Northwestern football from 1972 to 1994 was a pitiful joke and an afterthought. However, starting in 1992 a man of vision who knew what it took to win Championships from his tenure as Colorado’s as OC took the helm in Evanston. In 1991 at Welsh Ryan Arena, Gary Barnett said he would take the Purple to Pasadena. No one believed him until he did. This is the story of the reaction from the band and the stands from two members of the class of 1997, our own Vaudvillain and GTom.
FYI: Pat Fitzgerald graduated the same year they did.
You're a member of the class of 97, same as Fitz. Before 1995, what was it like going to football games? Did you go to that many ?
Vaudvillain: I went to a handful of games my freshman and sophomore years, but not that many, to be honest. The stadium (still Dyche back then) was always pretty empty. I remember actually rooting for the other team to score, because then they would kick off to Lee Gissendaner, who was easily our most exciting player (and a Chicago Tribune Silver Football award winner).
It sometimes felt like our best chance to score was to have Lee run one back. And yes, I did the stupid key chant. ("That's alright, that's okay, you'll all work for us someday.") Stupid, stupid, stupid chant. I hate that damned thing, and I'm ashamed for having taken part in it, but I was just a dumb college kid and it was all we had. And I did wind up getting a butler from Iowa (or is it Notre Dame now?), [ed note: this is an OffTackleEmpire inside joke, or is it???] so...
GTom: The stadium was pretty dead for most games prior to 1995. For anyone who thinks that Ryan Field is empty today, you should have seen it in before the Rose Bowl. The East side of the stadium was literally empty, as was usually the seating in the end zone. Unlike today, even fans of opposing programs didn’t want to bother making the trip (Chicago didn’t quite have the cache then that it has now). In addition, I just seem to remember those two seasons as having more rain / cold that would drive even most of the regulars away by halftime. Gary Barnett used to move the team to the East Side of the field so they could at least see fans at the game. As a member of the band down by the sideline, that meant some premium trash-talking with opposing players (nothing would make me more proud than a dirty look or comment back from one of the players or coaches or Penn State mascot in one instance).
Did anyone have any idea what Gary Barnett was building?
GTom: Did we see 1995 coming? Actually, believe it or not, yes (although not quite to that extent). In 1993, the ‘Cats opened by playing a relatively close game to Notre Dame (27-12 loss), but then went on to beat a ranked Boston College and Wake Forest. I didn’t know it at the time, but those were apparently the first back-to-back home wins since Dennis Green in 1982. That season ended with a lot of disappointment as the ‘Cats lost their remaining six games, but several of those games were at least competitive (there was a reverse Michigan field goal scenario where the ‘Cats made a kick against Minnesota, but the refs determined that time had expired, and Illinois, Michigan State, and Iowa were all one TD or less games). 1994 started out looking good, with the ‘Cats sitting at 3-3-1 (and talk about going someplace warm for the holidays), but ended up losing the last four games (one of which has since been forfeited by MSU – we also didn’t know that Lundy was throwing games). Most of us could see that the team was getting better and that Barnett was building something competitive. I remember working a summer camp with a high school friend who was an MSU band member and he pushed me on how the ‘Cats would do in the upcoming season, and I literally said the ‘Cats were going to the Rose Bowl. I even tried to justify it by saying that the lines were looking good. Of course, I was completely full of bravado and didn’t really have a clue how good the team would be… but I was confident enough to talk shit to somebody who would have seen me and mocked me mercilessly if the ‘Cats did terrible.
- Aside from seeing the teams get better for two seasons, I also had a reasonable amount of exposure to Gary Barnett and was a believer in what he was doing. Gary was good about meeting with the band a few times throughout the year to thank us and promote spirit during the season. He also did several fireside chats at my dorm (where his daughter also lived for at least one year – I knew Courtney, but we weren’t close and I knew her roommate much better). The guy just exuded "Expect Victory" levels of confidence – he never apologized for losing games, he never made excuses, he never talked about a "process" or talked about anything that needed to change to succeed… he just said what was good about the team and highlighted where we were going to see success. (Side note just because memory is a funny thing… I even remember him fielding a question where he discussed trying to recruit Patrick Baldwin from the basketball team to play DB for him – Patrick is currently one of Chris Collins’ assistants).
