One in a row! One in a row!" Northwestern University football fans had chanted two weeks earlier while gleefully uprooting the goalposts in Dyche Stadium, marching them 1½ miles to Lake Michigan and tossing them in. Their Wildcats—the athletic jetsam of the Big Ten—had just ended the longest losing streak in NCAA history at 34 games with a 31-6 defeat of Northern Illinois. "Now we know how to win!" yelled second-year Wildcat Coach Dennis Green to reporters. "Now the players feel like they can be good!" Against Northern Illinois, anyway. The following week Northwestern lost 45-7 to Iowa. The school bought new goalposts, and the fans began counting losses again.
But this time they never reached two. In last Saturday's cold, rainy homecoming game at Evanston, with two-thirds of the 49,256 seats in the stadium empty, the Wildcats made heavily favored Minnesota look like, well, Northwestern. With the Gophers handing over three fumbles and two interceptions, Northwestern came back from a 21-3 deficit for a 31-21 victory—the Wildcats' first Big Ten conference win since 1977. Diplomatically, Minnesota Coach Joe Salem, whose team had entered the game with a 3-1 record, said, "They beat our butts good." Less diplomatically, when asked about the significance of Northwestern's victory, he sighed, "It means we're terrible." Old reputations die hard in Big Ten territory.
The Gophers aren't terrible, however—they led the Big Ten in both rushing and passing offense going into the game and were No. 2 in the nation in total offense—and that's why the Northwestern spectators deposited another $3,000 goalpost in Lake Michigan after the victory. The sophomore-dominated Wildcats held Minnesota to just 67 yards rushing and 77 passing and, if not for two first-half fumbles of their own, might have won in a rout. Northwestern's 2-4 record is its best early-season mark in seven years. Is the joking over?
None of the Wildcats, of course, has ever found any humor in the team's historic ineptness. They had been humiliated by buttons, passed around before the Northern Illinois game, that said: KEEP IT ALIVE AT 35. The excuse that Northwestern's high academic standards hindered recruiting was just that—an excuse. Said junior Cornerback Roosevelt Groves, a dual major in industrial and nuclear engineering, before the Northern Illinois game, "At this point a win is almost as important to me as getting my diploma."
Green and Athletic Director Doug Single, who had come to Northwestern from Stanford, were on the verge of quitting their jobs in frustration before that first victory. "I don't know how much longer we could have gone on," says Green.
The program Green and Single inherited in 1981 was in worse condition than they could have imagined. The team had won only three of its last 61 games and was 21 losses into its streak of 34. "I couldn't believe it when I first got here," says Green, 33, who had been an assistant both at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers. "We had offensive linemen weighing 218 pounds, players who were weak, players out of shape. Stanford is a tough academic school, too, but we had exceptional players there who had come in because of past successes. You can't let things get out of hand at schools like Northwestern or Stanford. Somebody dropped it here."
Green has instituted an intensive weight-training program for his players and recruited far more heavily than his predecessors, John Pont and Rick Venturi. Says Wildcat Inside Linebacker Coach Mike Church, nothing if not a realist, "We've told our young players, 'You're going to take a lot of licks for a couple of years. You're going to get your faces knocked off. But then, things will change.' " From tackle to tackle Northwestern's offensive line now averages 260 pounds, and its defensive front is nearly as large. "We hit people," says Church. "I understand Iowa had a lot of folks out the Monday after we played them."
Single, an aggressive fund raiser, has come up with $9 million in donations in the last 18 months to help restore an entire athletic program that had reached its nadir: Last year Northwestern finished eighth in the Big Ten in wrestling, ninth in basketball and dead last in cross-country, indoor and outdoor track, swimming, golf...and football. Already the locker and training rooms at Dyche have been remodeled, the basketball arena is being redone and the athletic department offices smell of new carpeting. The football team has new uniforms, helmets, warm-ups and, yes, goalposts.
And new faces. With 50 seconds remaining in the first half on Saturday and Minnesota ahead 21-3, the youngest of them, freshman Quarterback Sandy Schwab, son of West Coast discount-brokerage millionaire Charles Schwab, threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Tight End Jon Harvey to bring the Wildcats back into the game. Consider it a sign of change that the highly recruited Schwab, a 6'2", 185-pounder from Piedmont, Calif.—Green's old stomping grounds—chose Northwestern over, among others, UCLA. In the Wildcats' opening game, a 49-13 loss to Illinois, he came in for the second half and threw for 187 yards and two TDs. He hasn't stopped since, completing 97 of 185 for 1,113 yards in six games.
Green also found a 5'9", 175-pound flash of a halfback, senior Ricky Edwards, gathering dust on his bench. Green gave Edwards, a communications major, the first start of his three-year varsity career against Northern Illinois, whereupon Edwards, formerly a kick returner, gained 177 yards on 29 carries and scored four touchdowns, tying a school single-game scoring record shared by Otto Graham and Mike Adamle. Against Minnesota he rushed for 147 more yards on 28 carries, and his three pass receptions gave him 22 for the season, the most on the team.
As the second half began, under brightening skies, Edwards and Schwab moved the Wildcats 80 yards in eight plays with Edwards sprinting untouched down the left sideline for a 20-yard TD. "Edwards does a very good job at bouncing outside," says Green. The coach himself was bouncing up and down just three plays later when Wildcat Linebacker Mike Guendling intercepted a pass at the Northwestern 22, returned it to the Minnesota goal line and fumbled it into the end zone, where teammate Rich Raffin fell on it for a touchdown. Suddenly the Wildcats led 24-21.
It was 31-21 after Raffin himself intercepted a pass late in the quarter and Schwab followed it with a one-yard scoring plunge. Lest anyone think Northwestern is sacrificing its academic reputation in its drive for athletic respectability, be aware that Raffin, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, scored higher than any player in history on intelligence tests given to him by three NFL teams.
The game ended with the Wildcats still up 31-21, and the final stats showed that Minnesota had gotten but two first downs in the entire second half. "We're not on the bottom of the world," said Tim Salem, son of the coach and one of three Gopher quarterbacks who played against Northwestern. "We're beneath it." Which is the kind of attitude that prompts Green to say, "All we want to do is show we can play Big Ten football and big-time football."
Says Wildcat placekicker and philosophy major Rick Salvino, who had booted four extra points and a 32-yard field goal against Northern Illinois and had another four PATs and a 41-yard field goal last Saturday, " 'You secrete your essence through time'—Jean Paul Sartre. You could have been this, you could have been that, but in the end you're nothing but your actions." These days, even at Northwestern, that sometimes means you're a winner.