High Hopes

Taking the Purple to Pasadena


By Gary Barnett

By Vahe Gregorian

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The man who transformed the Northwestern University Wildcats into a championship-winning team–the top story in college football in 1995–and who was named Coach of the Year discusses his leadership philosophies, his coaching techniques, and his winning year.



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Warner Books, Inc.

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com

First eBook Edition: October 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-56730-5


The authors are grateful to Rocky Walther, Visions Sports Management's Mike Ward and Mark Dunn, and Warner's Larry Kirshbaum and Rick Wolff for the engineering of this project. The final product would not have been possible without the technical assistance and encouragement of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jim Mosley and Jeff Goedelman, and the staff of Bishop Books, in particular senior editor Carrie Chase.

Also instrumental were Northwestern football program coordinator Jeff Genyk; Northwestern sports information director Brad Hurlbut, and Lisa Juscik and Mark Simpson of his staff; and Sherry Herget, Judie Kleecamp, and Brenda Trapp of Walther-Glenn Law Associates.

Thanks to Steve Musseau, Robert Neuschel, Post-Dispatch sports editor Mike Smith, and Warner's Rob McMahon, Tina Andreadis, and Julie Saltman.

—Gary Barnett and Vahé Gregorian


Expect Victory

"Failure is not an option."

—from the Universal Studios movie Apollo 13

When it comes to Northwestern football, most people who weren't paying close attention might have thought of a different quote from that movie. Like, "Houston, we have a problem." After all, we had gone 8-24-1 in my first three seasons, beginning in 1992. You couldn't blame the uninformed for thinking the program still was going nowhere fast.

What they didn't understand was that at 211 degrees, water is just hot. At 212, one more degree of temperature, water turns to steam, which can create enough energy to move a train through a mountain pass. We were simmering at 211.

In the spring of 1995, I firmly believed we were on the precipice of something special. I'm not going to say I knew we would lead the nation in scoring defense—but I knew we would have a healthy, rugged Big Ten Conference-worthy defense. I can't say I knew we would go to the Rose Bowl—but I knew we were ready to win games.

I thought we might be a year from maturing and blossoming, but during the Big Ten preseason media luncheon I said, "We're ready to make a move in this league." When I was asked who I thought would win the conference, I smiled but wasn't exactly joking when I said Northwestern. People reacted like I had been smoking weed.

But everything was unmistakably building and brewing in the spring. You could just sense it. When we finished spring practice, I held up a picture of a Velociraptor from the movie Jurassic Park. I told our guys, "This is what happened this spring: A baby Velociraptor has just broken through its egg.

"We have three months to grow up," I said, pointing to this nasty picture, "and become this."

For someone not intimately involved, it would have been hard to have a sense of where we were. I gained a real appreciation of this in the spring of 1996, when I was the color commentator for SportsChannel's broadcast of our spring game. As I sat up in the booth and watched, the first thing I thought was, "No wonder broadcasters and sportswriters can be so critical."

Up there, insulated behind the glass, far from the field, they can see the game but they can never feel it. On the sideline, you feel it—the speed, the struggles, the pain, the noises, the strategies, the smells, the accomplishment of making even a first down. The beauty and all the remarkable aspects of football, more than any other game, come from being immersed in the environment.

If you're not down in there, well, you're just watching plays unfold. So when I take the local beat writers out to dinner before this season—something I do every year—I may challenge them to spend some time with us on the sideline this year.

During the first three years at Northwestern, coaching was like learning to drive a stickshift. You had to consciously hit all the pedals, shift the levers, hit the accelerator, steer. Every movement was conscious and labored. At some point in 1995, Northwestern football turned into a smooth-shifting automatic.

All I had to do was point the team in the right direction and provide a little acceleration now and then. Even then, most of the time I could put it on cruise control. There was so much positive energy in the group that I just had to rev it up, let it go and keep out of the way.