Did more people tailgate than watch games?
GTom: With regard to your tailgate question, I couldn't really tell you what the scene was before games. I can only tell you what it was like in the band, which was mostly all business. We would normally have a morning practice before anybody else showed up to the stadium, so it was usually a very early wake-up call (6:00 AM for noon games - I believe most of the games were noon back then) to catch the shuttle busses, practice, some form of meal (usually behind the North stands in Welsh Ryan, which at the time was an indoor football practice facility), pre-game concert in WR, and then we were out to the field to do our pre-game. You didn't have much of an opportunity to interact with fans, other than those who came into the WR pre-game (which was usually band parents and older alums, anyway) and the student section during the game (most of whom were behind us). After the game, we did a post-game show on the field, serenaded the locker room (which at the time was on the west side of the stadium), and then would usually finish the day off with a private gathering under the east side stands where we would usually get some positive comments from the Director and would do an a cappella version of the Alma Mater to finish the day. Truthfully, most of the times that we got back to the dorms after the game, we were kind of exhausted (and in many cases, cold and wet after being stuck in the rain or other inclement weather).
What was it like going to perform at the games?
GTom: Performing for the games wasn't really that big a deal for most of my tenure at Northwestern. You had the mostly empty stadium for my first two years, and you only do one road show a year, so the crowds weren’t that overwhelming. By the time we got to 1995 and 1996, I had two years under my belt and the bigger crowds elicited more of a "it's awesome that the stands are filling up" reaction than anything intimidating with regard to performance.
A bit of a side note, but I just want to point out that being in NUMB was usually much more about that whole experience than anything specific to Football or game day. Sure, we had a lot of fun cheering for the team and were passionate about football and we always wanted to do a good job for the crowd. However, that (at least for me) was always just a sliver of what I enjoyed being a part of the band. Besides enjoying the people that you are around, I always liked the musicianship of the group - there's just a unique, full sound that you enjoy being a part of a large musical group that you will never experience as part of a normal-sized band ensemble. Layer in the drum line (which you will also never see in a concert band setting) and what are usually punchy, high energy arrangements for crowd effect, and it all adds up to something that’s really fun to be a part of… particularly when done by a group that has a high level of talent to begin with. I enjoyed the music in practice, I enjoyed the process of learning drill for a show, and I enjoyed the camaraderie / hijinks that you experienced all throughout the week / cheering at the game. While I have some great memories from the games during that timeframe, I probably have more good memories from Thursday night "Spirit Sessions" and stupid stuff that we would do as an Alto section, and even memories of the games are really just memories of either celebrating or suffering with friends who you spent ~15 hours a week with.
Were people still throwing marshmallows in tubas during your time as an undergrad?
Vaudvillain: Yes. I did not throw marshmallows myself, but yes, marshmallows were thrown. I had friends in NUMB...one actually tried recruiting me during my freshman year, even though I insisted that I did not play any instruments and had no musical ability whatsoever. He said it was okay, they'd just put me on drums. (I didn't take him up on it...though now that I know just how much of a marching band cult exists on OTE, I begin to wonder what I've missed out on...)
GTom: My Freshman year was the first year that the school got serious about stopping the marshmallow throwing. As a student for that first game, I had been warned about 20 times that they would toss me out if I tried to bring in marshmallows. A few people still snuck some in, but the school was really trying to crack down. The only time I really had anything thrown at me while in uniform was (mostly) empty liquor bottles at Kinnick Stadium in 1994 (and no, that's not some rumor / second-hand story... they threw them at us when we were going back to our seats at halftime and almost hit me).
GTom, were you in NUMB the entire time?
GTom: I was a four-year NUMBalum and was the same class as Fitz ('97). That said, I hadn't joined NUMB before the first game in college so I have at least one game from the perspective of an ordinary student. I had been in the band at high school, but didn't really know if I wanted to do it in college. However, at the first game I just realized that I felt a bit out-of-place and followed NUMB for the post-game to get some info on how to join. It helped seal the deal that the 'Cats had won that game (against a ranked Boston College, who would eventually go on to take down #1 Notre Dame later that year).
