Unlike their Outback Bowl opponents from Tennessee, Northwestern football does not reek with tradition. For many years, it just reeked, period.
Sure, there were a few winning seasons here and there throughout their history, which dates to the late 19th century. While Northwestern has a proud tradition of a student body with championship SAT scores, championship trophies are not so plentiful.
After the Wildcats went 6-4 under Alex Agase in 1971, they endured 20 consecutive losing seasons before Gary Barnett was hired to change their fortunes. Even Barnett had three straight losing seasons from 1992-94. To make things worse, a gambling scandal among some of the 1994 players was revealed. Barnett was not involved.
But in 1995, Northwestern football changed for a generation under Barnett. With players such as running back Darnell Autry, quarterback Steve Schnur, wide receiver D’Wayne Bates, and All-American linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern shocked the world.
They started the season by upsetting No. 9 Notre Dame on the road. After an upset loss to Miami (Ohio), they won their remaining nine games. Four ranked teams were among the victims.
Northwestern won the Big 10 and played in the Rose Bowl that season, losing 41-32 to the Keyshawn Johnson-led USC Trojans. But the foundation was in place for a respectable program.
They will not be a football powerhouse, but the years of 2-10 and 1-11 are over. They give their fans something to cheer about more often than not.
Randy Walker succeeded Barnett and went 37-46 in seven seasons before Fitzgerald took over at his alma mater beginning in 2006.
He is already the Wildcats’ most successful coach with a 70-55 record over his 10 seasons. This year is Fitzgerald’s second 10-win season and the most unexpected. The “experts” predicted Northwestern to finish in the middle or lower tier of Big 10 teams.
The Wildcats won their first five games, followed by two ugly blowout losses against Michigan and Iowa, before winning their final five to finish 10-2. Four of those five were decided by 6 points or less.
Fitzgerald will send Northwestern to face Tennessee on Friday with an unspectacular running and passing attack, but an offense that seldom turns the ball over. The 2015 Wildcats just find ways to win.
That could never be said before the program-changing season of 1995.