To me, beating Notre Dame in our first game required no quantum leap—even if on the way back from South Bend, Indiana, I experienced one of the most intense feelings I've ever had. I sat there on the bus grinning like I had physically given birth to my first child. I remembered when my wife, Mary, had our boy, Clay. She stayed up all night smiling, and now I sort of knew how that must have felt. Sort of.

Those of us in the eye of it all just felt like what we were doing was right. We were taking the necessary steps and doing what we as coaches had decided were the right things to do in all these situations. It seemed to lead to a logical, sequential outcome, and the truth is any program can do what we did. Many, many times along the way it was hard to feel like we were making any progress, but those who could be close to it all yet step away enough to be objective could see something shaping.

The discipline of not falling off the road you've chosen is essential, but the guidelines we came to use are actually pretty basic. They're simple concepts for success that you don't necessarily need a football coach's affirmation to make special.

We always approached our goals with more than just the football field in mind, because we didn't want to be about winning at all costs. The true satisfaction for us was going to be in turning the team around and knowing we had done it properly and fairly, without compromising our values or priorities.

No matter what somebody does in his or her particular walk of life, there are issues of right and wrong to make decisions about. It's usually harder to do the right thing and honor your conviction. What the right things for us at Northwestern were always seemed obvious. They had to do with belief and trust and patience. Caring. Listening. Having faith. Extreme hard work. Hunger.

Those might sound trite, but that's only because too many people talk about those qualities without understanding them or taking them to heart. To overcome our many obstacles, each of those qualities had to be there. They were all part of the puzzle, and we had to focus keenly to know how to integrate them all.

A picture that comes to mind is this: When you walk across stones in a stream, you must concentrate on the stones—because the minute you look up to see what's passing by, you're going to slide in the water. You have to focus on the stones and precisely where your feet are going.

That kind of focus comes naturally for me, though I have to admit it's not necessarily always a virtue. I probably inherit the stick-to-it-iveness from my mother, Edith, and in me it's almost obsessive. Even when things probably need to be stopped, I can't let go until they're absolutely finished.

For example, when I get up on a Sunday, there might be three or four things I've decided I have to do. It might not be anything important, just stuff like running or watching part of a golf tournament or going over to the office to look at a film. But if I don't find some way to do all four or five of those, I almost turn into a jerk—don't I, Mary?

If I've decided on a flight plan, that's it. I'm on the flight plan, and you can't get me off it. It doesn't need to be that way. I mean, at times it's ridiculous at home. But it's probably okay at work.

I'm an extension of my mother in other ways, too: Every single person is important to her, and they are to me, too. That's why when I meet people I work hard at remembering their names. I say to myself that a person's first name is one of the most important things they have, and I know how valuable it is to be able to say, "Hey, Hudhaifa," instead of, "Hey, how you doing?"

That feeling probably is also why I always thank people for asking me for my autograph. I consider it an honor to be asked. I always will.

Even if I wasn't totally surprised by the good that came on the field in 1995, I won't pretend I was remotely prepared for the sideshow that followed.

The steadily growing attention from the public and the media, I had gotten used to. But from the minute Michigan beat Ohio State to leave us the undisputed Big Ten champion and launch us into the Rose Bowl, our world spun out of control. In fact, everything began to change in the middle of that game.

When it looked like Michigan might win, strangers cascaded into our football building, the Nicolet Center, where we were watching the game in the auditorium. Hundreds of people were there by the end, blowing horns, waving flags and hollering.

Roses were everywhere, although the Rose Bowl people kind of messed up by not being there to personally present us with the bid. They did it by camera. Just for the fun of it, I didn't accept right away. I said I needed to ask our players whether they might be interested. It turned out they were.

Had we gone to the Citrus Bowl, which was where we were heading if the Rose Bowl hadn't worked out, I'm not sure the ensuing publicity would have been what it was. Once we got the Rose Bowl bid, everything just kicked up into turbo. Everything tripled in magnitude: I'm talking media, fans, everything.

