Oral history of Northwestern's magical run to the Rose Bowl

It was a season that included upsets over Notre Dame and Michigan, a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl bid. "It was the beginning of the modern era of Northwestern football. We're not everybody's homecoming anymore," said former center Rob Johnson. Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty Images

Northwestern is 10-2 and has a chance to set a new school record for victories in a season if it can beat Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. None of this likely would have been possible if not for what happened 20 years ago. In 1995, the Wildcats authored one of the greatest Cinderella sports stories of all time. A perennial Big Ten doormat and the butt of many jokes, Northwestern stunned the country that year by winning the Big Ten and earning its first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1949.

"A lot of people love to root for underdogs," said Chris Martin, a starting cornerback on that '95 team. "Our team provided a ray of hope."

It also kickstarted a new era for Wildcats football, one still linked to 1995 through current head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was a star linebacker on that team 20 years ago. Players and coaches from that 1995 team held two reunions this year, one in the summer and another during homecoming for the Iowa game. The bond they formed from that magical season will never be broken.

Here's a look back at one of the most remarkable turnaround seasons in college football history, as told by those who lived through it:

Part I: Humble beginnings

For decades, Northwestern was the scourge of the Big Ten, if not all of college football.

The Wildcats went 47 years between bowl games, lost an NCAA record 34 straight games from 1979-82 and averaged two wins per season from 1971-95.

Gary Barnett, Northwestern head coach, 1992-98: We had just never done well. We were an embarrassment.

Darnell Autry, running back: The student body couldn't stand us. Every write-up in the campus newspaper was about how we didn't deserve a scholarship based on how bad we're playing.

Chris Martin, cornerback: We were such a laughingstock and a joke. We went to play at Boston College and they were chanting, "Northwestern High." It was so embarrassing. On Saturdays, the library would be filled and the stadium would be empty.

Steve Schnur, quarterback: There were always rumors about, "Is Northwestern going to get kicked out of the Big Ten?"

Jim Delany, Big Ten commissioner: I do remember that came up from time to time. My response was, "We'd all be better off if we were moving in Northwestern's direction, not the other way around." But they had the long losing streak, and that became part of their brand, which wasn't healthy.

Mike Greenberg, co-host of ESPN's Mike & Mike Show, 1989 Northwestern graduate: My freshman year, they won a game against Northern Illinois and they laked the goal posts. That's not something you do when your expectations are playing in the Rose Bowl. I was there for a lot of bad football teams. If you had said to me the day before the 1995 season, "Will you ever in your lifetime see Northwestern play in the Rose Bowl?" not only would I have said no, I would have laughed at you. It was not even on the list of options.

Part II: High hopes

Things began to change when Barnett was hired. He had been an assistant on Colorado's 1990 national championship team. Shortly after he arrived in Evanston, Illinois, Barnett was introduced at a home basketball game and famously told the crowd that he was going to "Take the Purple to Pasadena." He also coined the motto, "Expect Victory."

Gary Barnett: Once I got there, everything I did pointed to the Rose Bowl. I had a sign in my office with a picture of Rose Bowl and an arrow pointing west. I had a rose in a crystal bowl on my desk, a poster from the 1949 Rose Bowl on the wall. If you walked in my office, you couldn't help but see three or four things about the Rose Bowl. We were going to subliminally get that in our players' minds if nothing else.

Seth Meyers, host of NBC's "Late Night with Seth Meyers," 1996 Northwestern graduate: It was fun to have a coach who talked that way, but it wasn't something that any of us thought would happen. "Expect Victory" seemed like, if you were writing a comedy about a football team, that would be what a coach with far too much optimism would say. There was no expectation that they would be good. We'd gone on the road a few times and seen the team get killed. It was fun to go. But to some degree, when you dress up in Northwestern gear and go on the road, you're doing it ironically. We felt as if, "Isn't this humorous that we traveled all the way here for the inevitable."

