough summer.
Gary Barnett: All of the sudden, during the summer, we're hearing all sorts of reports that Lloyd has got into goth music, and was dressing in black, and chains. We had him a job at the Board of Trade, and he wasn't showing up for workouts, and he was going to the Board of Trade dressing in all black clothing. Lloyd wouldn't return phone calls... and he doesn't show up for fall practice; he's not even there, not even on the team.
Ryan Padgett: We started to realize that Steve was gonna be our guy. We had a two-headed quarterback issue the year before with Steve and Tim Hughes.
Greg Meyer (Offensive coordinator): The last scrimmage that we had, Steve Schnur proved to be the guy that we wanted to play that first game.
Steve Schnur: [Coach Barnett] told me the week that we were playing Notre Dame.
Chapter 2: Marcel
Chris Martin (Senior cornerback): [Defensive back] Marcel Price lived with me that summer. It was me and Chris Rooney, my roommate, and then we had two guys come live with us, they didn't really have anywhere to go. One was Barry Gardner. The other was Marcel Price. We had a great summer. We bonded, we hung out.
William Bennett (Senior safety): He made people laugh. He was the life of the party. He had a lot of fun. And he also brought that to the table on the field.
Chris Martin: Very rarely do you get a freshman who's gonna come in and be a chirper, who's gonna be boisterous and loud. Usually freshmen are more reserved. But he came in with a big mouth, but with big play. He played the game with a fierceness, a ferocity that we just didn't have.
Don Holmes (Sophomore linebacker): One particular week, he wanted to go home and see his mom.
Gary Barnett: I had tried to discourage him from going back to Nashville. [Defensive backs coach] Jerry Brown and I didn't want him to go home.
Jerry Brown (Defensive backs coach): But if he wants to go home, that's where his mind is gonna be at anyway. I wasn't adamant about him not going.
Chris Martin: I'll never forget, it was basically a week prior to us going to training camp. And I was talking to Marcel, and he was like, "Hey, I'm about to go back home, I'm going to Nashville, just to hang out for a little bit, see family, and then I'll come back for training camp." And I'll never forget, as he's walking out the door to go back, I said, "Marcel, do you really need to go home? It's a week before training camp. We're about to get started, why don't you stay here?" And in the southern drawl, he says, "C, I gotta go man, I gotta go."
Don Holmes: Unfortunately, he never made it back.
Chris Martin: I was working at a company called Champion Technology, and I got a call from Barry Gardner, and he was in tears. He was bawling. I just remember him yelling in the phone, "C! C! Marcel is gone! Marcel is gone! Marcel is dead." And I could barely even make it out, because he was in such tears.
Jerry Brown: We called a meeting, and coach Barnett talked to the players and told them what had happened.
Gary Barnett: And we loaded up two planes and flew down there in a thunderstorm to the funeral. And we almost crashed going down there.
Chris Martin: We had heavy turbulence, we didn't know if we were gonna make it down there. The plane was all over the place.
Somewhere between 10-20 players accompanied Barnett and Brown (who had recruited Price) to the funeral.
Jerry Brown: I had to speak at the services, and I don't mind doing it, but it's hard. It's really hard.
Don Holmes: We actually saw the young man that killed him. It was a friend, it was an accidental shooting.
Chris Martin: I remember seeing his parents. And just knowing the backstory, it was his best friend that had been like a brother to him, that had lived in his house, that was so close to his mom and dad, that was actually the one who shot and killed him. How painful that must be.
Brian Kardos: His roommates were like, "We gotta clean out his room." And 10 guys from the team came over and said, "We're gonna help you out. We're not gonna leave you alone."
Paul Burton (Junior punter): His passing was so unexpected, so tragic, so fast. It was extremely painful. And we kind of dedicated the season to him.
Don Holmes: We talked about it. We grieved about it. After the funeral, we kind of made a pact, we played that season for Big Six (Price wore No. 6). We had a patch on our jerseys. It actually provided a little bit of motivation for us. We played that season with Marcel in mind.
Chapter 3: Kenosha
When Gary Barnett arrived at Northwestern in 1992, he knew a lot of things would have to change. One tradition he introduced was an annual mid-August training camp in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Gary Barnett: The first year, pulling up in the buses, they all thought I was taking ‘em up there to kill ‘em. It was total silence. We took three or four buses, and I don't think there was a word said all the way up. Their eyes were rolling back in their heads, and they named it "Kenowhere."
Chris Martin: Kenosha's hard, man. It was grueling. It was one of the hardest things I did. I think it kind of weirded people out.
Ray Robey: I remember looking around the locker room — well, the gym that served as a locker room — and you had the flies, and smelling third-practice gear, and saying to myself, "Wow, this is not what I signed up for." It's a little bit of a reality check.
Gary Barnett: You want no distractions. You're here in Evanston, I mean, give me a break. There's a potential distraction every single minute here. There were no distractions up there.
Ryan Padgett: It's 10 days of just drudgery. Those 10 days felt like three weeks. There's like one girl that you see, and she got really pretty by the end.
Sam Valenzisi (Senior kicker): The difficulty of Kenosha is not physical. It's mental. It's a little bit of sensory deprivation. There's no newspaper, there's no television, we didn't bring our video game systems. I brought a book, and I went through it in a couple of days. My choices then were to sleep, or read through it again. So it's immersion.
Matt Rice: It's just grueling. It's designed to make you physically and mentally tougher. The mental aspect in particular. Nothing, and I mean nothing I've ever done in my life is more difficult than a Kenosha training camp.
Gary Barnett: We had three practices a day. They'd get an hour break. So they would come up and stay in their wet, soggy clothes, and an hour later go back down.
Ryan Padgett: Then about 1 o'clock, you go collapse. You literally have to go one body part at a time out of bed, because you're so sore.
Matt Rice: I used to nap every chance I got. Even in between meetings, for 10 minutes, I'd fall asleep.
Ryan Padgett: And then you just walk with your head down back to practice. There wasn't a lot of talking. Those long walks from to the locker room was a lot of looking at the ground.
Matt Rice: It was a great way to build camaraderie. It's almost like fraternities, when they haze people. The more torture you go through, the more physical, mental and emotional abuse you have, you kind of come together, and build that team chemistry.
Darnell Autry: After day two or three, you end up sitting on this chair, you're at your locker, and you're just exhausted. You're mentally exhausted, you're physically exhausted. And you just stare out to nowhere.
Chris Martin: We called it "Kenosha face." It's when you're just so tired, you're just in space for a second by yourself, and you have this long, drawn-out, exhausted-looking type of face. And when we'd catch somebody in that moment, we'd call it Kenosha face, and we'd call it out.
Ray Robey: We'd be taking little side bets on which freshman would get Kenosha face first. It was basically that look of utter despair.
Matt Rice: Chris Leeder, in 1995 — it might've been ‘96, but I think it was ‘95 — he was a freshman, he came in, and all of a sudden he disappeared. Nobody knew where he was. We caught word that he had called a taxi cab to pick him up in Kenosha and drive him all the way back to Rockford, Michigan. It was like a $300 or $400 cab ride. And on one hand, we were ripping on him, like, "Oh, what a coward, what a wimp." And then on the other hand we were like, "Oh, he did it! He got out of here!" A couple days later, I think his dad drove him back, and we ribbed him really good.
Brian Musso: We were about five days in, we had a scrimmage. After the scrimmage, we had a steak and seafood dinner to celebrate getting through the first week. [Linebacker] Tim Scharf comes and sits down next to me with a plate of shrimp piled as high as he could pile it. I looked at him and I was like, "Is shrimp your favorite food?" He says, "Actually, I think I'm allergic to it." And he puts one in his mouth and eats it, and piles through this whole plate of shrimp, and you could see the hives coming up his neck. He walks over to the trainer, Steve Willard, and says "Steve, I think I'm having a reaction." His face was blown up for two, three days because he had to get out, he just couldn't take it anymore. That's how I felt about Kenosha. Tim was just creative enough to get out of it.
Matt Rice: [In a previous year], I was taking the reps for the ones, twos and threes. And I was just getting massacred by Rob Johnson. And I was seeing triple, and totally dehydrated. And the defensive coordinator, Ron Vanderlinden, came up to me and goes, "Matt," and he puts his hand on my shoulder and looks in my eyes, and he says, "Don't worry, you'll pass out before you die." It was meant to be reassuring. I thought, "What a dick."
Brian Kardos: I remember at the end, the last day, I took my pads off, and I took my helmet off, and I took my shoulder pads off, and I stood there on the hill overlooking the practice fields. And I started to cry a little bit. It was over. It was a sad, sobering moment. I think if we weren't that good, then that moment wouldn't have been that special.
Chapter 4: The Mind
Brian Kardos: It was the first day of camp. We haven't gone to Kenosha yet. New freshmen are all there, heads shaved, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and the veterans are in the back laughing, making jokes. Barnett starts his speech about the year. He typically would give us his evaluation of where we were, and the talent we had in front of us. He gets about a minute into his speech, and he stops, and the look on his face would be something like if you opened up your front door and there was a dude with four heads; if an alien came down in front of you. It was something of utter shock.
Gary Barnett: I had coached Steve Musseau's sons. He was sorta like a savant. He was this old guy, he had had four heart attacks, he could hardly walk, he was a diabetic, he had 11 kids. He was physically almost a wreck. He just had this great demeanor about him. He was a former successful head coach. He put our team through a positive self image seminar at Air Academy High School, and when I went to Fort Lewis College, I had Steve come in and talk to our players. Then when I went to University of Colorado, he came in for a day when Bill McCartney was the head coach. So when I got the job at Northwestern, I knew that he would be an asset. I knew Steve was in town [that day] because he was staying with me. I knew he was gonna do something goofy, but I didn't know what he was gonna do, because he never told us. So right in the middle of my opening presentation, he walks in dressed like Moses.
Brian Kardos: We all turned around, and there was Coach Musseau in this long, flowing robe, with almost a Santa Claus white-hair wig, and beard down to his waist, and he's carrying this giant staff. And he says, "Coach! Your people have been lost in the desert for 40 years! And I'm here to lead you out!" And he goes up on the stage.
William Bennett: It was like, what is up with this old man? He comes in and starts playing "High Hopes."
Paul Burton: All of a sudden, we're singing this cheesy Frank Sinatra song, and we didn't understand the gravity of it. We gotta face Notre Dame Week 1, and we're singing Frank Sinatra?
Sam Valenzisi: Is it stupid and corny? Yeah, it's stupid and corny. It absolutely is. But you listen to the words of that song, and now you sing it with 105 other guys every single day, over and over again? Not corny.
