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.