The rebuild didn't happen overnight for Barnett. His first two teams went 3-8 and 2-9, and the 1994 squad was 3-7-1. It was hardly the harbinger for what was to come in 1995.

Gary Barnett: You're doing the right things and you think you're getting the right kids and making progress, but sometimes you wonder if you've really gone anywhere. I really felt that way through those first three years. Over the course of the winter after that and the following spring, we just started feeling that we had most of the pieces. That told us we could at least get to a bowl game -- which would have been a significant jump for Northwestern.

Jerry Brown, defensive backs coach: The story I always tell is that we just practiced so hard that spring and summer. The defense took great pride in never ever letting the ball get through to the cornerbacks, never letting guys past the line of scrimmage. I'm thinking, "We've got a chance."

Pat Fitzgerald, linebacker: That summer was the first summer that everybody stayed around in Evanston. It was the players' choice. We heard the guys were staying in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so we wanted to stay here.

That summer featured record-high temperatures, and the team was forced to repeatedly run up a hill called Mount Trashmore in an Evanston park by strength coach Larry Lilja, who placed a Rose Bowl sign at the top.

Chris Martin: It was the most grueling thing imaginable. There were holes in it, divots and it was designed to trip you up. But it made us mentally rigid. We were like, "We're getting up this hill. If I've got to carry you or you have to carry me, we're going to make it. Failure is not an option."

D'Wayne Bates, wide receiver: That's where "Expect Victory" came to life for us. You never know how big of a mountain you can climb until you run up one and complete it.

Keith Lozowski, defensive end: A lot of camaraderie came from those summer workouts. In the evening, we'd do crazy stuff like try to rip phone books in half. We took a blue-collar mentality around. We said, "We might be outmanned, we might play teams [that] have better recruiting classes than we do. But they're not going to outwork us."

D'Wayne Bates: Coach Barnett played the song "High Hopes" every day, during meetings and practice. When we first heard it, we were like, "What the heck is this song?" But you heard it so much, you started memorizing it. In adverse moments that season, you thought about one of the characters in that song. I love Coach Barnett for the mental toughness and psychology he taught us.

Rob Johnson, center: Chemistry is one of those things hard to define. All I can say is that we were friends who cared and who do still love each other very much. I didn't want to miss a block because I didn't want to go back to the huddle if I did. It was almost like a pseudo-religious experience.

Gary Barnett: My first recruiting class was really tight. They didn't get infected by older guys who had attitudes. But by the time '95 rolled around, that was a tight-knit group. And the one thing we knew was, we had a running back.

Darnell Autry: After my [redshirt] freshman year [in '94], I was ready to transfer. The winter hit and I was homesick. I tried twice to leave. Over Christmas break, Coach Barnett told me to stick it out one more year. I got to the end of that year, and I was ready to transfer still.

Gary Barnett: He goes home and says he wants his release. This time, his dad tells me, "Don't give him his release." On Father's Day 1995, he asked his dad what he wanted for a present. His dad said, "For you to go back to Northwestern." Otherwise, we don't have Darnell.

Rob Johnson: We felt like we had a difference maker at running back. D'Wayne Bates was an incredible player at receiver, too, but we really had the ability to run the ball.

Gary Barnett: Steve Schnur was our third-string quarterback at the end of spring practice. Before fall camp, the guy we'd anointed as the starter left school. So we put Steve up there and said, "We're going with it."

Tragedy struck the team just before training camp started. Marcel Price, a promising and popular freshman safety, was shot and killed by a friend in Nashville, Tennessee. The Wildcats wore a patch on their jerseys that season that read "Big Six," in honor of Price's jersey number.

D'Wayne Bates: He was going to be a dynamite player for us. Even though we had great success, he might have made an even bigger difference for us. We were playing for Northwestern, but we were also all playing for Marcel Price that year.

Part III: An upset heard 'round college football

Northwestern opened the 1995 season at Notre Dame, a team they had not beaten since 1962. It entered the game as a 27-point underdog.