One day, the voice mail and E-mail systems at the university just blew up because they were so overloaded with congratulations and ticket requests. Hundreds of letters came in almost every day, from Italy, Switzerland, all over this country.

I tried to give a handwritten response to each one—every time I got on a plane I'd write notes—but I've still got a couple of stacks waiting to be answered. Hopefully I haven't offended anybody.

It all reached a speed and excitement level that I had never experienced before, not even when I was an assistant coach at Colorado and we won the national championship. I didn't know it could be that way. I don't think I understood how important the Rose Bowl was.

Mary and I got home that first night and there were roses all over our front porch. People had just stopped by and left single roses. Many came from people we didn't even know. Around Evanston, people hung big Northwestern flags in front of their houses and drove around the streets with Northwestern banners on their cars. I hadn't seen any of that before.

At stores downtown, there were actually lines of people to buy Northwestern gear—and they were selling out. The Locker Room, a store across from Dyche Stadium, got phone calls requesting bumper stickers from as far away as Singapore and Morocco.

It was hard for me to fathom the interest we generated. It seemed like someone from every facet of society contacted us at one point or another.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt called from my home state of Missouri. He's a Northwestern graduate. I called him back and said, "Dick, how you doing?"

He said, "Congratulations. You know, we Democrats have been getting our butts kicked in Congress. We need to maybe have you and [our voluntary motivational coach] Steve Musseau come in here and talk to us. We need to believe again."

I said, "Okay," but I still hadn't heard back from him as of mid-May.

Our feat even reached various houses of worship. After the Rose Bowl, I got a letter from another Northwestern grad, the Rev. Richard B. McCafferty of Livermore, California.

"Two weeks ago you were compared to John the Baptist in a homily delivered at all three of our Masses," he wrote. "Let me explain: One of our regular preachers is a Dominican nun, Sister Rebecca Shinas. Central to her homily was John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus Christ. She commented on the TV closeup of you (in the Rose Bowl) as your kicker hit the left goalpost as the game wound down. You had a wry smile on your face, more resigned than angry.

"Sister's point was that it was obvious that you felt much more sorrow for your kicker than for the loss; as John the Baptist was always thinking of not himself but the person who would come after him and was far greater than he…. You have wrought a miracle, not quite on the level of the loaves and the fishes but certainly comparable to David downing Goliath."

Obviously, I'm a little uneasy about such comparisons and remarks, but it did become clear to me that we had captured the hearts of America. That's what I said when Ann-Margret—another Northwestern alum—presented me with the "ESPY," ESPN's award for coach of the year.

Even if at times I felt awkward about the way people were viewing us, I have to admit we managed to have a lot of fun with the situation.

I mean, Wheaties featured Northwestern football helmets on its cover. It wasn't exactly the same as your childhood dream of having your face on a Wheaties box, but it was close. Pretty close.

Minnie Mouse gave me a smooch at Disneyland. At our pep rally in Pasadena, so many actors who were alumni of Northwestern showed up that it seemed like a Broadway show. Hollywood took notice, too. In one interview I had talked about how much the movie City Slickers had meant to me. There's a scene where Curly, played by Jack Palance, holds up his finger and says, "You know what the secret of life is? This. One thing. You stick to that, and everything else don't mean…"

I almost came out of my chair when he did that. It was a defining moment for me: The way you live your life is the secret to life. And you do one thing, you stick with it and do it absolutely well.

The thing was, in the interview I then called City Slickers this "dumb movie." A week later, I got an overnight package from Billy Crystal, who directed the movie and played the character Mitch. He wrote:

"Dear Coach Barnett:

"I've been following your football team with great interest. My daughter is a graduate of Northwestern during the good ol' days of ineptitude when the football team was terrible but the math team was unbelievable.

"I read an article where you quote a scene from City Slickers. I'm glad that it affected you in a great way. But then imagine my surprise when you then referred to it as a 'dumb movie.' Coach, I am very proud of the film. I am sure you didn't mean it as it was printed, but these stories get picked up and those words take on a life of their own. So, Coach, next time you refer to City Slickers (which I hope you do), please don't call it dumb. I would really appreciate that.