Paul Burton: Coach Barnett played it every week for us during the walkthrough. To this day, we can sing it word for word. That's how much it became entrenched in our minds.
Darnell Autry: At the end of the day, the message was about being the small guy and believing in yourself, and believing in each other.
Rob Johnson: Really what Gary and coach Musseau were doing was, we had been losing for so long, and it had become the culture, we had a culture of losing. And what you have to do is train your mind to think, "We're gonna win." You gotta convince yourself in your head that you're gonna win before you can do anything physically.
Chris Martin: He came in and tried to re-wire us, to change our mentality. Losing is contagious just like winning is. We had to re-program every player in that locker room to get him to believe that they were gonna win.
Brian Musso: There were signs up all over the locker room: "Belief without evidence."
Sam Valenzisi: "Belief without evidence" is the definition of faith.
Steve Schnur: "Belief without evidence" was very applicable to us because there was no evidence.
Chris Martin: [Musseau] talked often about the power of the mind, and about belief. He always said, "Winners see what they want, losers see what they don't want."
Keith Lozowski (Sophomore defensive end): Musseau told us to close our eyes and picture nothing. And then he told us not to see a circus elephant.
Matt Rice: And so what do you immediately think of? A circus elephant. If you focus on, "I don't want to fumble," you're gonna fumble. Every time you kick your helmet, or throw your helmet, curse, anything like that, you're reliving the moment. You're imprinting that into your psyche.
Pat Fitzgerald (Junior middle linebacker): [There was] a great quote, "You move towards and you become like what you think about the most." If you think you're really good, you are, and if you think you're really bad, you are. It really goes back to that fundamental philosophy, your actions are gonna reflect your thoughts.
Brian Kardos: [Musseau] was amazing in terms of what he could talk to you about in terms of visualizing, thinking like a champion, behaving like a champion. He was just incredible.
Brian Musso: He talked about the water pump... In a well, you can pump the handle and pump the handle and nothing happens. But if you pump that handle long enough, the water starts to flow.
Brian Kardos: So somebody went to a hardware store and bought an old-fashioned pump.
Casey Dailey (Sophomore defensive end): We planted it in the ground, right as you make your way down to the field at Kenosha. Kinda like Notre Dame slaps the sign, this was a ritual, you'd prime the pump as you walked to practice.
Brian Kardos: Everybody would do something to keep the pump going. When you're down, you're exhausted, you're miserable, you gotta take another crack at the pump.
Casey Dailey: At first, it's like, whatever, I gotta do this stupid thing. But after a while, you see your teammates do it, and you do it, and it really was one of those things that was belief without evidence.
Chapter 5: Pennies
Gary Barnett: We had 19 practices before we played Notre Dame.
Sam Valenzisi: We had all offseason to look forward to playing Notre Dame. We had played them three years in a row, and we had played them tough. Whether from the outside it appears from the scores that we did, we pointed to that game and said, "We can win that game."
Gary Barnett: I took a pharmacy scale. I put 19 pennies on one side, and I put 19 pennies on the other. And I said, "This represents Notre Dame's practice; this represents our opportunities to practice. You take one day off, and you've just lifted one penny off the scale" — and because it's so fragile, it [shifts] automatically. So every day, I left the 19 pennies on one side, and every day that we had a good practice, I'd drop a penny on our side. And it wasn't gonna move until the last penny went on there.
Chris Martin: We had 19 days to win each day before we play Notre Dame. We go out, we have a great practice, we'll put a penny on the scale. And it seems so silly that guys would go all out and give everything they had to try to earn a penny on the scale at the end of practice, but we really did that.
Brian Kardos: At one point in time, we didn't get our penny for the day [on a] Saturday.
Rob Johnson: When coach Barnett saw an effort that he did not deem acceptable, he called us out on it.
Brian Kardos: So [on Sunday] the seniors got together and said, "Everybody get your pads on. Get out on the field at 2 o'clock. We're gonna have a practice." The freshmen couldn't believe it. Most guys were moping about it. And we practiced. And I remember coming back and seeing the coaches watching — because of the rules, they couldn't be there — but they were watching with these giant smiles on their faces as we ran a practice. So we had an extra practice because we missed a penny. We just had two hours of brutality on a Sunday because we wanted a damn penny. That was the crazy motivation of this team.
Gary Barnett: So the day we got to Notre Dame, we had 19 on our side, 19 on their side. Now, that takes a lot of work, because pennies don't all weigh the same, so I had to find 19 pennies that would match up with the same weight as [the other] 19, and I put them in a plastic container, because if you got them mixed up, who knows which way it was gonna go. It was high-maintenance. We got to the field, and we're going through a walkthrough, and [assistant coach] Jeff Genyk found a penny on the runway there at Notre Dame stadium. And he said, "this is our lucky penny." So I had an idea. The next morning, when I met with the team, I had the scale with me. I put their 19 pennies on the scale with our 19, and said, "You remember the Sunday morning practice we had?"
Ryan Padgett: "They chose to take the day off." He had this big smile on his face.
Gary Barnett: "We've had one more practice than Notre Dame."
Ryan Padgett: And he pulled out the penny and put it on the scale and put it out of balance.
Steve Schnur: We had a calm confidence about us, which sounds stupid because we were 28-point underdogs. But we felt like we were a very good football team, and we couldn't wait to go out and prove it.
Stewart Mandel [Northwestern student, current college sports columnist for Fox Sports]: I happened to be watching WGN that week before going to South Bend, and they did a little segment on the Northwestern-Notre Dame game. They interviewed players at practice, and when it came back, the anchors were like, "Oh, they think they're gonna win, that's real cute. No chance."
Brian Musso: My best friend growing up was a walk-on at Notre Dame and I told him, "I think we're gonna beat you guys." And he just laughed at me.
Matt Rice: I remember telling a buddy of mine back home that we were gonna win the game. And I was so convincing to him that he actually bet another friend 50 bucks, straight up, no point spread, that we were gonna win. It was crazy, but I was pretty confident.
Sam Valenzisi: On Friday, we had our walkthrough in the stadium. We're on the field, and we're kind of walking around, and there's no ghosts, the four horsemen aren't here — I had all that stuff kind of going through my head. At some point during the walkthrough, there were a bunch of Notre Dame students who were high up in the stands in the student section, and they started singing the Notre Dame fight song during our practice. I remember hearing that and seeing that and thinking to myself, they have no idea what's about to happen.
Chapter 6: South Bend
Stewart Mandel: One of my friends from my freshman year happened to live in South Bend, so we had planned to go to the game. It'll be awesome, we'll get to see a game at Notre Dame Stadium. We'll go even though we know Northwestern is gonna lose by four touchdowns. And that's fully what I expected to happen when I went there that day. At that time, Northwestern beating Notre Dame would be like Eastern Michigan beating Ohio State today.
Brian Kardos: On Saturday morning, at breakfast you get a copy of the paper. In the South Bend paper, they were analyzing the game. And I'm reading through their analysis — you know, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit — and it gets to the end, and it says the x-factor is intangibles. And it says something like, "Northwestern lost Marcel Price over the summer, so they're dedicating the season to him, and playing for him. But Notre Dame had too many losses last year," or something like that. And so they gave the x-factor advantage to Notre Dame. And I remember reading that, I showed that to [defensive back] Hudhaifa [Ismaeli]. Hudhaifa looked at me, and he says, "Somebody's gonna pay for that today."
Pat Fitzgerald: I remember coach Barnett talking to us in the hotel.
Gary Barnett: I said to them, "When this game is over, and we win this game, do not carry me off the field, I want you to act like you've been here before." That was my way of saying to them, look, I believe as much in you guys as you believe in you guys.
Pat Fitzgerald: He didn't want Gatorade dumped on him, he didn't want to be carried off the field.
Casey Dailey: It was just the way he said it, the confidence with which he said it, it really made sense.
Sam Valenzisi: I remember Rob and Will and I coming down out of the locker room. In addition to the two teams in the tunnel, we got the Notre Dame band. They try to make you feel claustrophobic. In the Notre Dame band, the drum majors wear kilts. And they'd give you the whole Buckingham Palace guard routine. They stare straight ahead. So Rob Johnson lifts up the guy's kilt to see what's under. He lifted it up to take a peek. That's how loose we were. That's the level of confidence we had.
Ron Vanderlinden (Defensive coordinator): Early in the game, we got a fumble, the offense converted it.
Steve Schnur: We drove right down and scored.
Brian Kardos: The first touchdown was very similar to a play we ran in a scrimmage [a week earlier], the deep out to [wide receiver David] Beazley. To see that, and remember exactly how it happened on the practice field, that was awesome.
Steve Schnur: And Beazley goes tumbling into the band. That got us going.
Northwestern held a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. In the second, the teams exchanged field goals, but then Notre Dame running back Robert Farmer scored to seemingly knot the game up at halftime. However, the Fighting Irish missed the extra point. Northwestern carried a 10-9 lead into the third quarter. Schnur then found wide receiver D'Wayne Bates for a 26-yard touchdown to give Northwestern a 17-9 lead going into the fourth.
Ryan Padgett: We were running the ball like crazy. On our inside runs, Darnell was getting 10, 15 yards a shot.
Rob Johnson: We didn't do anything fancy. Darnell had 160 yards rushing.
D'Wayne Bates (Freshman wide receiver): It was a backside post. Notre Dame had been playing press man-to-man throughout the game. Their goal was to stop Darnell Autry, and they put eight in the box. They pretty much dared us to throw the ball. When the play was called, it was one of our big post combinations off of play-action, I saw right away when I lined up, based on the safeties being down, that I had man-to-man coverage. And going back to my quarterback days, I knew how quickly Schnur was gonna have to throw the ball, especially if they blitzed. So my whole job was to get inside position and get separation in like three seconds. And that's something we had done in practice so many times.
With 6:15 remaining, Notre Dame running back Randy Kinder plunged into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown. The Fighting Irish offense stayed on the field for a potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt.
Matt Rice: We were really controlling the line of scrimmage, and a big part of creating disruption is getting the offensive linemen back on their heels. So on that play, we blew back the center and the guard, and one of them stepped on [Notre Dame quarterback Ron] Powlus' foot.
Chris Martin: We felt like we got a little bit of help. We felt like it was Marcel Price getting a hand in there to trip up the quarterback.
Matt Rice: Of course, everyone tries to attribute that to spiritual happenings, but it's because the d-line was getting after it.
Just over a minute later, Northwestern, clinging to a 17-15 lead, punted the ball back to Notre Dame.