Seth Meyers: I went to South Bend, Indiana, with about eight other friends. I remember someone had grabbed a bunch of those "Hello, my name is ..." tags and all of us had written "Expect Victory" on them. For us, it was more of a joke than a reality.

In the weeks leading up to the game, Barnett broke out a scale and said he would put a penny on one side for every good Wildcats practice and one on the other side for every good Notre Dame practice.

Chris Martin: I seems so silly to be practicing so hard looking for a penny to be placed on that scale. But we literally were. We were like, "We've got to make sure we get this penny today."

Tucker Morrison, linebacker: Things weren't going well for us the in the latter part of training camp, so we were trying to catch up. Then, as we were going through our walk-through, Coach told us he'd found a lucky penny. He put it on the scale, and that tipped things in our favor. Right there in the 11th hour, when your coach tells you he believes in you, everybody kind of has this little fever pitch building.

Keith Lozowski: I remember Coach told us right before the game: "When we win, you don't carry me off this field. This is what we expect to do here."

Northwestern scored first, never trailed and led 17-9 in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame tried to rally but bungled a two-point conversion attempt, and Matt Rice made a fourth-down tackle on the Irish's final drive. The Wildcats held on for the 17-15 win.

Matt Rice, defensive tackle: That was one of the best plays of my career. I remember absolute silence in the stadium. You could hear a pin drop except for a small handful of Northwestern fans. It was such a beautiful silence.

Seth Meyers: You kind of couldn't believe it was happening.

Steve Schnur: We got on a roll and punched them in the mouth on a couple of drives. Suddenly, it starts to dawn on you that, "Holy s---," we may actually win this game.

Gary Barnett: We weren't as shocked as everybody else was. I remember a radio station in Chicago grabbed me out of the locker room and started out the interview with, "Here's the losingest football team in the history of the NCAA ..." I said, "That's it, I'm not doing this. You can't talk about us this way and we're not going to take it." And I walked away from the interview. It was so easy for everybody to talk negatively about us, and I wasn't going to let people do it.

Justin Chabot, offensive lineman: I remember going home on the bus along the toll road on I-90. We pulled up to that crowded toll booth, and people figured out who we were. Everyone started honking their horns for us. It was kind of like a mini celebration. Every time I pull through that toll booth, I remember that night.

Rob Johnson: The bus pulls back into the stadium in Evanston, and there are fans there waiting for us and the marching band was playing for us. That was a level of support we had never experienced before.

Northwestern was ranked No. 25 the following week -- its first appearance in the polls since 1971. But the high wore off quickly. The following Saturday against Miami (Ohio), the Wildcats blew a 21-point fourth quarter lead at home and lost 30-28.

Gary Barnett: We gave the game away. Our deep snapper broke his hand, and our backup snapper had three bad snaps. The last one went right between the punter's legs to the 1-yard line. We kick that ball, we win the game.

Seth Meyers: You just were like, "Oh, well, this season will just be about that we won that Notre Dame game and nothing more than that."

Steve Schnur: Coach Barnett was always telling us parables and stories. After the Miami game, he told us a story about how a tribe in Africa caught monkeys in the jungle to sell to zoos. They'd cut a hole in a coconut and put an Oreo inside in. The monkey would reach in and couldn't get its hand out because it had the Oreo clenched in its fist. So the lesson was the only way to move on is to let go. It was probably made up and sounds stupid now, but I remember thinking it made a whole lot of sense back then.

Rob Johnson: If we wouldn't have lost that game, we would have lost somewhere else down the road. It was like the final lesson we had to learn as a team: Hey, we're not good enough to put it in cruise control.

Matt Rice: I think that's the theory my teammates tell themselves so they can live with it.

Part IV: Big Ten bullies

The initial excitement about the team faded after the Miami loss, but the Wildcats got back on track with wins against Air Force and Indiana. That set up a showdown at No. 7 Michigan.