What was your reaction to the ND win before school started in the 1995 ?
Vaudvillain: It was kind of surreal. I did not actually watch the game -- my first two years did not exactly inspire me to go out of my way to carve time out of my weekend to watch NU football. If I was with a group of friends who wanted to watch a game, great, but if I was left to my own devices, I'd do something else. But this was exciting. Of course, we were deflated almost immediately by the loss to Randy Walker's Miami (OH) team...a game that also happened before students actually got to campus.
What was it like coming on campus in 1995 (I believe NU was on the quarter system then) realizing the football team actually was good? Did more and more people go to more games after big wins?
Vaudvillain: Yeah, NU's been on quarters for a long, long time. It really is unfortunate...students don't get to campus until the third or fourth game of the year, and it's hard to get students amped up to go to their first game when the team is only 1-2 or 1-3 (not at all unusual pre-95). When students got to campus in 1995, we were 1-1, and a lot of people thought the Notre Dame game was just a fluke. But then we won against Air Force and Indiana -- and both were big wins (30-6 and 31-7). There was some serious excitement building when we went to Ann Arbor to face #7 Michigan. I remember talking to my father on the phone leading up to the Michigan game. He thought we had been a great Cinderella story thus far, but that we'd come crashing back to earth against the Wolverines. I wasn't buying it. I was just a dumb college kid, and the Kool-Aid was flowing heavily on campus. I mean, my acting professor had gotten into an email spat with some Wolverines before the game.
And, of course, we beat Michigan. After that, things officially got nuts.
We went to Minnesota (and won), then played #24 Wisconsin at Dyche Stadium. The Wisconsin game was our first home game since Indiana. Did more people come? You betcha. Wikipedia tells me that there were around 26,000 at both Miami (OH) and Air Force, and around 29,000 when we played Indiana. Wisconsin was a sellout. We won, 35-0 -- a shutout! I mean, Northwestern shutting people out? This was crazy stuff...and led to us being ranked in the top 10 the next week. A trip to Champaign put a little scare into us, but then we came back to Evanston to face #12 Penn State (a Penn State team just a year removed from their 1994 undefeated season). Another packed house, even though it was snowing and all kinds of cold. The refs even had to tell students to sit down because they were blocking the play clock. We win, 21-10, land a Sports Illustrated cover, and I get to call my grandfather in Philly to gloat. When Iowa comes to town the next week (a third sellout, by the way), we're ranked #5...and by now, even my gloom-and-doom father has started drinking the Kool-Aid. Another win, and then we close out the season in West Lafayette, where we cruise.
We finished before The Game. And, of course, OSU was riding an undefeated season. We were perfect in conference (let me say that again -- Northwestern had a perfect 8-0 conference record), but that loss against Miami was hanging over our heads. If OSU beats Michigan, the Buckeyes get the Rose Bowl. But noted Wolverine doormat John Cooper was the OSU coach, and Tim Biakabutuka ran for 313 yards for Michigan, and the Wildcats were headed to Pasadena.
It was nuts. It really was. A top-5 ranking, the Rose Bowl, three sellouts at Dyche Stadium, a Sports Illustrated cover, and my acting prof getting into a pissing match with Wolverine fans. The season was officially insane.
GTom: Notre Dame 1995: I had come out to Evanston early with my family because I was heading up to band camp that Sunday (yes, NUMB had an annual one-week "camp" to introduce new members and get the pre-game down – yes, there are members of NUMB who are a little too close to Alyson Hannigan for comfort – I actually always hated band camp and am thankful that I only had to go to two of them at Northwestern). The rest of my family was going to go out shopping for that day, but stayed at the Omni Orrington by myself to watch the game. I just remember them coming in at halftime and me saying "we’re winning" kind of giddily, and then getting more-and-more nervous and excited as the game progressed. It was weird being in Evanston, because the ‘Cats had just notched their biggest win in recent program history, and the city was kind of dead because the students weren’t back yet. I don’t remember when I got the shirt, but I do have a "Luck of the Irish just ran out" T-Shirt that I think the Tribune had printed and handed out for free (or minimal cost). I still have it, although I will probably never fit into it ever again.