Ron Vanderlinden: Notre Dame had the ball one last time, and coach Barnett comes on the headset and says, "Vandy. One more time." They had a short-yardage play, and we stoned ‘em on a third down.
Matt Rice: It was 4th-and-2, and they came out in a double-tight end set. I was supposed to be an inside shade on the guard, but it was an alignment we hadn't practiced at all leading up to the game, so I didn't feel that comfortable with it. But I was just like, screw it. I'm gonna get off a block even if I have to concede a little bit of ground, and I blew the guy up a yard short... There was really nowhere for him to go but right at me.
Northwestern got the ball back on downs with only a few minutes to play.
Gary Barnett: It's third-and-7, there's about 2 minutes left in the game. We're up 17-15. If we convert this third down, then we can run the clock out. If we don't, Notre Dame's gonna get this ball with enough time to go down, kick a field goal, and beat us. So we have a timeout, and our coaches are trying to tell me what play to call.
Steve Schnur: There was all this banter going back and forth between the coaches about what to call, and I kept thinking, I know what I want to run.
Gary Barnett: I said, "Hold it." I call Schnur over.
Steve Schnur: And finally, Barnett was like, "Well what do you want to run?" And it probably wasn't the call that they wanted, because they knew that [Notre Dame] would be pressuring us, but you go with what you feel confident with. "Spartan left, 660 X curl."
Gary Barnett: I said, "Okay, that's what we're running." So I didn't listen to the coaches, I didn't listen to anybody but Steve.
Greg Meyer: If that had been something that we definitely felt would be a negative, we would've checked it, but we didn't see any reason why that wouldn't be successful, so we let it go.
Gary Barnett: And he hits D'Wayne Bates for 9 yards, we get the first down.
Darnell Autry: We needed to get [one more] first down to end the game. It was in my hands. I knew in the huddle they were gonna make that call.
Ryan Padgett: It was an outside run play, and it went for 40 yards. That was the seal on the game. And I remember running down after that play, and all of a sudden your body just gets flushed with this excitement.
Jason Wendland: I was blocking for Darnell. And Shane Graham, who was a tight end, runs over and jumps in my arms, and we're looking at each other like, "What just happened?"
Dave Eanet (Northwestern radio play-by-play broadcaster): The Northwestern coaches were right next to us, and I remember them watching the play clock, and when they realized they didn't have to take another snap, they just went crazy. It was the loudest roar from a coaches box I'd ever heard. There was pounding on the walls, they were just going crazy.
Chris Martin: I ran over to the camera and did the "shush." You could hear a pin drop in there, it was silent. I mean, completely silent. You talk about shocking the world.
Gary Barnett: On the field, we shook hands, walked off, did all the things that you're supposed to do. And then we went inside and went crazy. It was pandemonium. We were like little kids.
Darnell Autry: Guys are in there crying, hugging each other, laughing, high-fiving, and hugging and crying some more. It was such an emotional outburst.
Brian Kardos: Ray Robey told me after the game, "You know, the coaches told us, after we win this game, don't carry me off the field, don't douse me with Gatorade, act like you've been there before... They didn't act like they had been there before."
Ray Robey: They looked more surprised than anybody. Like, c'mon guys, you were supposed to be the guys that believed we could do it.
Ryan Padgett: I remember coming out of the locker room, and our families were in tears. It was the greatest joy. They had suffered together, dealing with their kids who were despondent after loss after loss.
Gary Barnett: After the game, the SID [sports information director] took me outside and they said, "The Score in Chicago wants to do a [radio] interview with you." So I get on the phone, and I hear whoever it was say, "Here we have the losingest program in the history of the NCAA" — and I'm paraphrasing — and I just said, "I'm not doing this interview."
Sam Valenzisi: Riding the bus home, and watching Gary Barnett listening to the radio on a Sony Walkman... I mean, the shockwaves. Nothing could have been further from folks' expectations than that. And you know, here's a guy that took a chance on a job — I mean, you talk about us having belief without evidence, this may have been the only shot he was ever gonna get to be a head coach. He took a chance. And I remember him listening to the radio, and at that time, the Chicago radio was incredulous that it happened.
Stewart Mandel: I remember calling my parents, who aren't even really big sports fans, trying to explain to them what just happened, what a big deal it was.
Brian Kardos: It's like Jacksonville State going to Tuscaloosa and beating Alabama. That was the size of the upset. People were absolutely stunned by it. But the amazing thing coming out of it was, we weren't surprised.
Chapter 7: Same Old Northwestern
Jason Wendland: Beating Notre Dame was one of those experiences where it takes a few days. We were celebrating, and then you wake up the next morning, and you're like, "Holy shit, we actually did that."
Ben Bolch (The Daily Northwestern sports editor): They were pretty much a national story after beating Notre Dame. At the time, that was one of the top-10 upsets of the decade, if not the century, in college football. The Chicago Sun-Times made these t-shirts, they were basically a re-print of their cover, they said, "Do you believe in miracles?"
Gary Barnett: We had a bye week. We did my TV show out on the Lake. We had a boat.
Brian Musso: The amount of attention on campus, interviews with reporters, we had never experienced that before.
Brian Kardos: For three years, nobody on the team could get The Daily Northwestern to call ‘em. Now we're getting phone calls from the Tribune, Sun-Times, all that stuff.
Steve Schnur: We had reporters calling all hours of the day and night, and we didn't know any better, we'd just pick up the phone and talk to them. You'd be on the radio all the time. I remember Charlton Heston calling my apartment and leaving a voicemail. We didn't have any policies, because that stuff had come about so quickly.
Brian Musso: [The next week], we're facing Miami of Ohio, probably the worst team on our schedule in several years.
Sam Valenzisi: It was probably a testament to how well Barnett and the staff prepared us that we were up 28-7 in that ballgame. We came out and just rolled over them... But that was the part of it we didn't know how to handle, how to put somebody away.
Ryan Padgett: We're up 28-7, feeling like, Wow, we beat Notre Dame, we're killing these guys, students are just coming on campus, it's this beautiful day... Like man, we're living large.
Matt Rice: We dominated offensively, defensively. We got into the fourth quarter, we had actually knocked their quarterback out of the game, and they put in this backup who was kind of a Dan Persa-type. He could really evade pressure. We were all over him from a pass-rushing standpoint, but he'd scramble. But early in the fourth quarter, I was pulled from the game, and so were most of the starters.
Casey Dailey: I remember asking another guy, "You think I'm safe to unstrap my shoulder pads?"
Darnell Autry: I'm on the sideline like Dan Marino with a baseball cap on, like, I'm all done here.
Brian Kardos: We were on the sideline kind of laughing and joking around, and talking about where we're gonna go that night. You know, oh, we're gonna go party here, or drink there. We lost focus.
Steve Schnur: We were singing in the huddle along with the band. You know that song that they play? "Heeeeeeeey, hey baby, I wanna knooooooooow if you'll be my girl." They're playing that song, and half our huddle is singing that. Like, what is going on? We're in the middle of a football game!
Matt Rice: They ended up moving the ball quickly on our backups and got a score. It became 28-14.
Ryan Padgett: And then it just all of a sudden slipped. It's amazing how that slope just becomes ice. You go from doing everything right to doing nothing right. You're three-and-outing. The defense can't hold. And all of a sudden you're trying to pull yourself back, and you can see that you had gone too far, and you're desperate to try and find your footing again. And you just couldn't do it.
Keith Lozowski: It was like watching a car accident happen in front of you in slow motion, and you wanna do something about it, but there's nothing you can do about it.
Gary Barnett: It was a little like being in a storm drain. There's nothing to grab hold of. We were just caught in this downward spiral and we couldn't get out of it.
Brian Musso: It's a pretty empty feeling, but I still thought to the end that we were gonna get out of it.
Matt Rice: Paul Janus was our starting tackle, and he was also our long snapper, and he dislocated his shoulder in the game. The backup long snapper, Larry Curry, had two sprained wrists, and he got pushed into the snapping role because I don't think we had a third string guy. And I think he had like casts on his hands, on both wrists.
Gary Barnett: Larry snaps it poorly, they end up scoring, we come back, they hold us again, we have to punt, we get another bad snap, all of a sudden, they're back in it.
Ray Robey: We gotta have somebody with one wrist, right? Do we have anybody?
Gary Barnett: And then we can't convert a third down with about a minute left in the game. And then we have to punt [with a minute left, leading 28-27]...
Sam Valenzisi: If not for poor execution of a punt — you can ask Michigan how that feels — we win that game 28-27. Which is, "Oh, they suffered a hangover but they figured out a way to win."
Paul Burton: Everything happened so quickly. The first thing I was thinking was, I gotta get the ball out of here. But it skipped to me, and it rolled right past me. And they scooped it up at the 1.
Matt Rice: They had no timeouts left, and they had 30, 45 seconds, and they were trying to run the ball in to score a touchdown. And we stuffed ‘em on first down, stuffed ‘em on second down, and they were running out of time.
Ron Vanderlinden: They ran a play when they shouldn't have. They didn't have enough time. [The refs] stopped the clock, which gave them enough time to kick a field goal [and win the game]. If the officials don't stop the clock, the game's over. Really a tactical error on Miami's part. But they got away with it.
Matt Rice: The clock was running down, and we deliberately, on that last tackle, were like, "Get off the ball as slowly as you can." And it looked like it was gonna work. We were getting off really slowly, and the clock was running down, and I'm like, they're not gonna be able to get another play off. And sure enough, the refs stopped the clock, they were on to us.
Ryan Padgett: That last snap that sailed [past] Burton, it's almost like you knew that was gonna happen. It's almost like the old Northwestern thoughts were allowed to flood your mind again. You had absorbed over the years that inferior mentality, like you never were gonna get there, and it's crazy how quick that can re-enter your mind.
Matt Rice: That was the only time I ever cried after a game.
Stewart Mandel: You're like, "Alright, I guess it's back to normal." Part of being a Northwestern fan is feeling that they're cursed. Like they're not gonna let us have nice things. It was just like, of course. Of course that would happen to Northwestern as soon as they go into the Top 25.
Dave Eanet: The lede was, "Same old Northwestern. [Notre Dame] was a fluke."
Chapter 8: Recovery
Chris Martin: We were all devastated. I think I tossed my helmet in the stands. There was just so much frustration.
Ray Robey: It was a dark night at "The Palace," the house that a lot of us lived at. I remember sitting down on the porch, and just staring at the street and shaking our heads, saying, "How could we let that happen?"
Chris Martin: And I'm like, "Gosh, what is Barnett gonna tell us in our Monday meeting to get us back on track?"
Greg Meyer: We're kind of going through the motions that week.
Gary Barnett: I mean, our first two practices were just awful.
