The Subject Is Roses

updated 12/18/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1995 01:00AM

AS THE NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY football team assembled for opening day of their preseason camp last August in Kenosha, Wis., the players expected to be pelted with the usual bromides about having a positive mental attitude—not an easy thing to have if you had been looking up from the bottom of the Big Ten standings as long as the Wildcats had. Instead, they got Moses—or at least a man who looked like Moses in a fake white beard sackcloth and sandals While a boom box cranked out Frank Sinatra's "High Hopes," the ersatz prophet raised his hands to the heavens and commanded the team to stand UP and sing "You've been lost in the desert for 40 years," he bellowed "It's time to PO out and find the Promised Land!"

Not the typical way to start a football season. But perfectly in character for Northwestern coach Gary Barnett, who had enlisted his friend, Steve Musseau, 72, to play Moses—perhaps unnecessarily. Many would say that Barnett, 49, is a miracle worker himself. This season he took the sad-sack Northwestern Wildcats from the Big Ten basement to a 10-1 record and a spot in the Rose Bowl—their first New Year's Day appearance since 1949. "I anticipated being able to win six games this year, so I was surprised by what we did," says Barnett. "But it's my nature to do something someone says you can't do."

How bad was Northwestern? Consider that the team had not had a winning season since 1971—and that since 1964 it had amassed a record of 75-252-5. At one point in the '80s they, had gone 34 games without a victory. The team was so pitiable students were reduced to taking solace in the school's academic reputation, chanting at their opponents: "That's all right that's okay. You're going to work for us someday."

When he came to Evanston, Ill., in 1991 from the University of Colorado, Barnett was determined to prove that kids at the Big Ten's smallest and most demanding school can play football. A brilliant motivator, he reportedly ordered a Tournament of Roses flag for the football building and kept a silk rose on his desk to remind everyone where they were headed. "Coach Barnett," says kicker Sam Valenzisi "is not in the mold of Knute Rockne giving a speech before the game or slamming his fist down to motivate you He just exudes confidence At the first meeting he told us we needed belief without evidence. He asked, 'Do you know what that is? That's faith.' "

Barnett even speaks in parables to his flock. For example, after the team's only loss this season—ironically, to Miami of Ohio, the weakest team on its schedule—he told them about an African tribe that used to catch monkeys by cutting open a coconut, just wide enough to place a cookie inside. The monkey would slip its hand in but then couldn't get it out. What it didn't realize was that if it let the cookie go the hand would come free easily "The cookie was Miami" Barnett explains "If we held onto, it it would trap us all year."

The coach grew up in Mexico, Mo., 120 miles northwest of St. Louis, the older son of Leland Barnett, a canned food salesman, and his wife, Edith, an office manager. According to Edith, "Gary was always soft-spoken, an easy child to raise." He was crazy about sports, as was his father, who quizzed Gary about players by covering up the lower half of their faces on baseball cards. "Gary could tell who all the players were just by looking at their eyes," says Edith.

In 1964, Barnett went to the University of Missouri, where he was a wide receiver. He thought about law school, but football was his passion, as was his fellow student Mary Weil, whom he married in 1969 and with whom he has two children, Courtney, 21, and Clay, 18. After coaching high school and small college football for 10 years, he signed on as an assistant at the University of Colorado and helped convert the woeful Buffaloes into a national champion in 1990. Then he came to Northwestern a coach's graveyard that did not scare him in the least. "Northwestern represents everything that is right about football" he said at the time.

Though the Wildcats showed some promise in Barnett's first three seasons, it wasn't until 1995 that they began to blossom. "This year we had a real fertile situation," says Barnett. "For the first time, all the players had been recruited by us. We had no egos. We had guys who knew their role on the team." Barnett likens assembling a team to creating a garden. "Some of the flowers," he says, "don't look so good by themselves, but put next to others, they look a lot better."

Valenzisi, for one, remembers Barnett telling the team before its shocking upset of Notre Dame not to carry him off the field after the game. "You could not help but catch his confidence," says Valenzisi. The night before the Air Force game he showed them highlights of the Notre Dame victory. Then he turned on the lights and handed out T-shirts that carried the Chiraco sun-times headline, "NU-17, ND-15. Do You Believe in Miracles?" On the back Barnett had printed "This Was No Damn Miracle!"

"I'll always remember that," says Valenzisi. "It was as though he had given us back our swagger."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
BONNIE BELL in Evanston

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