Rob Johnson: They were far and away the most talented team we played that season, top to bottom. If we had played them 100 times, they would have beaten us in 99 of them.

Tucker Morrison: Fitz was all over the field that day. He made a ton of tackles. And Steve just didn't make mistakes at quarterback. That was kind of his calling card.

Pat Fitzgerald: That was a great Michigan team. Just one of those epic battles.

Northwestern took advantage of four Michigan turnovers and scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to pull off its second shocking upset of the early season. The Wildcats hadn't won in Ann Arbor since 1959.

Matt Rice: That was the only time all year that we felt like we stole one. All the other games, we really controlled the game and earned the win. That was one was like, "How did we beat those guys?"

Gary Barnett: We had confidence, but we knew we had to play every damn snap. It took us until the last snap to win it, but we won. That also said to us, "Hey, you know what, we could maybe win this league."

Steve Schnur: Once we won that one, we were like, "Oh, my goodness. This is really shaping up to be something special."

From there, Northwestern rolled to victories against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, rising to the top 10 of the polls. Interest in the team reached unprecedented levels.

Steve Schnur: I had a published phone number at the time and was living with my girlfriend, now wife, in an apartment. The phone would ring constantly, and it would be radio stations wanting to interview me. I didn't know any better, so I'd start talking to them. We were learning all that stuff on the fly.

Pat Fitzgerald: It felt like the whole campus was a part of it.

Keith Lozowski: It went from no one at your games to sellout crowds. The Bears weren't doing all that well, so we kind of became the football team of Chicago. To have big-time football like that right there in Evanston, no one had really experienced it in their lifetimes.

Mike Greenberg: It wasn't just Evanston. All of Chicago got behind the team. For a little while, Northwestern football was by far the biggest thing going on in Chicago sports, and bear in mind this was during the [Michael] Jordan era.

Chris Martin: I remember Darnell Autry needed a wheelbarrow for all the letters he got.

Rob Johnson: To go from zero support to the biggest story in the past decade of college football in one of the largest media markets, yeah, it was pretty intense.

The first game of November brought a visit from Penn State, which had gone undefeated and finished No. 2 in 1994. ABC televised the game, which was called by legendary play-by-play man Keith Jackson.

Gary Barnett: I had breakfast with the seniors the morning of the game, and I asked them the same question I always did: "What do I have to do to help us win this football game?" They literally said, "Just tell us when the buses leave, Coach. If you have to say a word to us, we're not doing our job." I would usually put a saying on the cover of our itinerary, but that day, all I did was put what time the bus would leave.

Keith Lozowski: The Big Ten championship was in sight. Things were relevant in November when they hadn't been in the past. The guys were having a lot of fun and we were playing loose.

Autry ran for three touchdowns, including one early in the fourth quarter that helped seal the 21-10 victory. Autry, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting that year, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week.

Darnell Autry: It was a good time for the cameras to be on, I'll tell you that.

Justin Chabot: Penn State's players weren't surprised like Michigan's and Notre Dame's players had been. They didn't run off field to their locker room. They walked across the line of scrimmage, shook our hands and wished us good luck. I feel like that was the first time we'd gotten the respect of our peers.

Seth Meyers: We went to that game, and then we ran home and watched it on a VHS tape. Just hearing Keith Jackson intone the names of the Northwestern Wildcats roster was something we never thought we'd hear.

Northwestern beat Iowa on Senior Day with ESPN's "College GameDay" on hand. But it was a costly victory, as Fitzgerald suffered a season-ending broken leg. The Wildcats then won at Purdue to finish 8-0 and clinch at least a share of the program's first Big Ten title since 1936. They would have to wait another week to find out if they would go to the Rose Bowl, because Ohio State was 7-0 heading into the Michigan game on Thanksgiving weekend.

Pat Fitzgerald: That might be the first and only time I've ever rooted for Michigan (laughs). But I was a big fan that day.