Greg Meyer: And Gary brings the team in, and says, "Guys, let me just tell you a story..."
Sam Valenzisi: How are monkeys trapped in the jungle of Africa? You put an Oreo inside a hollowed out coconut, with the hole in the coconut just big enough that they can fit their hand in.
Greg Meyer: And when the monkeys came to grab the cookie, they'd put their hand in the coconut to grab the cookie, but when they made a fist to pull the cookie out, they couldn't get out of the coconut.
Sam Valenzisi: So the monkey had to make a decision. Is he gonna hold onto the Oreo and be captured, or is he gonna let it go and get away?
Greg Meyer: And the monkeys would not let go of the cookie.
Gary Barnett: And I said, "Look, you've gotta let this go."
Ryan Padgett: Barnett had his speech. "You guys decide which team you are. Are you the team that went to Notre Dame and beat ‘em? Or are you the team that lost to Miami (Ohio)? You're both teams. You get to decide."
Gary Barnett: I got the idea to put "High Hopes" on the loudspeaker for practice on Thursday. So we're at stretch, and all of a sudden, that music comes on, and it was like, in everybody's mind, the Miami game was over.
Brian Kardos: The Miami game was a very valuable lesson in humility. It humbled the team. If we hadn't lost to Miami, and learned that lesson, we would've learned it more painfully later in the season.
Sam Valenzisi: The best thing that could've happened probably was for us to lose that ballgame.
Ryan Padgett: We absolutely would've lost a game down the line had we not lost to Miami (Ohio). It was a perfectly-timed smack in the face.
Matt Rice: A lot of my teammates talk about how that had to happen in order for us to do what we did. I think that's total BS. I think that's just their coping mechanism. That's what they tell themselves to get through the day 20 years later.
Jason Wendland: We aren't the team that beats Michigan and Penn State later without losing to Miami (Ohio). That's 100 percent true.
Sam Valenzisi: Maybe we would've lost two more games down the road. I don't know. It's really hard to say.
Gary Barnett: We played our butts off at Air Force, and beat a pretty good team, and then we go to Indiana and we beat a pretty good team convincingly.
Matt Rice: We beat ‘em up pretty good. We got our confidence back after the Miami debacle going into the Michigan game.
Chapter 9: Michigan
After wins over Air Force and Indiana, Northwestern took its 3-1 record and No. 25 ranking into a Week 6 showdown with 7th-ranked Michigan.
Rob Johnson: Going into that game, I thought 3-2 wasn't so bad. That was the best team we played all year. They were the most physically intimidating, the most athletically gifted.
Brian Kardos: The Daily Northwestern published their preview for the game, and it was, "Mission Impossible." So here we go again, just like Notre Dame, nobody thinks we can win this game. Nobody thinks we can go into the Big House and knock these guys off.
Chris Martin: Brian Griese was their quarterback, they had Tim Biakabutuka, they had Amani Toomer, the No. 1 player in the country [coming out of high school]. They had Charles Woodson. They were loaded.
Brian Kardos: In the visitor's locker room, they hike the toilets up three feet off the ground, so when you sit on them, you're like a little kid, your feet dangle off them. That was an old Bo Schembechler psychological trick, he wanted you to think that the Michigan guys were giants.
Greg Meyer: When we went to Notre Dame, we actually went through the College Hall of Fame. We took the team there, and part of the exhibit that they had there was Michigan Stadium. It took you through the gameday experience. And so when we go down to Michigan, pregame, I remember talking to D'Wayne Bates, he said, "We've been here before. We're gonna win." It seemed like there was no intimidation whatsoever.
Michigan dominated the first quarter. Early in the second, the Wolverines held a 3-0 lead, and drove into Northwestern territory.
Pat Fitzgerald: That was a critical, critical drive in the game. Leading up to that, Biakabutuka got loose a handful of times. It just seemed like between the 20s, we couldn't touch his flag.
Ray Robey: We had a complete bust of two or three plays in a row. Our defenses were kind of scrambled because Michigan allegedly had a habit of running 12, 13 guys in the huddle, running guys out late, shifting personnel.
Pat Fitzgerald: But once they got inside our 20, we shored things up pretty well.
Ron Vanderlinden: It was first-and-goal at the 1. Casey Dailey and Fitz made the first tackle, and they lost a yard.
Dave Eanet: I remember Pat Fitzgerald being all over the field. Michigan had this bruising back, Tim Biakabutuka, and Fitz hit him once or twice inside the 5.
Ray Robey: Half that stand, we were in a mess, and Fitzy saved us.
Gary Barnett: He knew where the ball was going every snap. He had diagnostic skills.
Ron Vanderlinden: He was very instinctual. He didn't take a false step. He read his keys and reacted.
Matt Rice: They were very predictable. When they got down to the goal line, anytime they went in motion, it was an 100 percent tendency that they would run to the motion. We knew exactly what they were doing.
Ron Vanderlinden: We stopped them again on second down. And on third down, Chris Martin broke up a pass and we held them to a field goal.
Later in the second quarter, Northwestern found its first semblance of success on offense.
Rob Johnson: We were three-and-out on offense all game long.
Brian Kardos: We were frustrated. Their defense was just stymieing us. It was very difficult to get anything.
Steve Schnur: I threw a pass to Bates, and he made a nice catch, and I think Woodson was covering him. And I knew I was gonna get hit.
Brian Kardos: They speed rushed. They came charging upfield. The problem was, the front of the line collapsed. So Steve had to back up to avoid the guys coming in his face, and when he backed up, he ran right into both of the guys on the speed rush. And I remember seeing him just collapse.
Steve Schnur: [One defensive end] got underneath my arm, so he and I were both falling, but as I was falling to my left and backward, a guy rushing from the other side, my head hit his knee. And my head snapped. All I remember is my entire right arm went numb. My fingertips were tingling. I couldn't do anything with my arm. So I had to come out of the game, and they wouldn't let me go back in until I could hold my arm up.
Brian Kardos: And then Chris Hamdorf comes in, and he is just terrified.
Brian Musso: I mean, that was his first play in college football. He had never been on the field before.
Rob Johnson: Here it is, it's a pivotal moment in the game, we're struggling on offense, we haven't moved the ball yet.
Brian Musso: Chris opened his mouth, and nothing came out.
Rob Johnson: Oh, I don't even know what he said. He literally was like, "rr rr, rr rr rri, rr rr ri..." He couldn't get it out, and we all started laughing.
Brian Musso: He had to step out of the huddle, take a deep breath and come back in. And the coaches, to their credit, called a pass play.
Brian Kardos: There's no way Michigan was expecting pass. They're thinking, okay, here comes a backup quarterback who hasn't thrown a pass all season. I mean, no way.
Brian Musso: Chris gets the snap, turns the wrong way, runs into the running back, and turns and sees our tight end, Darren Drexler, running down the middle and throws a perfect strike for 25 yards.
Steve Schnur: We went down and scored, which was just huge for our team. Chris probably saved us.
Ron Vanderlinden: We punted to them right before half, and [Amani Toomer] fumbled the ball. We recovered, and kicked a field goal, and went in tied, [6-6].
Jerry Brown: At halftime, if you looked at the game statistically, we probably should've been getting killed, and we weren't.
Coming out of halftime, Michigan's dominance continued. The Wolverines went 80 yards, all on the ground, in nearly seven minutes to take a 13-6 lead.
However, a Sam Valenzisi field goal brought Northwestern within four points, 13-9, and then early in the fourth quarter, an Eric Collier interception gave the Wildcats the ball with great field position. They marched to the goal line, and Schnur threw a 1-yard touchdown to fullback Matt Hartl.
Another late Michigan turnover allowed Northwestern to extend its lead to 19-13.
Dave Eanet: Ultimately, it came down to Michigan's last drive.
Ron Vanderlinden: At the end of that game, they had the ball, they were driving. And it was a 3rd-and-10, and then a 4th-and-10, and I got on the headset and said, "Gary, do I go after them, or do we cover?" He goes, "Vandy, that's your call." And I thought, Don't give Griese time to throw. So it was actually a blitz we put in at halftime, we didn't take it into the game. It was two to a gap, and Pat was the second guy through, and Pat hit Griese twice right as he threw the ball. The second one we intercepted.
William Bennett: We had a couple sacks before then. Hudhaifa got in there, and big Fitz got in there. And I was man-to-man, and I figured they were gonna run one of two routes on me. I guessed right, and made the interception. I knew he was gonna run a quick out, and I was right there.
Ron Vanderlinden: Game over.
Jason Wendland: When the clock runs out, it's silence. And you hear, almost off in the distance, cheering. And you realize that sliver of Northwestern-assigned seats, there's maybe 100 or so people clad in purple going absolutely nuts.
Darnell Autry: The quietness of the crowd was mind-boggling.
Matt Rice: I don't know how the hell we won it. Every other game, it was like, Oh yeah, we were better than those guys. But we stole one that day.
Brian Kardos: I think it was Chris Martin, he had a copy of The Daily Northwestern in the locker room, and it said "Mission Impossible." After Barnett gave his speech, we tore that in half.
Rob Johnson: Coming out of that game, it was like, "Holy shit, we just beat Michigan." That kinda supercharged our belief in ourselves. We thought we were good. When we beat Michigan, we knew we were good. We felt invincible.
Gary Barnett: When we went off the field at Michigan, I don't remember saying this, but it was one of those moments where you [thought], Why not us?
Chapter 10: Revenge
After overcoming an early 14-3 deficit to beat Minnesota 27-17, Northwestern returned home to take on Wisconsin.
Dave Eanet: It was homecoming, and I remember Gary stood up at the homecoming pep rally the night before, and said, "We're 3-0 in the Big Ten, we're the higher-ranked team, and it's our homecoming... and we're underdogs." And the crowd went crazy.
Ryan Padgett: We had been embarrassed by Wisconsin. The most embarrassing loss of my life was at Wisconsin in ‘93, we went up there and lost 53-14.
Brian Kardos: The only thing that stopped their offense was when the naked guy ran on the field. [Then, in 1994], they had slaughtered us, 46-14. They had the ball eight times, they had seven touchdowns. It was ridiculous.
Ray Robey: I remember this infamous locker room material that [Wisconsin coach Barry] Alvarez handed out, with the quote about us being the "Same old Northwestern." And I wanna say Barnett taped that on all the defensive players' lockers.
William Bennett: They had quotes in the paper prior to the game saying, "We're gonna quiet Northwestern, we're gonna shut them down, we're gonna dominate them like we did in years before."
Sam Valenzisi: That's all we heard about, them chirping for two years about how they'd pounded us. And it was kind of two years of frustration being let out.
