Improbable tale: BTN show recalls Northwestern’s run for roses in ’95

I grew up going to Northwestern football games, which is to say I didn’t see many Wildcats victories. They were epic bad, bottoming out with a record 34-game losing streak from ’79-82.

So the notion of Northwestern going to the Rose Bowl was as preposterous as getting a sunburn in Chicago on Jan. 1.

Then a miracle happened. On Jan. 1, 1996, the purple rode into Pasadena.

The latest edition of Big Ten Elite (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, BTN) chronicles Northwestern’s incredible 1995 season. The Wildcats, under third-year head coach Gary Barnett, won the Big Ten with a 10-1 record and faced USC in the Rose Bowl.

The Wildcats, 7-2 going into Saturday’s game against Michigan, are decent now. But at the time, their rise from last to first had to rank among the most unlikely stories in college football history.

Big Ten Elite executive producer Bill Friedman grew up two blocks away from Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field) in Evanston. So obviously this story hit home for him.

Here’s Friedman on:

Completely unexpected: The Wildcats went 3-7-1 in ’94 and that was a good season for them at the time. Nobody could have forseen on Sept. 1 (1995) what was going to happen to this team.

For me, what stands out is the (17-15 upset victory over Notre Dame in South Bend in the season opener). Northwestern was a 20-point underdog taking on the blue bloods of college football. But when you watch the game again, you can see Northwestern was the better team. It wasn’t a fluke. They outplayed Notre Dame. Then you start to think, ‘Hmm, maybe this team is pretty good.’

Interview with players and coaches: One of the strengths of the show is that we were able to talk to everyone, with the exception of (fullback Matt Hartl, who died of cancer, in 1999). You have Gary Barnett (and his wife, Mary), Darnell Autry, Pat Fitzgerald, Steve Schnur, Rob Johnson. We have all the people you’d expect to hear from and then some. And they all gave candid and honest interviews about how that year affected their lives.

Friedman’s Rose Bowl story: I was born in 1973 and left for college in 1992. My best friend and I always said, ‘If Northwestern ever goes to a bowl, we’re going to go.’ It didn’t matter where or what bowl. We were going to be there.

It just so happens that not only did they make a bowl, but it’s the Rose Bowl. We were away at school, and my friend’s mother stood in the freezing rain to get us tickets.

I went out to Pasadena a couple of days early. I didn’t have a car and I had nothing to do. Each day, they opened a section of the Rose Bowl so you could go and see the inside of the stadium. I must have spent two or three hours sitting in there each day. I kept taking pictures of the endzone. I couldn’t believe it was purple and white.

Even thought it’s been 17 years, the images still are very vivid.



Q/A with BTN President: A regret and bouncing back with 4-plus hours of coverage today

The Big Ten Network did what it is supposed to do today. Cover the big news and cover it hard.

The BTN was on the air for 4-plus hours this morning covering the fallout from the NCAA handing down harsh sanctions to Penn State. The network had reporters in State College and Indianapolis, numerous phone interviews, and the studio team of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith offered clear and measured analysis.

All in all, it was quite a contrast to what occurred nearly two weeks ago when the BTN was hammered from not airing live coverage of the explosive Freeh Commission press conference. Instead, the network ran a replay of an old football game.

What changed? I just did a Q/A with BTN President Mark Silverman.

Why didn’t the network cover the Freeh press conference?

We wanted to have covered it. Frankly, it was human error. There was an internal communications issue. We regret not having shown that press conference.

What went into the decision behind today’s coverage?

We need to cover the story as well as any other news entity. We knew this was going to happen, and it allowed us to get ahead of the game.

I like we have such experts on the Big Ten. You have Howard, who was a former player; Gerry was a former coach; and Dave brings the journalistic integrity. You bring it all together and try to provide as thorough coverage as possible.

When you didn’t cover the Freeh press conference, there was a perception that the BTN, which is owned by the conference and member schools, doesn’t want to handle negative news. How do you address that perception?

That couldn’t be further from the truth. The conference wants us to be credible. We’re going to be honest and candid in our coverage. It’s not in our best interest to sugarcoat things.

I wanted to bring in reporters from other entities today. I didn’t want it to be only our announcers. I wanted to have a cross section of people to have the debate and discussion. These are difficult topics, and we want to handle them carefully. But we have to be candid.

Since November, we haven’t shied away from this topic. We had a big miss which we regret, but other than that we’ve covered the story well and have been a service to our viewers.

DiNardo was a friend of Paterno and has spoke of his admiration of the coach. Yet he has been critical about what transpired. What’s been your reaction to how DiNardo has handled this situation?

Gerry is a professional. He brings a candid view. But if you look closely, you could see the emotion he’s experiencing over someone he considered a close friend.

Going forward, if the Penn State football team falls from the weight of the sanctions as expected, what will be the implications for their games from a ratings standpoint?

That’s a difficult question to address. What kind of impact will it have on ratings remains to be seen. I just don’t know the answer.






No longer marquee: ESPN, Big Ten Network losers with Penn State sanctions

Regarding the NCAA’s announcement, since this is a sports media site, I’ll discuss the TV aspect:

Make no mistake, when the Big Ten added Penn State as its 11th school in the early 1990s, a major component was television. The addition of the school delivered the large Eastern TV market to the conference. It led to marque match-ups with Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions going up against Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, not to mention attractive non-conference games against Alabama, etc.

Penn State’s presence then gave the conference a wide enough national footprint to launch the wildly successful Big Ten Network.

The Big Ten will continue to cash in on a TV deal with ESPN that runs through 2016-17, and the BTN isn’t going anywhere.

But both of its broadcast outlets will feel the pain of the NCAA’s sanctions. Gone for many years is the idea of Penn State football being a marquee draw for television.

Frankly, I think Penn State would have been better off with a one-year “Death Penalty.” The unprecedented long-term penalties for bowls and scholarships are devastating. Unless new coach Bill O’Brien pulls off a miracle, the Nittany Lions are doomed to be 2-10, 1-11 for several years. Or as one tweeter said, “Penn State just became Indiana.”

Penn State had been a showcase team for the Big Ten, with several of its games playing in primetime. In fact, it has two on the schedule for 2012: an Oct. 20 game at Iowa, and Oct. 27 at home against Ohio State.

Will those games be moved back to afternoon starting times? Probably.

Suddenly, Penn State-Ohio State, Penn State-Iowa, or Penn State-anything no longer looks attractive. Perhaps there might be a curiosity factor at first to see how the Nittany Lions and their fans react to the sanctions. But if the product on the field suffers, as expected, viewers won’t watch for long. Those 40-0 blowouts can get boring fast.

Also, bowl TV will be impacted by the four-year postseason ban. Penn State always delivered solid ratings in the bowls.

The brand of Penn State has been diminished, if not decimated. The program was one of the great TV draws throughout the years. Now it is the object of national scorn.

Last fall, I attended the Northwestern-Penn State game. After the Nittany Lions won in what turned out to be Paterno’s final road game, its faithful fans marched through the streets of Evanston, proudly chanting “We are Penn State, We are Penn State…”

Looking back, I wonder what those fans are thinking now.