Purple in Pasadena
It started in September and never really diminished. One upset. Then another. Then another. And another. The national championship in college football may have belonged once again to Nebraska, but the STORY of the year was Northwestern.
Opening weekend. In South Bend. Notre Dame vs. Northwestern. Just another wild Irish romp, the kind Notre Dame had been regularly putting on the Mildcats since the days when Ara Parseghian was still coaching in Evanston.
Consider: The Wildcats were picked to finish 10th in the 11 team Big Ten, ahead of only Minnesota. They hadn't had a winning season since 1971. They hadn't been to a bowl game since 1949.
But Gary Barnett knew that would change. Maybe not in this particular game, but certainly in this particular year. “I thought we would be decent,” said Barnett, long after the Wildcats had stunned the college world by beating not only Notre Dame, but Michigan and Penn State. All in the same season. “I thought we had the right chemistry with this group of kids.”
Chemistry, shmemistry. The Wildcats had the right talent. From running back Darnell Autry to quarterback Steve Schnur to a defense that made play after play.
The irony of it all was that their only regular season loss came against Miami of Ohio. At home. And after they seemed to have the game well in hand only to squander it with a bad punt snap inside their own 5 yard line, which set up a game-winning field goal for Miami.
That was on Sept. 16th, two weeks after their win over Notre Dame and everyone tucked the Wildcats into the discard pile as one of those one-week upset wonders.
Certainly, the oddsmakers did. In nearly every game the remainder of the season, the Wildcats were underdogs. But all they did was win. They went to Michigan and shocked everyone by winning there. They came home a couple of weeks later and beat Penn State.
And when Michigan stunned unbeaten Ohio State in the final game of the regular season, the impossible had happened. Northwestern was 8-0 in its conference. As Barnett promised when he took over the seemingly dead-end job five years ago, “I'm going to bring the purple to Pasadena.” Northwestern was heading to the Rose Bowl.
It was all so new. Recruits coming to town in December and the Wildcats were still practicing. Press conferences and lots of media days.
Chicago went wild. When the Wildcats left for Pasadena for their Rose Bowl date with USC, cameras followed them onto the runway. As the team plane was loading up, another plane was landing and unloading its passengers. One photographer looked over, saw the passengers getting off the plane and returned to the Wildcats. “It's only Michael (Jordan),” said the photographer, concentrating on getting pictures of Barnett and his players.
Pasadena was indeed purple for a week. And right up until game time, the town and the Rose Bowl seemed to belong to Northwestern, but then USC went out and spoiled it by outgunning the Wildcats.
In a game which had the drama of a national championship, the Wildcats and Trojans traded touchdowns for almost four quarters. Could the impossible dream season end with a Rose Bowl victory?
No. USC held on and pulled away for a 41-32 victory. As proof of how magical this season was for Northwestern, there was even a possibility that this loss could be overturned due to Pac-10 and NCCA player eligibility investigations
Still, the 1995 dream season was over. Northwestern was still 10-2. Still the Big Ten champion. Still the Cinderella team of the season, the most surprising story of the year in college football.
To show how far the Wildcats had come, Barnett was courted heavily by Georgia, UCLA and Rutgers. He turned them all down and signed a long term extension to stay at Northwestern.
Small wonder. The Wildcats have 19 of 22 starters returning.
When asked why he chose to stay, Barnett smiled. “We're still building,” he said. “This is a good place. Why would you want to be anywhere else?”