Ray Robey: They just weren't very good. Not as good as their image or their ego.
Gary Barnett: We just dominated. It was one of those games where everything went wrong for them, everything went right for us.
Matt Rice: The whole defense was just swarming, making plays all over the field. We got to the quarterback a lot, and they couldn't run the ball on us.
Rob Johnson: They had [seven] turnovers. A muffed punt, fumbles, interceptions.
William Bennett: It felt like we were kids out there on the field. It wasn't that we just beat ‘em. We destroyed ‘em.
Steve Schnur: I remember looking out there after their third turnover, and thinking, this is unbelievable. And then a weird sort of poetic justice feeling came over me. This is sort of what Northwestern of old felt like. Everything they did went wrong. And I didn't feel bad for them at all.
Sam Valenzisi: We're up 35-0, and coach Barnett clears the bench. And Wisconsin is driving. They're trying to tack on a garbage time touchdown.
Brian Kardos: The second string defense was in, and we were just pulling for them. Everybody was up. I remember Pat, Keith Lozowski and Tim Scharf up on the sidelines with the coaches, coaching up the second string.
Sam Valenzisi: And Chris Rooney, a backup defensive back, just absolutely crushes the running back and he fumbles on the last play of the game, trying to go in for a score.
Chris Martin: All the starters were running out on the field and celebrating with those guys.
Sam Valenzisi: It wasn't just the headline guys letting two years of frustration out.
Chapter 11: Cheating Death
The following week, now ranked No. 8 in the country, Northwestern traveled to Champaign to take on an Illinois team that had won seven games the year before.
Ron Vanderlinden: It was a cold, nasty day down there, and Illinois was a good football team. And it was a battle. The opening series, [they threw a deep pass], it got tipped in the air, we defended it, and one of their guys caught it in stride and ran it for a touchdown.
Matt Rice: In the first half, we didn't play all that well defensively. And they were able to run the ball on us a little bit early, which was surprising.
Brian Kardos: We go down 14-0, and Illinois has two top NFL Draft picks on their defense. They hadn't given up 14 points all season. There was a brutal 20-mile-per-hour wind in Champaign, it was 30 degrees.
Ray Robey: That's the only game I ever thought we might lose.
Ryan Padgett: All of a sudden, you have this beautiful little thing in your possession, and you start to have anxiety that you may lose that thing.
Steve Schnur: Towards the end of the half, I threw a long pass to Bates down the left sideline.
D'Wayne Bates: That was a go route. Eight in the box. We saw the safeties down, one-on-one coverage, and we took a chance. It was very good coverage. I think the defensive back tipped it actually, at least came close to tipping it. And that was a crucial play in the game. We had pretty much been getting shut out on offense.
Steve Schnur: It was windy as can be that day, it was cold, it was snowy. And we needed to make a play on offense to get us back in the game, and that was the spark we needed.
Still though, Northwestern trailed at halftime, 14-10.
Brian Kardos: We get in the locker room. Barnett comes in, and there was kind of a sense of frustration.
Ray Robey: I remember going in at halftime, and the crowd chanting "overrated." And I remember looking around at the defense, and all of us kind of had the same look in our eyes. Are we about to be exposed? Is this really happening? We were all kind of like, "This is a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong is happening." And I remember thinking, "Well, this is about to be a party. Barnett's about to rip us." And Barnett, probably the single greatest coaching decision I ever saw him make, he gathered us all around, and he said, "Gentlemen. We have got these assholes right where we want ‘em." Genius. Genius. For him, the intelligence to know that he had a team doubting itself, don't pile on, that was genius.
More on the 1995 season
More on the 1995 season
Gary Barnett: We were gonna have to kick them the ball in the second half. And I asked our defense, I said, "We have to kick the ball off to them into the wind, and we have got to shut ‘em out in the third quarter. Can we do this?" They said, "We will do this." We kicked off into the wind, and Illinois had the wind the whole third quarter and didn't score.
Northwestern's offense didn't score either, though. Autry was on pace for over 40 carries, but was averaging less than four yards per touch. Schnur had completed just eight passes. Midway through the fourth quarter though, the Wildcats worked their way into the red zone.
Steve Schnur: We knew we had to keep plugging along, and getting back to that stone-cutter thing. You just keep banging, and something will break. And that's kind of how our offense was.
Darnell Autry: If they wanted me to carry it 41 times, so be it. If they wanted me to carry it 50 times, so be it.
Rob Johnson: It came down to a fourth down play on the goal line. We tried to run three quarterback sneaks in a row, and we couldn't get in the end zone from the half-yard line.
Steve Schnur: They had Kevin Hardy, and Simeon Rice, and I'm not that big, I'm only like 190 pounds and 6-feet tall if I'm lucky. And we kept calling a sneak, which usually worked for us, but when they were stacking the middle like that, it wasn't gonna happen. So we called a timeout, and again, they wanted to call the sneak, and I was like, "No, we need to run the ball outside."
Greg Meyer: I had discussions with our defense earlier in the week, and they were familiar with Lou Tepper, the Illinois coach at that time. He was a defensive specialist, and one of the things that they did in goal line, a lot of times they would pinch. Everybody would work inside. So we called the toss.
Rob Johnson: We ran a sweep to the outside to Darnell, and Darren Drexler took Hardy and drove him and put him on his back.
Brian Kardos: I had stretched out on a sweep, so there was naturally a nice place for Darnell to cut through.
Darnell Autry: I got stopped initially and had to spin out of it, and I remember landing on top of another offensive lineman, and him grabbing me and pulling me into the end zone.
Rob Johnson: After that, Illinois got another possession.
Ron Vanderlinden: On fourth down, they hit a long pass on us that extended the drive and kept them in the game. And they had first down at the  going in. On [first down], Casey Dailey sacked them.
Matt Rice: [On second down], it was just a drop-back pass, and I beat the guard clean around the edge, and got [the quarterback] to the ground. He was throwing the ball, but the ref correctly ruled that I had got his knee down. That was huge, it knocked them out of field goal range and put them in a Hail Mary situation.
William Bennett: We were down to the last play, and I remember the quarterback scrambling, and throwing the ball up for a Hail Mary, and I was right in front, and Eric Collier jumped and caught the ball in the end zone and secured the ball.
Chris Martin: We sorta cheated death a little bit.
Chapter 12: Penn State
Northwestern's win at Illinois meant it moved to 7-1 on the season. Its 5-0 conference record was one of two undefeated marks in the Big Ten. No. 4 Ohio State clung to the other. That set up an early November showdown with defending Rose Bowl champion Penn State. ABC selected the Dyche Stadium matchup as its national game of the week, and brought Northwestern an experience like none it had ever seen before.
Ben Bolch: The Bulls started that year 19-2. And somebody interviewed Michael Jordan, and said, "What's a bigger deal right now, the Bulls or Northwestern football?" And he said, "Oh, there's no question, it's Northwestern football."
Matt Rice: There was electricity in the air. It was an amazing atmosphere. That's the first time Evanston really felt like a Big Ten environment.
Stewart Mandel: It was sold out, they had to bring lights in because it was the ABC national game, and it was in the dark. Keith Jackson was gonna call the game, and that was a really big deal.
J.A. Adande (Washington Post college football reporter, Northwestern alum): It's kind of an authentification of your success when Keith Jackson is at your game.
Stewart Mandel: The game was sold out, traffic problems, all the things that would come when they hadn't hosted a game like this before.
Steve Schnur: There were all kinds of funny things during that game. Keith Jackson remarked that he was competing with the public address announcer. I mean, we weren't set up for broadcasting.
Dave Eanet: You know where the Locker Room store is on Central Street? There were people up on that rooftop. It had become an impossible ticket to get.
Steve Schnur: I had to tell the head official during one of our drives that he had to have the fans sit down because they were standing in front of the 25-second clock.
Gary Barnett: Preparing our team that week was the easiest week of preparation I've ever had. I would meet with the seniors every Thursday morning. I would always meet with the team on Thursday night after practice, and I would give them the message. So I met with [the seniors] Thursday morning, and I said "Okay, what needs to be done by the head coach, or any of our coaches now, for this game?" And Rob Johnson just looks at me, and he says, "Coach. It's Keith Jackson. It's ABC. It's national television. Just tell us when the bus leaves." So, I put on the cover of the scouting report and the itinerary, "Bus leaves at 4:15." And that's all we had to do.
Rob Johnson: That was probably the best game we played on offense all year. We came out and scored on our first possession, and scored on our first possession of the second quarter as well. And then our defense held.
Darnell Autry: I was always in awe of how dominant our defense was in that game. These guys were all over the place. It was incredible to watch. Sometimes you're busy getting coached on the sideline, and you don't necessarily get a chance to watch. But I watched that whole game. To see the plays and the hits and the fumble recoveries and all the things they were doing was incredible.
Brian Kardos: There was something special about that game. You could feel everything happening around you, like you had an overhead camera view of the game. It was that intense of a feeling.
A Penn State touchdown with under a minute remaining in the second quarter made the score 14-7 at halftime. Penn State would receive the second-half kickoff.
Pat Fitzgerald: We were on the field for 13 minutes and change in the third quarter. We forced a stop, and then they punted the ball and it hit one of our guys, and we had to go back out there and get another stop.
Rob Johnson: Penn State had the ball the entire third quarter except for three plays.
Matt Rice: We just kept finding a way to get ‘em off the field, and keep them out of the endzone.
Ray Robey: We felt bulletproof. We felt unbeatable, no matter how much they drove the field. It didn't matter that it was Joe Pa. It didn't matter that it was the famous white jerseys and the blue stripes. It didn't matter. We knew we were fine.
Pat Fitzgerald: That was a turning point in the game. We were able to limit them on the scoreboard even though we were out there for so long. And then the offense put together a big drive in the fourth quarter to preserve the victory.
Rob Johnson: Coach Barnett came over to the offense, and I remember him challenging us, and next possession, we went down the field, 80 yards, and scored, and sealed the game.
Brian Kardos: The talk that we had in the huddle when we went to victory formation was really special. I think we had three plays in victory formation. You enjoy every second of that. And then I remember the students rushing onto the field. I remember some of my friends jumping on my back.
Dave Eanet: Not just the students. The whole crowd ran out on the field.
J.A. Adande: Northwestern was the better team, and they took it to Penn State. They controlled the line of scrimmage. All these basic, fundamental football things, Northwestern was superior in. I remember Joe Paterno saying afterwards, "That's a good football team." That's the thing, it was just so matter-of-fact. The final score was 21-10. It wasn't like this plucky team stuck around and kicked a field goal at the end. They were better than Penn State.