Rob Johnson: I watched it with my family. I don't think I've ever watched a sporting event as intently since or ever will again. We were living and breathing off every single play.

Gary Barnett: There were probably 50 guys in our team room watching it. When Michigan beat Ohio State, the whole place erupted. There were cars driving around our building honking. I went home, and my front yard was filled with roses.

Part V: The purple go to Pasadena

Northwestern, ranked No. 3 at the end of the season, made the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949. It was matched up against No. 17 USC.

Steve Schnur: We were like little kids at Christmastime. At our first organized bowl event, they gave everybody a duffel bag with a Rose Bowl logo on it and some gear inside. We were like, "Can we seriously keep this stuff?"

Keith Lozowski: We had celebrities come out to our practices, like David Schwimmer and Charlton Heston. We went on Jay Leno. At the time you don't realize how special it is. But now you look back 20 years later and it's like, "Holy crap, we did all that?"

Matt Rice: I remember coming out of the tunnel and seeing the crowd, and it seemed like it was almost entirely purple. The place is so beautiful, with the mountains in the background. I remember thinking, "This is how it's supposed to be."

But the game didn't go like most of the season for Northwestern, which led the nation in scoring defense during the regular season. USC jumped out to a 24-10 halftime lead and withstood a Wildcats rally to win 41-32. Keyshawn Johnson, the Trojans' star wide receiver, was the game's MVP with a Rose Bowl record 12 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown. USC quarterback Brad Otton threw for 391 yards.

Matt Rice: It was a different type of offense than we'd faced all season, which was the Big Ten, everybody trying to establish the run. They came out chucking it. At some point, I said, "I'm done trying to play the run. I'm just going to pass rush every down." It probably took me longer to convert to that than it should.

Keith Lozowski: I think Keyshawn Johnson happened to us. Not having Fitz in that game obviously was significant. He was not only somebody who made plays all over the field, he was the heartbeat of the defense, the calm in the storm. You can't replace that.

Seth Meyers: To this day, I'm still surprised that quarterback didn't go on to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, because we didn't have much of a chance against him.

Rob Johnson: We broke every huddle that season by saying, "Rose Bowl." We probably should have changed it to "Win the Rose Bowl."

Justin Chabot: I don't like being referred to as the Rose Bowl team, because we lost the Rose Bowl. I prefer being referred to as Big Ten champions.

Chris Martin: That game still haunts me at times. It's the one game I've never gone back and watched.

Pat Fitzgerald: It was a magical run. Unfortunately, we didn't have a magical ending.

Part VI: Legacy

Mike Greenberg: That loss does not in any way take away from my memories of that year. They did not win a national championship or even the Rose Bowl, but they probably accomplished as much for one school as any team ever has. That season was a miracle.

Jim Delany: I think it was one of the bigger stories in college sports during my time here.

Steve Schnur: From that point forward, everything changed. New stadium, new locker rooms, new facilities. It's gratifying to know we had a hand in that whole thing changing.

D'Wayne Bates: It comes down to two words: Cultural change. Whenever I speak at the high school I work at or give a speech at an event, I share stories from that time about how to change a culture. I lived it.

Rob Johnson: It was the beginning of the modern era of Northwestern football. We're not everybody's homecoming anymore. People don't think of Northwestern as having one of the longest losing streaks in history. They think of it as a football school in some respect. We showed that, "Yeah, we can do things right way, have great academics and still be successful on the football field."

Jerry Brown: "Expect Victory" was a good selling point. Now it's the real deal.

Darnell Autry: The legacy of that team is so much bigger than us. We represented teams across the country. As I've gotten older and traveled around a bit, I hear stories all the time from people who were like, "Hey, if Northwestern can do it, we can do it." The takeaway is that you can do anything if you put your mind to it and focus. That's always a constant reminder to me in my life.

Seth Meyers: It's still the most improbable sports season I've ever been lucky enough to be a fan of.