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Barnett Steered Northwestern in Right Direction Last Spring

November 30, 1995|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary Barnett, the Northwestern football coach, came to Pasadena on Wednesday to discuss the season that catapulted the Wildcats into the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949.

"We are living proof that history does indeed repeat itself," he said, grinning.

Appearing with USC Coach John Robinson at the Rose Bowl's annual kickoff event, the opening news conference at Pasadena's Tournament House, Barnett said he saw the first signs of what would be a 10-1 season last spring.

"After spring practice, I felt we'd put ourselves into a position to step up a level defensively, that we could now stop the run in the Big Ten," he said of a program that was 2-9 in 1993 and 3-7-1 last year.

"And I could see that we'd have a good overall defense and very good special teams. With those two things going for you, you have a chance against anybody. But to get to the Rose Bowl, you need luck and a lot of other things."

Barnett said another major factor was the ability of his players to perform at a high level in the suddenly supercharged football environment of Evanston, where Northwestern had had 23 consecutive losing teams.

It wasn't long ago that Wildcat rooters, seeing Iowa thrash their team, began chanting:

"That's all right, that's OK, we will own your farms one day."

Then, this season, an amazing chant burst forth at Dyche Stadium, during a Nov. 11 victory over Iowa:

"Rose Bowl! Rose Bowl!"

Said Barnett: "The atmosphere around our campus has been as electric as anything I've ever seen. Remember, this is a school where not long ago we'd be greeted at the airport by coaches' wives and players' girlfriends.

"After we beat Purdue [Nov. 18], 3,000 people were at the airport. I enjoyed our locker room after the Purdue game, the joy on my players' faces.

"It was the first time I kind of stepped back and watched them enjoy it all. I felt like a father, seeing his children do something they didn't think they could do."

Evanston, Ill., is today clearly a different place. Blue and white flags decorate homes in the campus district. Vendors selling Wildcat garb are everywhere along Central Avenue on game days, at 49,000-seat Dyche Stadium.

The first three home games drew less than 30,000. Then, after the team came home from beating Michigan and Minnesota, Northwestern finished to three sellouts.

And please, don't ask for Rose Bowl tickets.

"There's plenty of room left on our bandwagon," Barnett said, "but we don't have any more tickets."

And no, he wasn't surprised by the 31-23 Michigan victory over Ohio State that put his team in the Rose Bowl, Barnett said.

"I felt all along Michigan had a great chance to win, and my players felt the same way," he said.

"It was a win-win situation for us. . . . We were going to a major bowl, no matter what.

"Ohio State won all year with a very powerful offense. I felt if they got behind and had to catch up . . . I didn't know if they knew how to do that. They faced that adversity against Michigan and they couldn't do it."

Robinson said he was most impressed with Northwestern's consistency this year. Barnett agreed, saying his team played 43 good quarters this year.

Referring to a 30-28 loss to Miami of Ohio the week after the Wildcats beat Notre Dame at South Bend, 17-15, Barnett recalled the pain.

"We were up, 28-7, after three quarters, then the players stood around and wondered where they'd be in the next ratings.

"But it was something they had to go through; we see it now as part of the maturing of this program. It traumatized everyone for three days, then the players and coaches had to let go of it.

"If we hadn't, it would have trapped us."

He was asked if Northwestern's 1995 story is one to inspire the sorriest of losers.

"Any program can do what we did--providing you do the right things and most importantly you're working for an administration that wants to win," Barnett said.

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