Ryan Padgett: We always wanted to be a team like Penn State. Punch you in the mouth, and help you up, and don't say a word. Be really good, but don't be a jackass. Don't be Michigan State. That's how we envisioned ourselves.
Matt Rice: After the game, Paterno was very complimentary. That meant a lot to us.
Jason Wendland: If you hadn't been paying attention to us by that point, you were after that. After Michigan, sports fans were onto us. But [Penn State] got us into everybody's minds.
Ron Vanderlinden: I always remember walking off the field, as the fans rushed the field, and thinking, "Wow. I guess we are pretty good."
Chapter 13: Iowa
Rob Johnson: I remember opening my big fat mouth after we beat Penn State. I got caught up in the moment, and in the press conference, somebody asked me about Iowa, and I told him, "I don't want to beat Iowa, I want to hurt ‘em." And quite honestly, it was the sentiment of everybody in that locker room.
Sam Valenzisi: Whatever the streak was, they had beaten us for a long, long time, and the scores had not been close. I'm not saying [Iowa coach Hayden Fry] ran the score up... I'll let other people say that.
Matt Rice: Iowa ran up the score.
Chris Martin: Iowa used to run the score up on us, embarrassingly so.
Rob Johnson: Hayden, any chance he would get, would run up the score on us. If it was 40-0 in the fourth quarter, he'd be throwing the ball on first down. They had pounded us. They beat us 21 years in a row.
Dave Eanet: They would call a timeout with 30 seconds to go in the half to stick the ball in the end zone one more time, already up 35-0.
Rob Johnson: We were the kid on the playground that was getting picked on all the time, and at some point in time, you gotta fight back.
Gary Barnett: We red-lettered Iowa. When I came here, I looked at the teams we were gonna play for the next 10 years, and the only team that had been to the Rose Bowl that we were gonna play every year for the next 10 years was Iowa. I would've easily picked Michigan or Ohio State, but we weren't gonna play them. So I put Iowa in red letters, and I told the team, "From this point on, when we beat Iowa, we will have arrived as a football team." And it was done out of respect.
Rob Johnson: In order for us to get over the hump, we had to beat them. They were the litmus test for us as a program.
Brian Kardos: We got embarrassed by them the year before, and two years before, they were throwing long bombs in the fourth quarter. And then afterwards, Hayden Fry said to Barnett, "I hope we didn't hurt any of your boys." And in a condescending way. It wasn't like we had a lot of injuries.
Jerry Brown: Hayden Fry talked a lot of shit.
Gary Barnett: And that just endeared my red-lettering. I liked Hayden. He didn't need to say that. It's okay. It just pissed me off.
Steve Schnur: We were right there with him. Whether it was Hayden Fry, whether it was the fact that Iowa had dominated us for so long, we had created a deep-seated hate towards Iowa even though we respected them as opponents.
Keith Lozowski: When we used to play Iowa at Iowa, Barnett used to paint our locker rooms pink.
Steve Schnur: All week, the scout team would have Iowa decals on their helmets, and they'd wear yellow socks, and they went to different locker rooms. We did everything we could to build it up.
Ron Vanderlinden: It snowed the night before, and it was like 0 degrees that day.
Matt Rice: It was a freezing cold day, one of those games where every time you hit somebody, you feel like shards of glass were in your spine.
Greg Meyer: There was snow piled up all over the field. There were cameramen on the other side of those plowed snow mounds. They looked like a bunch of duck hunters.
Darnell Autry: That was probably the coldest game I've ever played in. On our first series, I can't feel my hands. And I tell Steve Schnur, "Steve, my hands are numb." I was freaking out about it.
Steve Schnur: I tried to get him to rub his fingers together.
Darnell Autry: "I can't feel them together!" So I left after the second play, ran off to the sideline, and warmed my hands up on one of those heating turbines.
Dave Eanet: They got down big. It was 14-3.
Brian Kardos: [On fourth down], we threw a pass to Darren Drexler.
Steve Schnur: Darren was my second option, and he was open, and one of the Iowa defenders got his hand on it, barely a fingertip, and luckily it didn't deflect it very far off target. Darren made a nice catch, and pulled about 800 people in with him to the end zone, kind of running backwards. That was a big moment for us.
Dave Eanet: Then Brian Musso ran a punt back for a touchdown.
Brian Musso: It was an all-blocking, anyone-could-have-returned-it touchdown. The kick was like a little low bouncer, and I just sort of picked it up and ran straight and the guys just cleared the way.
Musso's return gave Northwestern 17-14 lead, but Iowa quarterback Matt Sherman threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Scott Slutzker with under two minutes remaining in the first half. The Hawkeyes missed the PAT, but went into halftime with a 20-17 lead.
Darnell Autry's third-quarter touchdown put Northwestern back in front, and later on, in the fourth quarter, Northwestern defensive back Rodney Ray forced Iowa tight end Derek Price to fumble, and Hudhaifa Ismaeli scooped it up and scored. That gave the Wildcats a 31-20 victory.
But late in the third quarter, Northwestern had been dealt a major blow.
Pat Fitzgerald: It was a toss play to our left.
Matt Rice: It was a run opposite of my side, so I was chasing, and I think the backside guard basically cut him and rolled him up.
Pat Fitzgerald: I got cut, and as I got up, I had multiple guys falling over top of me, so I ended up snapping my ankle and breaking my leg.
Gary Barnett: When [trainer] Steve Willard came off the field, he said, "Coach, it's bad. And he's done. For the year."
Don Holmes: When he wasn't getting up within 30 seconds, I remember looking around for a second, and then thinking, "Shit, that's me."
Pat Fitzgerald: I remember going over to the sidelines, and the athletic training staff and the doctors cutting my tape off, and my foot flopping. I had torn all the ligaments in my ankle. That hurt a lot more than it did to hurt my leg on the field.
Ray Robey: My outer monologue was, "We're gonna be fine boys, rally." My inner monologue was, "Oh fuck. We got a problem."
Matt Rice: The guy that played behind Fitz, Donnie Holmes, was pushing Fitz and almost started in his place. It was a tight competition. Donnie was a very good football player. He was bigger, stronger, faster than Fitz.
Ray Robey: It wasn't so much that Fitzy was the epicenter of talent. He was sort of the nexus. He was the neurocenter. You need a central command post that understands the nuances of what everyone is doing. He knew all that. He knew where the bodies were buried. He knew where the holes would be. And when you take that away, then you're just playing base defense. We were never just playing base defense with Fitzy. There was always a twist on it. Now we just have to line up and beat you. Who's faster, who's stronger. Without Fitzy, we can't bring in who's smarter.
Pat Fitzgerald: After the game, when I was in the athletic training room, they gave me some medication to take the edge off, and they had the game on on the radio, and I remember hearing Hudhaifa's fumble recovery for a touchdown. As the guys came in, it was sorta like rubbing the Wildcat's nose, the guys giving me a little tap on the head.
Matt Rice: That was tough. Fitz was such an important leader on the field. I remember after the game going in and seeing him, and they're putting a splint on his leg. And he was so dejected. You could see in his eyes, he was just so upset, but he was trying to put on a good face and hide his disappointment.
Ryan Padgett: He gets rolled around our bench. And I remember him saying, "Get me the fucking ring!"
Chapter 14: Champions
Ray Robey: It took people time to figure out what exactly Fitz meant [to our team], where exactly things were coming from, what we could and couldn't do without him. With Purdue... well, Purdue was kind of easy. Everything ran through Alstott.
Chris Martin: They had Mike Alstott, a 240-pound Tonka Truck.
Matt Rice: Mike Alstott was one of the best players in the conference, and I remember holding him in check all day. We were suffocating, dominating on defense.
Dave Eanet: The quarterback was a left-hander by the name of Rick Trefzger. Early in the game, Purdue was driving, and Chris Martin picked him off and ran it 70 yards for a touchdown.
Chris Martin: I didn't have a receiver to my side, so I was taught to cheat down. Rick Trefzger was a little bit late on the throw, it was behind the tight end, and I was able to get hands on the ball. That sort of left us with a feeling of, We're supposed to dominate this game, we've got the Big Ten championship on the line, let's go out and do work.
Brian Kardos: When D'Wayne had his catch and run, we felt like that was it. That was the nail in the coffin. We can finish this team now.
D'Wayne Bates: The dig route was my favorite for a couple reasons. It was normally off play action, so you get the linebackers to come up. And then there's a big window 20 yards down field behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. That play action was so perfectly called, and all I had to do was catch coming across the field, outrun the defense and score.
Bates' touchdown put Northwestern ahead 14-0. The Wildcats knew that with No. 2 Ohio State still unbeaten, a Rose Bowl berth could not be clinched on that day in West Lafayette. But at least a share of the Big Ten title could be won, and Northwestern easily took care of business, winning 23-8.
Gary Barnett: We got in the locker room, and it was total celebration. We were just mature enough to wait until we got off the field before we would become idiots. And the locker room is real small at Purdue, so I just went over and sat down on one of the lockers, perched up on it, and just watched. I felt like a really proud parent.
Rob Johnson: If I could go back and relive that locker room after that game, I would do it over and over again. It was exhilarating. It was happy. It was crazy. We were so laser-focused on these games that there was almost a sense of relief too.
Gary Barnett: We didn't have champagne, but we did have the commissioner and the Big Ten trophy. And he stood up on a counter or table, and handed it over.
Rob Johnson: Jim Delaney, at the time, I really believe he just didn't want to hand it to coach Barnett.
Gary Barnett: I know he didn't really want to do that. I could just see it in his eyes. It was like he was saying, "I can't believe I'm giving the Big Ten trophy to Northwestern." And I just sat there and had a smirk on my face, and smiled for 25, 30 minutes.
Stewart Mandel: I watched the game in the dorm, and I remember people pouring out onto the lawn afterwards to celebrate. We were playing "We Are The Champions" in the dorm.
Brian Kardos: When we beat Purdue, it was late at night when we came home, and we thought, There's not gonna be any fans there. And we came around the corner, and not only were there fans there, it was almost like game day. They had lights set up.
Stewart Mandel: There was a crowd of people waiting for them to arrive. A lot of people had the Sports Illustrated with Darnell Autry on the cover, hoping for him to sign it.
Brian Kardos: I remember coming off the bus, and there were some old guys, real old guys, and they were crying, they had tears in their eyes, and they were holding roses. And they said, "I was in school the last time we went to a bowl game, the  Rose Bowl. Thank you guys so much. You don't know what this means to us."
Chapter 15: Roses
Steve Schnur: We knew that the only way we were going to the Rose Bowl was if Ohio State lost.
