When Coach Barnett took over the program, Northwestern hadn't had a winning season in more than 20 years.
Five years later, "on Jan. 1, 1996, Gary Barnett walked onto the Rose Bowl field as the miracle worker who had turned Northwestern from a laughingstock into one of the best teams in the nation."
Coach Barnett's message to his team was simple: "Expect victory." His strategy was to start from scratch:
"We just tried to create something," he said. "When you create something, it's a lot more positive. ... Creating is putting everything together that you have and drawing the best from everything and making something new out of it."
According to Pat Fitzgerald (pictured above with Coach Barnett in Dec. 1996), Northwestern's current coach and a former LB who played for Coach Barnett, "It was all attitude. Expect victory. Expect to win. Work to win. Never sacrifice what you believe in to win. ... There was a clear-cut vision of what we wanted to accomplish, how we wanted to go about it."
After going 5-19 in Big Ten play during Coach Barnett's first three seasons at Northwestern, the Wildcats turned the corner in 1995. The following is an excerpt from this article:
It all started in South Bend, Ind., as the Wildcats took on No. 9 Notre Dame in the season-opener. The day before the game, Barnett took his players onto the field for a workout and showed them it was 100 yards long and 53 yards wide, just like their own, and that there were no ghosts reaching up from the turf to trip them.
When one of his players handed him a penny he had found on the ground, Barnett had all of the inspiration he needed for one of his famous motivational schemes.
As he detailed in his book, "High Hopes: Taking the Purple to Pasadena," Barnett brought out a scale at a team meeting the morning of the game and plopped 19 pennies on each side, representing the 19 practices each team had gone through.
But then he reminded his players of the extra practice they had completed on a Sunday morning before leaving for summer training in Kenosha, Wis.
He took the penny lifted from the field the day before and added it to Northwestern's side of the scale, tipping it in the Wildcats' direction.
The message was clear: The Wildcats could bring down the mighty Fighting Irish.
And they did, earning a 17-15 victory that shocked the nation and became what Barnett called a "watershed" game for the program.
That game, said Coach Barnett, "dictated the change in direction, the creation of a new sort of Northwestern. That was the single best indicator of that. The agent of change was that Notre Dame game."