- After that game, there was a lot of buzz and excitement in NUMB for band camp. There was still a big afterglow from the game and although we didn’t think we were a top 5 team, we felt good about the upcoming season. A lot of my friends coming back to the dorm did so before the Miami (OH) game as well, and there was a real buzz leading into that game.
- Then… disaster. The ‘Cats were up big on the Randy Walker coached Miami (OH) team late in the third quarter, and Miami just started plugging away at the comeback. There were a lot of out passes to the sideline that they just seemed to be connecting with regularity. Even then, the ‘Cats were in a position to punt the ball late in the game any bury Miami with field position, but the snap went over Ron Burton’s head and was recovered within the ‘Cats five yard line. The ‘Cats "D" did prevent a touchdown, but it was an easy field goal and enough for the Redskins (they hadn’t changed their name, yet) to win on. There was a lot of soul-searching that week in the dorm. I remember having some pretty heated arguments where I kept saying that the ‘Cats were still good despite the loss, but I know that more than a few students were demoralized and thought it was a return to the same old things.
- The next two games were big home wins versus Air Force and Indiana. Slowly, some of the buzz following the Notre Dame game was returning, and people were starting to realize that the ‘Cats were indeed a good team. At the time, the internet was around but not really common in the dorm, and all I remember is that it was a big deal for everyone to pick up their Chicago Tribune each Monday and start seeing the ‘Cats in "Others Receiving Votes" categories and even being ranked in the AP poll. Indiana brought their band to Evanston that year, which was the first time that I had seen an opposing team’s band make the trip (I’m sure it was planned before the season even started).
- The Michigan game at Ann Arbor for me was a big deal. First, NUMB made the trip and as part of that arrangement, we performed at a high school before the game and were scheduled to stay with local families for that Friday night. As it turns out, the town we were going to was right next to the town I had grown up in, so instead of staying at some random house, my Parents hosted my entire section (about a dozen or so of my friends) for that night. That kind of experience brought a lot of us closer for the rest of the year. Second, I had a friend who knew I was from the area in Michigan and asked if my family had any connections to some tickets. Well, they put out a few feelers, and suddenly started getting people who would randomly offer them two tickets, four tickets, three tickets… usually either at cost or even for free. So, what had started as an attempt for a few tickets suddenly became a dozen, then over twenty, then over thirty, etc. To my friend’s credit, every time I told him we had more to offer, he kept getting others in his fraternity and other groups to use the extras. By the time we were done, my parents had almost 70 tickets for him and his fraternity had arranged for two school busses to bring them and his other guests (including my roommate) to Ann Arbor.
- The game itself was fantastic. Michigan was a top 10 team that day, if I recall correctly, and it had obviously been ages since we last beat them. It was one of those classic, hard-hitting conference games that was fairly low scoring despite the fact that Biakabutuka had over 300 yards on the day. The game-winning TD was a short pass to the FB, Matt Hartl, who almost never saw the ball (and would unfortunately pass away within a few years due to Hodgkins disease). I was chanting Rose Bowl when that game ended – I knew that it was a distinct possibility. I think that’s the game where the rest of the College Football world started to see Miami as the exception as well, whereas up to that point many thought that the Notre Dame game was the exception.
- Just some personal experience / NUMB-specific notes: We got to enter Michigan through the tunnel, which is a fun experience and the band was right down on the sideline throughout the game. There was even a pretty funny moment when Darnell Autry ran out of bounds and took out our 67 year-old Director of Bands (John Paynter – who got up, patted Darnell, and told him to go score a TD). It’s the only time during my stay at Northwestern that NUMB did something with another band, where we jointly performed the 1812 overture at halftime. My brother had taped the game, and when I met up with the band again on Sunday (they stayed at a hotel, I went back to my Parents’ house), it was a bit surreal to watch the broadcast with everyone on the bus on the way home. In addition to the Notre Dame T-shirt, I somewhere have a massively under-sized "Maize and Blue, Black and Blue" T-Shirt that they were selling after the game.
