WNUR’s Will Greer looks back at the 1995 Rose Bowl team, a group of Wildcats who will be honored with a ceremony and throwback uniforms at Saturday’s homecoming game.
They have to be right there, with the 1969 New York “Miracle” Mets, 1980 U.S. Men’s Hockey team, and the 1982 N.C. State “survive and advance” men’s basketball team. They don’t often get mentioned in the “greatest underdog stories of all time” conversation (outside of Northwestern circles), but what the 1995 Northwestern football team accomplished is truly incredible.
With a combined record of 46-202-4 from 1972-1994, there was little reason to believe that anything would be different for the ‘Cats heading into the 1995 campaign. Northwestern had suffered through more than two decades of not just losing, but losing embarrassingly.
In the 23 seasons before 1995, Northwestern endured four winless seasons, a record-breaking 34-game losing streak and an almost perennial place at the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
A relatively hot seat greeted head coach Gary Barnett coming into the 1995 season. The ‘Cats had won just eight games in his first three seasons as head coach, and Barnett, who had promised to “take the purple to Pasadena” when he was hired, appeared to lack the ability to consistently win.
But 1995 is when everything changed.
Northwestern opened the season on the road as a 27-point underdog against a Notre Dame team that was ranked eighth in the country and had outscored the ‘Cats 111-34 in the teams’ last three meetings. Northwestern stunned the heavy favorite 17-15 in South Bend.
Following a bye week of continuous celebration, Northwestern laid an all-too-familiar egg against Miami (OH) in its home opener, losing to the Redhawks 30-28. For a program that had become so accustomed to losing, the unimaginable upset of Notre Dame seemed like the exception and not the rule.
But Northwestern, led by running back Darnell Autry, quarterback Steve Schnur and linebacker Pat Fitzgerald won their next nine games. The win streak included a 19-13 upset of #7 Michigan in the Big House, a 35-0 Homecoming pounding of #24 Wisconsin (the last Wildcat shutout of a Big Ten team until the Minnesota game two weeks ago), and a 21-10 statement win against #12 Penn State.
When the ‘Cats beat Purdue in West Lafayette 23-8, NU secured its first conference championship since 1936. Gary Barnett’s team had completed a perfect 8-0 Big Ten season, climbing to #3 in the Coaches’ Poll. As he had promised, the ‘Cats were headed to the Rose Bowl.
The improbable season came to an end when Northwestern, playing in just its second bowl game in program history, lost to Keyshawn Johnson and USC 41-32 on New Year’s Day, but the 1995 Northwestern football team gave Wildcat fans more than any bowl game victory ever could. By making it to Pasadena, the ‘Cats showed that anything was possible for the smallest school in the Big Ten. They brought the belief that Northwestern football could realistically be relevant on a national level.
And that is truly incredible.