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Voters Formally Slight Wildcats

September 05, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Success in sport can often be measured by the number of times you need to swing by the dry cleaners in a given week.

Michael Jordan knows.

And so, now, does Northwestern Coach Gary Barnett.

"No question," Barnett says by phone from mania headquarters in Evanston, Ill. "I wore the tux 17 times in the off-season."

The NCAA doesn't keep statistics for most black-tie affairs attended, but let's go out on a limb and make Barnett the record holder.

The whirlwind that was Northwestern's 1995 season? It blew right into the 1996 off-season.

Cue the slide projector:

Click: Here's Barnett picking up his ESPY from Northwestern alumna Ann-Margret.

Click: Here's the coach throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field, and then, click, singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with Harry Caray.

Click: OK, here we have Barnett holding a box of Wheaties adorned with Northwestern helmets.

Click: Focus please, ah yes, here's the dazed coach picking up one of his 17 coach-of-the-year awards. Not sure he knows which award this one is.

Click: Check out the escort the coach needs here to get through Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

Click: Oh, this is the coach's wife, Mary, tending to the hundreds of roses fans left on the Barnetts' porch last fall after the team clinched its first Rose Bowl trip in 47 years.

Click: Here's the coach blowing out candles at his 50th birthday party in May.

Click: There's Barnett in his office, reading one of the several preseason guides picking Northwestern to finish fifth in the 11-team Big Ten this season.

Click: Finally, here's Barnett pouring lighter fluid on the magazine and tossing it into his barbecue.

What's wrong with this picture show?

How is it that Northwestern and Barnett, the team and coach that gave us the decade's most enthralling rags-to-roses stories, could be so summarily dismissed eight months after the commotion.

You could understand it if the Wildcats had lost half their 1995 roster from last year's 10-2 team.

Hardly the case. Northwestern, only the second team in history to defeat Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State in the same season, returns largely intact. Eight of 11 starters return on offense. It was nine before fullback Matt Hartl was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and was lost for the season.

Every name player off last year's team--quarterback Steve Schnur, running back Darnell Autry, receiver D'Wayne Bates--is returning.

Northwestern lost seven defensive starters, but returns seven players with starting experience, including All-American linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, who sat out

the last two games because of a broken

leg.

All told, Northwestern got back 16 seniors, including six fifth-year seniors on the offensive line.

Even after Northwestern's 41-32 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, Northwestern finished seventh in the final USA Today/coaches poll and eighth in the Associated Press poll.

Yet, essentially the same team returned from summer vacation to discover it had fallen to 19th in the preseason coaches' poll, 18th in AP.

"I guess we haven't changed that many opinions," Barnett says. "That isn't up to me."

The taking down of Northwestern is mystifying.

You know where people are coming from, that this is Wisconsin redux. A one-year wonder. Barry Alvarez shook a doormat Badger team to the Rose Bowl in 1993, then returned it to mediocrity.

But there are differences. Alvarez lost most of his staff after that season. Barnett returns with the same 10 assistants for the fourth season in a row.

Last year wasn't a fluke, it was the culmination of a game plan.

In Barnett's first season, 1992, his defense finished last in the nation in scoring defense.

Last season, Northwestern finished first (12.7 points per game).

"Same concept, same terminology, same coaches," Barnett says.

Last year wasn't a joke, it was a new beginning, one reason Barnett turned down more money from UCLA to stay and finish the job.

Northwestern didn't win with mirrors, it won with brain and brawn. Autry fumbled one time in 387 carries. Schnur was intercepted six times in 257 attempts.

Barnett is taking the preseason projections in stride.

"To tell you the truth," he says, "we've never been picked to finish in the middle of the pack. That's a compliment. When you get picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten, that's a show of respect."

If anything, Northwestern's route is easier this year.

Gone from the schedule is that pesky Notre Dame squad that gave the Wildcats a scare in last year's opener.

Check out this year's back-to-school schedule: at Wake Forest (Saturday), at Duke, Ohio, and at Indiana.

If Northwestern isn't 4-0 heading into

its Oct. 5 home showdown against Michigan, maybe the Wildcats will finish fifth.

When Barnett took the job in 1992, he looked at the 1996 schedule and breathed a sigh.

"This is the year that we'll win six games," he told himself.

How expectations have changed.

Barnett doesn't take much stock in predictions.

At the Big Ten media day, in fact, he conducted his own survey.

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