- I was pretty convinced that the ‘Cats were going to challenge for a title after Michigan, but I think the game that really convinced others was the utter destruction of Wisconsin that year (35-0). The ‘Cats were just beating up the Wisconsin lines all game. The best part was the final minute when the ‘Cats were trying to preserve the shutout but had the second-string / third-string defense in the game with Wisconsin within the 10-yard line. When they held, the Fans and the team kind of went a bit nuts.
- A lot of people have probably seen the Penn State game from that year on the BTN replays. If not, I think that was really the first game to sell out in over a decade and probably the first one where there was real national buzz on campus. Keith Jackson called the game, although it almost didn’t air because (Israeli Prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated earlier that day. All I can say about that game is it was freakin’ cold. We weren’t used to playing night games in November! I still have my Darnell Autry "Real Deal" Sports Illustrated cover (again, it’s amazing in retrospect how big the print media still was in those days). It was a great game, but I think a lot of us expected the win despite how good Penn State was during the prior year and the fact that they were favored.
- What I remember about the Iowa game (besides Fitz breaking his leg and a key Hudaifa Ismaeli scoop-and-score) is that this was the first game with College Game Day on campus. It was so cold and snowy that the whole production had to be moved into the Welsh Ryan lobby. There isn’t much space in there, and we had to walk past the desk while they were taping at one point which just felt odd (the whole band was probably walking within 5 feet of being on screen). Corso was already starting to get a bit of a reputation on campus for continually picking against the ‘Cats - I didn’t realize until later that he kind of hated the ‘Cats when he was a coach at Indiana.
- The ‘Cats clinched a share of the title against Purdue which was on the road. I remember that there was a formal that I was going to that evening, and I think that the organizers delayed it by a few hours just so people could see the end of the game.
- The ‘Cats had already finished the season, but an undefeated Ohio State still had to play Michigan with the Rose Bowl on the line. I watched that game on break at my Parents’ house, and I just remember my family getting a whole lot more excited than I was as Michigan won the game. By that point, I just knew it was the ‘Cats year and they were going to go – I really didn’t have any doubts that things would work out. I had to catch the train at Ann Arbor the next day to come back to campus. I just remember my mom pinning a rose bud to my winter jacket and wearing that all the way back to Chicago.
Were players treated much differently on campus in 1995 during the season?
Vaudvillain: I actually never had a whole lot of interaction with football players, before or after 1995. The only football player I interacted with regularly was one of the starting linemen from the Rose Bowl team, with whom I played vampire LARPs for several years. Yes, you read that correctly. Vaudvillain was once a vampire LARPer. And so was a starting lineman from the Rose Bowl squad.
GTom: I think that most people knew the stars on the football team even during 1993 and 1994 (the big deal my sophomore year was that Lloyd Abrahamson was going to stay in our dorm) and would walk up and greet them. What was different about 1995 was that everybody on the team started to become known and would attract attention. For example, I regularly ate with Brian Gowens (I was friends with his girlfriend) when he was still the backup kicker and hadn’t even made a play, but people knew he was on the team and regularly asked him questions. I think QB’s and RB’s had always been BMOC’s and there was nothing different about the treatment of Autry or Schnur or anybody else in the skill positions, but guys like Matt Rice and Ryan Padgett and other lineman who were on that team suddenly started getting attention that I don’t think they would have otherwise gotten.
Vaudvillain, did you go to the Rose Bowl?
Vaudvillain: Sadly, no. I was at a viewing party with a bunch of friends here in Evanston. Musso did not fumble, and I still think that if Schnur doesn't overthrow his receiver in the fourth quarter, we win the game. Of course, it would also have helped if we could have figured out something -- anything -- to do about Keshawn Johnson and his ridiculous 200+ receiving yards. Still, it was a great season, and even though the Rose Bowl hurt, the whole thing was just a ridiculous, magical ride.
GTom, what was it like going to the Rose Bowl?