Stewart Mandel: The Rose Bowl seemed like it wasn't gonna happen, because Ohio State didn't look like they were gonna lose.
Ryan Padgett: Barnett was like, "You know, the Citrus Bowl, they take care of you, they really treat you well. There's all these fun things to do in Orlando." He was already selling us on accepting our fate.
Stewart Mandel: But at the time, Michigan had kind of a hex over Ohio State. So all year, when people would say, "We're never gonna get to the Rose Bowl because Ohio State's never gonna lose," I would say, "Well don't be so sure, Michigan seems to always beat them."
A week after Northwestern capped off an 8-0 Big Ten season, Ohio State looked to do the same. The Buckeyes were still undefeated and ranked ahead of Northwestern. If they beat archrival Michigan, they would be heading to Pasadena. If Michigan pulled the upset, Northwestern would be the Big Ten's representative.
Brian Kardos: There was a belief and a knowledge that we were going to the Rose Bowl. That whole week, nobody ever considered that we were gonna be second place and go to the Citrus Bowl. Michigan was gonna win. We really believed in that like it was reality. It's hard to articulate.
Stewart Mandel: And sure enough, Biakabutuka runs for 300 yards.
J.A. Adande: I covered the game. But [Northwestern] is all I thought about. Forget Michigan-Ohio State. It's one of the great rivalries of all time, but all I knew was that a Michigan win would send Northwestern to the Rose Bowl. I was sitting next to Andrew Bagnato from the Chicago Tribune, and he was a Northwestern graduate, and of course there was no cheering in the press box, so we were kind of hitting each other under the table. And I remember going into the locker room afterwards and asking Michigan players, "What do you think about the fact that your victory just allowed Northwestern to go to the Rose Bowl?" They could not care less. But for me, the story was that Northwestern was going to the Rose Bowl.
Gary Barnett: We were in the team room. We probably had 50 team members. We had administrators, my wife was there, we had friends of the program. And ABC was there, we had a camera and a reporter. And all of a sudden, there were just cars honking their horns, up and down Central Street, up and down the street outside the stadium, and pulling into the parking lot.
Dave Eanet: And after Ohio State loses, they take the call from the Tournament of Roses chairman, they put Gary on the speaker phone, and he turns to the guys, and says, "Wait a minute, let me ask my team if they want to go to Pasadena." And this huge cheer goes up. Everybody's going crazy. They have roses.
Greg Meyer: When I went home to my house, there were roses all over the lawn. It was pretty special.
Chapter 16: City of Angels
Matt Rice: The Purdue game was like mid-November, so it was six weeks off before the bowl game. We didn't have an indoor facility to practice in.
Dave Eanet: The dorms were closed, so they just decided they were gonna take the team out early to practice out [in California].
D'Wayne Bates: We landed, and we had on our purple tracksuits, and it was like a dream come true.
William Bennett: We took a chartered flight, we get off the flight on the tarmac, and they had the Rose Bowl queen giving us little stickers for our shirts and jackets.
Ryan Padgett: We're staying in Fashion Island, in fancy Irvine, and you get all these free meals. They'd close down California Pizza Kitchen, and it was like, "Order whatever you want!" I gained about 15 pounds.
Steve Schnur: We had never been given free stuff, and we get out there and they hand us all this free stuff, and it's like, "Can we keep this? Is this legal?" Nobody knew. We got watches, we got hats... We were like little kids.
Chris Martin: All we saw were Benzs, and Rolls Royces, and Maseratis, and we went to Newport Beach, and we hung out there. It's like you're in lala land.
Ryan Padgett: And every night, they had a car service to take us wherever we wanted to go.
Dave Eanet: It was a really cool time, because Gary gave his players a lot of latitude. He wanted them to enjoy the experience.
Don Holmes: Some of the guys did go out to bars.
Dave Eanet: They went to Universal Studios, and they had Charleton Heston, a Northwestern alum, dressed as Moses.
William Bennett: They came and picked us up in a helicopter after practice — me, Rob, Sam, Darnell and coach Barnett — and they flew from our practice field to Disneyland. We went underneath the big castle, and we came out and there was a big parade. They had us up on stage, they're playing music and songs.
Darnell Autry: You felt like a rockstar.
Sam Valenzisi: We didn't have to wait in line for anything. We were able to go through the back entrances to get on rides. If you were hungry, someone would say, "Well what would you like?'" We were VIPs.
Gary Barnett: The whole month was oblivious to me, because I had earned 17 coach of the year awards. So I was flying to Columbus, I was flying to D.C., I was flying to Orlando for the Home Depot Coach of the Year Award, I had to go to Detroit... So I had all these things that I had to fly to, and wear a tux to, and frankly, there were so many — I hope this comes across somewhat humbly — there were so many that I didn't really get a chance to fully appreciate each one.
Matt Rice: I don't think coach Barnett had the whole bowl practice schedule figured out. You just get so beat up and ground down. He basically turned a lot of our practices into training camp again, I'm not really sure that's what we needed to do.
Rob Johnson: That experience for us out there was so new, so in hindsight, we didn't misbehave or anything, but what made us successful during the season was, we were so in our routine with school, practice, the next game, and being so focused. You get out there, you're in California, and the weather's warm, you don't have class, it's just football and free time.
Matt Rice: We didn't have our typical schedule, so we didn't watch as much tape as a group. It was more one at a time. So we didn't quite have as much structure in how we studied the opponent.
Ryan Padgett: The night before, we stayed in downtown L.A. But it was weird. We didn't have roommates. Usually you have a roommate on the road, and all of a sudden we have these massive suites. I had a corner suite on the top floor overlooking L.A. and the New Year's celebration. It was fancy and kinda cool, but then it was lonely, and it didn't feel familiar.
Brian Kardos: Having never been through this before, there was a lot of disorganization.
Ron Vanderlinden: It all happened so fast. If I could do it over again, I would lock myself in a room and just gameplan for three or four days. It was a whirlwind.
Sam Valenzisi: Clearly there were other things going on while we're out there. Whether or not you buy the stories about coach Barnett negotiating with UCLA, and other things like that.
Ben Bolch: Those weren't rumors. They were talking. He was considering it.
Stewart Mandel: Barnett was interviewing for other jobs. He interviewed for the UCLA job while he was out there. Now, at that time, I didn't realize just how brazen that was to be openly interviewing for other jobs while he was getting ready for the Rose Bowl.
Gary Barnett: The UCLA thing was after the Rose Bowl. There was an appeal there. But I didn't visit UCLA until after the Rose Bowl. I didn't go before. But I knew that they were gonna offer me the job.
Rob Johnson: None of that stuff was ever in the locker room at all.
Don Holmes: I remember going to the stadium, and the thing that stuck out to me was how beautiful, well-kept, plush and green that Kentucky bluegrass was. I had never played on anything like it.
Pat Fitzgerald: It was surreal. It was a dream come true. Going out for the walkthrough the day before, to see the end zone painted purple and white, to see the San Gabriel Mountains in the background, it's pretty emotional.
Brian Kardos: That's when we were like, wow. We really have reached the promised land.
Gary Barnett: The night before the game, I got a driver that took me to the Rose Bowl, and I made arrangements for me to go in. I was the only one there. It was midnight. Me and a security guard. I went up to the very top of the stadium right behind the Northwestern end zone and goal posts. And I just wanted to see it. I just wanted to see the stadium in purple. I wanted to see that end zone painted. I wanted to see what it looked like. And I was there for about an hour, and took it all in. And that was it. That was my moment.
Chapter 17: The Rose Bowl
Sam Valenzisi: I've been to Augusta. The whites are so white, the greens are so green, the pinks are so pink, the flowers are so gold that you almost have to shade your eyes. That's what Pasadena is like. The most blue sky, the most green grass. It's just incredible. It's a magical place.
Stewart Mandel: As soon as you see the stadium, you just light up. I still get the chills when I go to the Rose Bowl today.
J.A. Adande: The year before, it was Penn State versus Oregon. For all those years, you're used to seeing the end zone painted the colors of USC, or UCLA, or Michigan, or Ohio State. So it was the blue and white of Penn State, and the green and yellow of Oregon. And I remember looking at those colors and thinking, "God, what I wouldn't give to see purple in the end zone." And I took out my Northwestern alumni card, and I put it on the window in the press box, and I just wanted to see what purple would look like in that setting. And then a year later, there's purple on the end zone. And I went down on the field with Rachel Nichols, and I plucked a few blades of purple-painted grass from the end zone, and stuck them in my credential holder, and I still have them to this day.
Ray Robey: I remember standing in the tunnel, [defensive lineman] Mike Giometti was on my right, Reiffer [defensive tackle Joe Reiff] was in front of me, and Rice-man [Matt Rice] was to my left, and I remember looking out the tunnel and seeing the purple on one side, and the maroon on the other, and thinking, We did it. We did exactly what we said we'd do.
Ryan Padgett: It's a super-low ceiling. It's super dark, and all you see is this blast of light. I was always at the back of the group, and I remember stepping in line, and I felt butterflies. I hadn't felt butterflies in a long time. This was my 37th start. I'd played in some big games. And I had butterflies. And coming down that tunnel and seeing that blast of light, that was so memorable, the swelling pride.
Brian Musso: It's just electric, it's hard to explain. It's not a thinking thing, it's more of a sensory thing than it is a cerebral thing. It's just energy. In sports, you know, you get a few moments like that if you're lucky.
Jason Wendland: We came out holding hands, and I came out holding Paul Janus' hand. For three years of our careers, we competed for the same spot.
Brian Kardos: It was the culmination of everything that we had worked for. Every moment in the dark and sweaty weight room, every brutal moment with the sun beating down on you on Mount Trashmore, every piece of hard work. It's hard to put into words. Here was a journey that we started January 4th, and it was culminating now.
Ray Robey: I remember thinking, if every kid could know what this feels like, this would be such a better country. If everyone knew what it was like to band together, drop all your problems, and just be brothers and work, this would be awesome. And I tell kids that to this day. If I could just tear off a piece of that feeling and give it to them, it would change their life.
Brian Kardos: There was a little bittersweetness to it too, a bit of sadness knowing this was the last time this team would ever take the field. And I think we all appreciated it.
Darnell Autry: One of my favorite moments of all time was running out at the stadium and seeing the stadium split, sold out, half purple, half red.
Don Holmes: More than half purple.
Ben Bolch: It was definitely 60-40 Northwestern.
Rob Johnson: 65, 70 percent purple.
Steve Schnur: 70 percent.
Sam Valenzisi: Three-quarters.
Matt Rice: 80 percent.
