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Wildcats Football: Northwestern's miracle season

Derek Tam
Fans at a Wildcats football game.

The University of Michigan football team plays Northwestern in Evanston tomorrow for the first time since 2007.  The undefeated, 12th ranked Wolverines are seven-point favorites, but beating the Wildcats is no longer the easy game it used to be.  Whatever happens this weekend, it can’t match what happened back in 1995 – one of my favorite sports stories.

Before 1995, the idea of Michigan losing to Northwestern was preposterous.  In Bo Schembechler’s 21 years leading the Wolverines, he lost to every Big Ten team at least once – except Northwestern, which Bo’s teams beat by scores like 31-0, 35-0 and, yes, 69-0. 

But back then, everybody beat up on the lowly Wildcats.  From the early 70s to the mid 90s, they had 17 really bad years, surrounding a stretch of six really, really bad years – when they won a grand total three games against 62 defeats.  Only the Washington Generals, who play every game against the Harlem Globetrotters, had a worse record.

Northwestern’s stadium seats half as many fans as Michigan’s, but they hadn’t sold it out since 1963.  Some years, their attendance for the entire season was less than Michigan attracted for a single game. 

Apathy was in their DNA.  The few fans who showed up to see loss after loss after loss had a favorite cheer: "That’s alright, that’s okay, you’re going to work for us someday.”  Cute, but not exactly “The Victors.”

But when Northwestern  introduced coach Gary Barnett in 1991, he told the crowd, “We’re taking the Purple to Pasadena.”  Since the Wildcats had not been there since 1949, I naturally assumed Coach Barnett had been huffing glue.  But he believed it.  And after a while, his players did, too. 

The Wildcats opened the 1995 season against ninth-ranked Notre Dame.  They had not won in South Bend in 34 years, but that did not stop Barnett from telling his team that when they won – not if, but when – they were not to carry him off the field, because they had bigger games ahead.  It worked.  Northwestern pulled the upset, 17-15. 

Their next big game was against seventh-ranked Michigan, in Ann Arbor, where the Wildcats hadn’t won since 1959.  But they did it again, then went on to beat Wisconsin and Penn State, too.  The locals were going crazy. 

This stuffy little college town – which still didn’t have a bona fide bar in 1995 – finally let its hair down.  Stores were shipping sweatshirts to Singapore, ball caps to Brazil, and bumper stickers to Morocco. 

Even the faculty, which prided itself on ignoring such things, started getting into it.  The day before Northwestern’s game against rival Illinois, an acclaimed chemistry professor brought out a flask full of a bright orange solution, filled another with a blue solution – which happened to match Illinois’s colors.  After explaining all the chemical properties at play, he poured the orange solution into the blue one – and shazam! – it burst into a perfect Northwestern purple.   The lecture hall erupted. 

The Wildcats finished the Big Ten season undefeated, but they still needed help getting to the Rose Bowl – lots of it.  A 7-3 Michigan team had to knock off undefeated, second-ranked Ohio State, led by Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George.

But the story that day was a Wolverine running back from Zaire by way of Montreal named Tshimanga Biakabutuka.  It’s a safe bet Ohio State fans could not pronounce his name before that game – but after he ran for 313 yards, I’m willing to bet every one of those Buckeye backers could spell it.

If you wore a Michigan sweatshirt in Evanston that week, you were greeted like a GI liberating Paris.  The impossible had happened: Just as Barnett had promised four years earlier, the Purple was going to Pasadena.

The Wildcats actually won a share of another Big Ten title in 1996, and again in 2000.  They are now led by the 1995 captain, Pat Fitzgerald.  But even if Fitzgerald takes the Purple to Pasadena again, it could never be the same.  A great season is a great season – but a miracle stands alone.



John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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