"Best of luck in your march to a bowl game. I really am a fan and thank you for getting people to forget the Lombardi years of the Northwestern math team."

He signed it, "Kindest personal regards" and even included an autographed script of City Slickers.

Charlton Heston, an alum who had written me a note of encouragement during the season, on our behalf returned to his role as Moses in The Ten Commandments and parted a Purple Sea for us at Universal Studios. As he did it, he said, "Behold the power of the Lord! The very waters shall honor thee, turning to our school colors, purple and white."

When we were in California, we also got to go on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. When I had been running earlier that week, I came up with an idea to get a huge, long chin strap for Jay. Bill Jarvis, our equipment manager, put it together.

Leno was wonderful. He made you feel so comfortable, it was easy to do the show. He is a legitimately funny guy, and he is so humble. He's overcome a lot of adversity, and I can see how he's done it. He's got a spirit about him that's almost contagious.

The whole team was there for the show, and they were excited since the other guests included Gena Lee Nolin from Baywatch and Donna Summer, the singer. When I sat down, I told Jay, "You know, one of the things that happens after our games is that all of the young kids want our players to give them their chin straps. It's a nice memento."

Then I pulled out the giant chin strap and said, "I know after your last game back at, I think, Andover, you gave some lad your chin strap. We talked that young man into giving it back." Jay didn't know I was going to do this, and he really got a kick out of it.

That night probably was the highlight of our trip. The kids had so much energy, and Leno showed the film clip of the skit they had done with Charlton Heston. The idea was that the team had been stranded because of a flood, so we couldn't get to the Rose Bowl. As it turned out, there was a real irony to using that image.

Among the pre-Rose Bowl traditions is the "Beef Bowl" at Lawry's, where players from each team compete to see who can eat the most meat. I believe our guys ate 673 pounds of beef, so we beat USC by about 70 pounds. I think we could have had another 150 pounds, but Lawry's cut us off. We had some guys lumbering around a bit after that, but at least we won that competition.

Some neat things happened in the months afterward, too. Growing up in Mexico, Missouri, I'd listen to the St. Louis Cardinals game every night on KXEO. That's what you did. We didn't have television, but even if we did we would have listened to the Cardinals.

Harry Caray and Jack Buck did the games every night, and every night I'd lie there and drift to sleep and my dad, Leland, would come in and turn the radio off. Baseball probably was my favorite sport. So when I was asked to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field to open the 1996 baseball season, well, the Rose Bowl topped everything but this had to be second.

I remember seeing President Clinton throw a high, arcing, slow pitch when he tossed out an opening day pitch once, and I didn't want to embarrass myself by doing that. I actually practiced for about four days. But when it came to the moment of truth, I didn't get to warm up any at Wrigley. My pitch was a little off the mark, but at least I threw it hard.

Then I got to go up to the press box and sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with Harry Caray. It was incredible, even if I did sing the wrong words and got razzed about it on the radio later.

Seventeen national coach of the year awards came in for me, and there was another from Playboy that I declined to accept. I don't want to sound holier-than-thou, but I just thought it was the right thing to do considering my family.

One of the particularly interesting awards I got was the one given by the Downtown Athletic Club of Glenwood, Iowa. The superintendent of schools, a shop teacher, the chief of police, and a banker there started it up a year ago, in a coffee shop. They came to town for a Chicago Bulls game and brought the trophy over to my office. The trophy is beautiful—it even has a map on it showing where Glenwood is.

But probably the two awards that made the greatest impact on me were the ones that actually went to the entire staff: the American Football Coaches Association Award, voted on by my peers, and the Bobby Dodd Award.

My feeling was, and I said this, that I got to win those awards with 10 of my best friends. You know that the reason you win any of these awards is that everybody else did a great job. In my case, it was my staff—and the people who touch our kids directly: academic support, trainers, weight-room people, equipment managers….