Chris Martin: It felt like the stadium was all purple.
Stewart Mandel: Everybody went to the Rose Bowl. It's like they took the whole campus and transplanted it to L.A. Our fraternity — and it was a big fraternity, like 100 kids — we had two guys in our fraternity who were from L.A., and we just split up. They both had like 30 kids sleeping on their floors. And it was crazy, you walk around the stadium and you saw all these familiar faces from campus, so out of place. There's the person from my chemistry class. It just seemed like everybody was there. And once it filled in, and got closer to kickoff, you realized that this tiny 8,400-student school was gonna outnumber USC in their own city in the stands. Anybody who ever had any affiliation to the school went to that game.
Rob Johnson: There was more purple in the stands there than there ever was at home. It was just a wild experience.
Brian Kardos: Coach Musseau came onto the field with us. We brought him out to the Rose Bowl. And I turned to look at him in the pregame, and he was crying. He was just so happy. A lot of guys on the team saw it, and we just said, "That is awesome." He got to see what the promised land looked like.
Chris Martin: We're getting ready to do the coin toss, and looking across at USC, I mean, you couldn't have drawn up a better looking team. They looked physically like you were supposed to look. I mean, they were muscled up, chiseled. They were a pretty-looking team.
Casey Dailey: They were everything we weren't. They were all the four- and five-star recruits.
Stewart Mandel: When the game kicked off, there was just an intensity to it that I had never felt before. Every play, you felt like it was the most important play of the world. I can't describe it. We were just so into it.
Ben Bolch: Before the game, just sitting in the stands, letting this amazing season wash over you — "Man, we're here, this is really happening" — it was surreal.
Stewart Mandel: It was not a good USC team, I think they had lost [two] games [and tied one]. Northwestern was ranked much higher. But they were so much more athletic. Keyshawn Johnson just shredded Northwestern.
William Bennett: They schemed us very well. They kept him in motion, and put him underneath. So here's a 6-foot-4 rangy receiver who didn't mind going across the middle.
Chris Martin: We had what we called bracket coverage. But our anticipation heading into the game was that we would be bracketing him from the X position, being an outside wide receiver. We got into the game, they moved him into the slot, so sometimes that negated the bracket coverage. I thought I would see him more, that was supposed to be the big matchup. I hadn't given up a touchdown all season. But when they put him in the slot, that kind of took him away from me.
William Bennett: So here I am as a safety playing over top, and our corners holding down the outside, but he was able to run underneath where our linebackers and nickelback were.
Gary Barnett: Oh, if you put all us coaches in a room together, we'd give you a list of things we would've done differently.
Ron Vanderlinden: [Not having Pat] really affected the Rose Bowl for a lot of reasons. The very first third-and-long in the Rose Bowl, they completed a pass right over where Pat would've been, and it was a play-action pass on third-and-14. Pat would not have jumped up and bit on the play fake. They ran a dig route right on the hash, and Pat would've been right there.
Matt Rice: We didn't get enough pressure on the quarterback. Our DBs got ripped for how they played. I mean, they were playing against a great player, and their quarterback was in the zone, we didn't get enough consistent pressure on him.
Ryan Padgett: With Keyshawn being so fast and explosive, it was sorta that classic Pac 10-Big Ten matchup. We were the old fashioned Big Ten team. They had speed and quickness. And we got down big quick, and you're kinda shaking your head.
USC exploded in the second quarter, and took a 24-7 lead on a 53-yard return of a Brian Musso fumble.
Ryan Padgett: I was the last guy who missed a tackle on that fumble recovery for a touchdown. I remember taking a bad angle on the far sideline, sweeping for his leg and missing, and I remember rolling on my side right on the sideline and watching him going in for a touchdown, and my heart just sank.
Matt Rice: Musso's fumble, his knee was down, clearly he was down. That was a 14-point swing.
Brian Musso: Oh, I think modern replay would have overturned it. I don't think there's a question about it. It was pretty obvious.
Ben Bolch: It was clear that his knee was down.
J.A. Adande: The next day, I was getting on a plane to go to Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, and a photographer who covered the game told me he had shots that showed that Musso's knee was down.
Steve Schnur: We got down, we needed to score. We got [a field goal] right before half that brought us within 24-10. We knew the offense was gonna have to step up and play.
Ryan Padgett: And then slowly we got back into the game, and Steve started to get the hang of it.
In the third quarter, a Brian Gowins field goal and an Autry touchdown got Northwestern back to within 24-19. A 56-yard bomb from Brad Otton to Keyshawn Johnson pushed USC's lead back to 12, but Schnur answered to bring the deficit back to five, 31-26.
Stewart Mandel: And Northwestern came back, and took the lead by 1.
J.A. Adande: That moment Darnell Autry went into the end zone in the fourth quarter... Here was Northwestern, the highest-ranked team playing on New Year's Day, in the Rose Bowl, with the lead in the fourth quarter. And that was as good as it got.
Darnell Autry: When we went up 32-31, I remember running off to the sidelines going, "This is it, this is it."
Dave Eanet: You just kind of had the feeling that this was the perfect way to end the season.
USC wasn't playing along with the narrative though. The Trojans kicked a field goal to retake the lead, and a Delon Washington run late in the fourth quarter gave them a 41-32 advantage.
D'Wayne Bates: At that point, we were desperate to make a play.
Sam Valenzisi: Steve threw a pass to D'Wayne. I remember watching the ball leave Steve's hand, and arching through the air.
D'Wayne Bates: It was in the back of the end zone where either I was gonna catch it, or it was gonna be an incomplete pass. I jumped up, perfect timing, I snagged the ball, hoping that would be a touchdown, which would give us a chance at an onside kick. But apparently there was a holding call. And I watched that tape a thousand times, and I never could find it.
Steve Schnur: I don't know what the call was, but it was not a good call.
Sam Valenzisi: That would've brought us to 41-39.
Stewart Mandel: And then I very vividly remember the field goal attempt bouncing off the upright, and at that point realizing they were gonna lose.
Sam Valenzisi: There was no reason to believe we weren't gonna win, because we belonged. It wasn't until Brian's field goal hit the upright that you sort of said, "Yeah, this is over."
Stewart Mandel: I saw people crying. It just seemed like it had been such a Cinderella, storybook season, it just didn't feel right. To that point, everything had followed the Hollywood script. It didn't feel like it was supposed to end with them losing. I've said many times to friends, there would've been a Hoosiers-type movie made about that season by now if it had ended in a win.
Gary Barnett: I think maybe we believed we had some fairy dust, and we didn't have enough of it. We ran one game short... We ran one quarter short. Probably eight minutes.
Ben Bolch: Barnett had this smile on his face that said, "Well, you know, this wasn't meant to be. We had our moment in the sun. But it's over now."
Ryan Padgett: When you're done, you're sad, you really wanted to cap it off, this magical season. And then taking off that jersey for the last time. You know, you're never gonna play football again. This isn't like playing golf or playing volleyball. You will never do this again. I remember taking off my pads and just bawling. And it wasn't just the loss — to this day I will tell you that that loss, while disappointing, took absolutely nothing away from that season. I remember Barnett coming over and giving me a big hug. I had just got my pads off. And then you walk out, and you're no longer a part of that team. I mean, you are. But you aren't. You're immediately part of the past.
Chapter 18: Reflections
Gary Barnett: We couldn't see the whole year at that point in time. It was hard. You know... I think it took me longer to get over [the loss] than everybody else. I don't think I got over that for a while. I may never have gotten over it.
Darnell Autry: This is gonna sound weird, but it probably took me years to go, "Wow, that was really cool."
Rob Johnson: My disappointment has come later in life. After the game, my career was over with, so there was a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I'm still very, very proud of what we accomplished during that season, and all the accolades that went with it. I wouldn't have traded my five years at Northwestern for five years at Michigan, or USC, or Nebraska or any of these other places that have storied programs. I felt fulfilled. I felt like I had a great career. My disappointment is the cherry on the cake would've been winning that game.
Pat Fitzgerald: I don't know if it pains me [that I wasn't able to play]. I look at it as incredibly motivational. I just want to get back, to lead the purple and white back to Pasadena. That's the goal. It drives me everyday to win a championship here.
Rob Johnson: I'm involved in the mentor program with the team now. I sent [current Northwestern offensive guard] Matt Frazier a text as they were starting their bowl prep, I said, "The one disappointment from my career at Northwestern is losing that Rose Bowl game. You have a chance this year to win 11 games for the first time in program history. That'll be more important to you than anything else when you get to be my age."
Steve Schnur: Time always gives you good perspective, and you start to appreciate a lot of things that happened during the year that you weren't able to appreciate.
Jason Wendland: We didn't do exactly what we wanted to do, but we did something really special.
Brian Musso: I bump into people right now, I'll bump into people every week. "Oh man, I graduated Northwestern in 1975 and I was at the Rose Bowl." To think that a Northwestern grad got to go is pretty cool. That was my feeling. Those people that had lived through 40 years of losing seasons got to go. To me, that was an accomplishment.
Steve Schnur: You get people all the time that remember that and talk about it. And it's great. It touched a lot of people's lives.
Stewart Mandel: I can't even emphasize enough how unexpected it was. This whole subject is very near and dear to my heart. That season was the reason I'm covering college football today. It was just the time of our lives.
William Bennett: I remember being invited to speaking engagements. Non-Northwestern people would come up to me and say, "Thank you for inspiring us." I'm thinking, "What did I do?" What we were able to do as underdogs, and how we carried ourselves, and how we communicated with the media, they were so proud of us. That's why we're still remembered today. Even though they won other Big Ten championships, that season has been remembered the most.
Brian Kardos: We're so conditioned in life to always expect the Disney Cinderella, the happy outcome at the end. And here, we didn't get the fairytale ending. But we had one hell of a good season, and [the Rose Bowl loss] doesn't take away from anything we accomplished. That's actually a very valuable lesson in life. You don't have to have that fairytale ending to have a pretty goddamn good story. And here, you and I are talking 20 years later after the fact about it, and it doesn't matter that we lost that game.
Chris Martin: I can't imagine the amount of hope that that season gave anybody and everybody. There's so many people that came up to me afterwards and said, "Hey, my grandmother was sick in the hospital, and she was wearing Northwestern colors, cheering for Northwestern, rooting for you guys to go all the way."
And when you look at it, hope is such a powerful thing, and that's why I think the story became the story. If I had to sum up that season, it was about hope. And it was about belief without evidence, which is the definition of faith. That all started when we were running up Mount Trashmore. And ironically enough, I live about three blocks away from that hill. It impacted my life far beyond football.
I still run the hill today.