GTom: With the Rose Bowl set, a lot of people were just trying to finish finals and make plans for their trip. For us in the band, people were figuring things out on the fly as we hadn’t done anything like this before (at least not since 1949). Basically, the final arrangements were to get everybody to Chicago, where we would be fitted for our new uniforms (just ordered at the end of that season), board a chartered flight to LA, and then do most of our practice at a field by our hotel in Santa Monica. I had never taken a winter vacation to a warm locale in my life, so for me, it was just glorious to be in the sun and by the ocean. We had a bunch of little side trips / concerts for alums and local events, and we got to go to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and prep for the Rose parade. There was a lot of national coverage given the breakthrough nature of the season and it was cool to see things like Barnett on the Tonight Show. It was a good time, but again as part of the band, it had a "working vacation" angle to it. At least we had some time to take pictures in front of the Marquee (I’m the guy in the back with the plume pointed toward the "B" who is almost completely obscured).
- USC fans were pretty much assholes everywhere we came across them (they would just do that stupid victory thing with their fingers whenever you went by). We also did get mooned by a busload of their band at one point… I guess they wanted us to really connect them to assholes.
- The actual day of the game was a long, long day. Everyone celebrated New Year’s Eve on Chicago time to try and get us to go to bed a bit earlier, but it was still an early start to head down to the Rose Bowl Parade. That’s a six-mile trip, so keep in mind that before the game NUMB had already marched for six miles in full uniform. The Rose Bowl itself is just a surreal setting… California sun at the beginning of the game, San Gabriel Mountains in the background, impossibly green grass (which is impossibly green because they literally paint it green)… it’s just the absolute perfect setting. I’ve been to just about every Northwestern Bowl game since then, and nothing has even come close to the grandeur and feel of Pasadena. There were also a looottt of Northwestern fans there (even if they were just fans for a day)… at least 65% of that stadium was purple.
- The game was a great back-and-forth affair. The ‘Cats fell behind, but came back to lead the game at one point in the 4th quarter. Even down by 10 late, I didn’t really think the game was over until Gowens missed his field goal. The USC coach and Keyshawn were kind of pricks with some of their comments after the game, but again, it’s not like we had warmed up to USC fans since arriving. That Musso fumble was BS, but there were still plenty of chances to win after that which the ‘Cats missed out on. Also, Fuck Keyshawn… forever, and ever, and ever, and ever…
- All that said, none of us felt the sting of "haven’t won a Bowl since xxx" after that game or the subsequent nine-game bowl losing streak. It had been a competitive affair and we had seen plenty of our conference mates lose the Rose Bowl in the years prior, so most people felt pretty good after the game despite the loss. Not only that, but we knew most of the team was going to be back the next year and were kind of excited to see what they would do next.
- Right after the game, the busses headed back to the charter flight, and we basically took a red-eye back to Chicago. For me, that started a lifelong trend of sleeping on planes. When we got back on campus at about 5:00 in the morning, we still had to wait for something like five hours before they would open up student housing again, so most people were just crashing at Pick Staiger or trying to find somebody who had an apartment. I believe the team got a crowd to welcome them home, but there was no such glory for NUMB… we were just exhausted, needed showers, and were trying to adjust to January weather in Chicago after being on the beach two days earlier.
Any final thoughts?
Vaudvillain: We followed it up by going 7-1 in the Big Ten the next year, proving that 1995 wasn't just some bizarre fluke. Penn State got their revenge, but we knocked off Michigan in back-to-back seasons, which was pretty awesome, and we shared the conference title with OSU (John Cooper was still coach, so of course they lost to Michigan). 15-1 in two seasons of conference play ain't too shabby.
GTom: I cannot emphasize enough, but perhaps more than anything that I ever accomplished in the classroom, the 1995 (and later 1996 seasons) convinced me and a lot of people at Northwestern at the time that there is literally nothing that we can’t do if we set our minds to it. I don’t feel arrogant or entitled or anything of that ilk, but I do feel like I can take on any challenge and ultimately succeed in part because of what happened that season. I know I’m not alone in that way of thinking, either, and I get the feeling that the whole season re-energized Northwestern in a way that continues to show up today in the form of new buildings, new academic programs, new commitments to athletics, etc. Prior to 1995, basically the only building put up on campus was a renovation to University Hall. After then, there’s a number of new dorms, new research buildings, remodels of some of our historically uglier areas of campus, etc. that all seemed to get momentum in the wake of football’s re-emergence.
LPW: Thanks for everything, guys!