All the fuss that was made about the season naturally changed our daily lives. Mary and I couldn't go into restaurants anymore without hearing people whispering my name and staring and coming up to congratulate us. Before when people recognized me, it was along the lines of, "Poor baby." Now it was like, "You get to do that?!"

At Chicago's O'Hare Field, I was having to get security escorts because I'd get stopped so frequently. It wasn't that I didn't want to talk to people, but I was almost missing flights and if I didn't get help I was going to have to offend someone or walk away from someone.

Often it's flattering to be recognized, but there are times you'd just as soon be anonymous. For example, back in Evanston shortly after the Rose Bowl, somebody drove by me on the road and flipped me off. I had no idea why. I drove maybe another 200 yards then said, "Man, this is bull. I don't have to take that."

I turned around and followed the guy probably three miles, then I got stuck at a light. I saw where he was going, though, and my heart was pounding while I was waiting. The light turned green, and I jumped out ahead of everybody and turned into the parking lot. There he was.

He had parked his car, and he was getting out. I screeched my tires, pulled up behind him and got out. I said, "Excuse me!" He turned around, and he was about 65 years old.

"What did I do to deserve to get flipped off?" I said.

He said, "Hey, aren't you the Northwestern football coach?"

"Wait a minute," I said. "That's beside the point. What did I do to deserve to be flipped off?"

"What do you mean, flipped off?"

"You gave me the finger."

He looked at my car and said, "No, no, I gave it to the car behind you. I gave it to a green car that was giving me trouble."

Then he said, "Hey, can I have your autograph?"

I gave him the autograph, thanked him for asking, then got back in the car and drove off.



"The remarkable thing is we have a choice
every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for
that day. We cannot change our past. We cannot
change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on
the one string we have, and that is our attitude.
I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and
90% how I react to it. And so it is with you. We
are in charge of our attitudes."

Charles Swindoll

People ask me what it's like to coach football at Northwestern. The best example I can give is by contrast.

When I was an assistant coach at Colorado in the 1989 season, we played for the national championship in the 1990 Orange Bowl against Notre Dame. We lost, and it was a bitter disappointment.

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was 1 A.M. and we had an early plane the next morning. At about four in the morning, there was a disturbance out in the hallway and I got up to see what was going on. Two of our players were out there high-fiving, low-fiving—celebrating.

"Men," I said, "what is going on here? We just lost the biggest game of our careers, and you're out here celebrating?"

They said, "Coach, you've got to understand. We just finished putting together a jigsaw puzzle!"

I said, "Jigsaw puzzle? When did you start it?" They told me they started in August. "August?" I said. "This is January."

They said, "Yeah, but that's what's so exciting—on the cover it says the jigsaw puzzle is supposed to be for two to four years."

Okay, that's a joke, so I hope nobody takes offense. But it is a tad different coaching at Northwestern than at most other schools. After all, with the exception of Stanford, we have the highest average standardized test scores in major-college football.

I remember when we were at Colorado and struggling to get over the hump, trying to get our kids to understand what it was to play hard. Bill McCartney, the head coach and one of the most influential people in my life, stood up in front of the team one day and said, "We are going to perform a metamorphosis. Do you know what metamorphosis means?"

No one raised a hand. And he said, "It's change that's caused by heat, pressure and time." It was a vivid, clear analogy, and I thought his delivery made a powerful impression.

So in his first defensive team meeting here at Northwestern, our defensive coordinator, Ron Vanderlinden, started out, "Guys, we're going to undergo a metamorphosis. Does anybody know what a metamorphosis is?"

About eight guys raised their hands: "Coach," somebody said, "it's change, caused by heat, pressure and time."

Vandy just got this look of shock on his face. That took a little drama out of what he was trying to say, but he collected himself quickly and kept on going: "Well, that's right! It's heat and pressure over time, and that's what's going to happen with this football team."


On Sale
Sep 26, 2009
Page Count
224 pages