They laughed and shook their heads when Gary Barnett arrived in Evanston, Ill., four years ago. With a straight face, the new coach from Colorado was promising that the team he was taking over, the Northwestern University Wildcats, would go to the Rose Bowl. Didn't he realize that Northwestern had been to a bowl only once in 113 years of football and that was back in 1949? A more apt nickname, many a foe suggested, would be the "Mildcats."
But sure enough, this New Year's Day will find Barnett's bunch in Pasadena, the Big Ten's Rose Bowl representative against Southern California. Accolades for NU's 10-1 turnaround are pouring down on Barnett, but the serenely confident coach quickly passes the credit to others. "The players wanted to learn, and the coaching staff wanted to teach," he says. "It all fell together."
In the past, it all fell down. Northwestern is the smallest school in the Big Ten and the most academically stringent, a campus where prospects must show they can tackle books as well as opponents. With a restricted pool of talent from which to draw, Barnett has had to travel farther to recruit as well as persuade Chicago-area talent to play at home. A soft sell is what he pitches. "Playing for Michigan or Notre Dame is like renting a home. I tell every kid I recruit that at Northwestern, you can be a part of building something." Because NU's football history is so bleak, most prospects go elsewhere. But two who cast their lot with the coach are all-Americans this year.
Recruiting was only half of Barnett's game plan; eradicating a culture of losing was the other. His motto, "Expect Victory," is plastered on the football complex and on T-shirts of players, who in earlier years kept a low campus profile. The team sang Frank Sinatra's "High Hopes" every Thursday and ended each preseason practice with a two-word chant: "Rose Bowl!" Were those hoary cliches the key to victory? "Nah, that's not different from stuff any other coach says," demurs Barnett. "Those seeds need a fertile surface, and usually three quarters of it lands on concrete." Barnett also extended his optimism to the entire campus. Students used to toss marshmallows on the field in boredom and mock rare victories by tearing down the goal posts. Barnett asked them to quit, and they did.
For almost half of his 49 years, Barnett has spent nearly every autumn Saturday on a football field. He was a wide receiver at Missouri in the 1960s. After graduation, he sold insurance and pondered law school, but football's lure was too strong. He coached at the high school and small-college level, then caught on in 1984 as an assistant at the University of Colorado. He was offered his Northwestern job after Colorado won the 1990 national championship.
Now that he's being touted by many as coach of the year, other schools would welcome his magic. He may be talking to some, but he sounds like a man who wants to help Northwestern beat the odds again. "Sustaining is the ultimate challenge, which is harder than getting there," he says. "The next step is proving that this is not a one-year wonder."