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Joke's no longer on NU

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Coach Pat Fitzgerald already is associated with NU similar to the way Joe Paterno is with Penn State.

Smart aleck: ''Northwestern can't lose this weekend. Guaranteed.''

Normal person: ''Why- ''

Smart aleck: ''Because they don't play!''

Har, har.

The gag is so yesteryear, dumb as Francis Peay's playbook.

This season's Wildcats are 5-1, and, true, they have a bye weekend coming up, so they can't lose.

But what this football program at the only private, small-enrollment university (8,300 undergrads) in the Big Ten has become is anything but a rollover.

True, the Wildcats shouldn't have lost 20-17 to Purdue on Saturday. Northwestern had 10 more first downs and 258 more passing yards than the Boilermakers, and NU was leading 17-13 with four minutes to play. But stuff happens, and the Wildcats -- who once lost a stunning 34 straight games from 1979 to 1982 -- are not kitties anymore.

They have a 22-8 regular-season record for the last three years, and bowl games are something they actually play in rather than watch from couches.

There are five reasons for this gridiron rebirth -- OK, birth, since there never really were any extended glory years for NU football. And I shall lay them out.

First, the reduction of scholarships from a one-time basically unlimited amount to 85 since 1992 has helped even the talent playing field.

''No question that has helped us,'' Northwestern athletics director Jim Phillips said.

Second is the scheduling of non-conference foes. Or should we say pastry-

In the last few years, Northwestern has scheduled early-season games against Towson, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio), Duke, Southern Illinois, Syracuse, Ohio, Nevada and Northeastern (no, not Northwestern!). And beaten them all.

Go back a ways, before the BCS-six-wins-and-you're-bowl-eligible days, and you'll see that Northwestern scheduled teams like Notre Dame, USC, UCLA, Southern Methodist (pre-death penalty) and Nebraska in the pre-conference schedule.

Scholarship value, Fitz are keys

This year Northwestern already has played, and beaten, Vanderbilt, Illinois State, Rice and Central Michigan. Powerhouses they are not. Of course, No. 1- ranked Ohio State already has beaten up on Marshall and Eastern Michigan. And Wisconsin has whipped UNLV, San Jose State and Austin Peay.

(I truly hope someone in the Badgers front office is crawling up State Street, flogging himself with a whip in shame for scheduling the Governors, who lost to Middle Tennessee and Tennessee Tech.)

The third thing is, Northwestern is an elite, incredibly expensive educational institution, and in these hard economic times players and their families recognize the sheer cash value of a full scholarship for playing sports.

''It's about $55,000 right now,'' Phillips says of the cost of a year at NU. ''Then if a kid is red-shirted and stays for a fifth year and grad school, it gets up to almost $300,000 [counting inflation]. Then, if you want to throw in equipment, travel, meals and other things, it might get closer to half a million dollars. No question. This is one of our strongest selling points. It's a point of difference for us and other schools.''

The fourth thing is the reign of coach Pat Fitzgerald. Once known mainly for being the youngest major-college coach in the universe, Fitz, the former Northwestern middle linebacker and NCAA Defensive Player of the Year, is now 35 and in his fifth year as NU's head man.

He's a youngster who made his coaching mistakes and learned from them -- remember that 35-point, second-half comeback by Michigan State, the largest comeback in NCAA history- -- and is now a celebrity coach the likes of a much-much-younger Joe Paterno.

Fitzgerald is associated with Northwestern the way JoePa is with Penn State, but without the Coke-bottle lenses. At any rate, having an energetic, successful, understanding guy like Fitz at Northwestern, which battles huge state schools in conference play week after week -- and, yes, soon Nebraska will be a yearly foe -- is a huge advantage over a rotating cast of leaders.

Then there is Phillips himself. Fresh from having more than 70 NU athletes over to his house Thursday night, he is the bubbling cauldron of enthusiasm and morality that Northwestern needs to steer the difficult course between athletic success and corruption.

Since the start of school, Phillips has had all 500-plus NU athletes to his house for dinner and to chat and find out their concerns. Don't think they do that at LSU.

Pressure keeps mounting

Phillips worries deeply about how far his football players can be pushed, with the increasing number of games and pressure -- not to mention a Big Ten playoff soon to come and a national playoff looming.

''I think we're really at the edge of asking our athletes to do too much,'' he said. ''And the stakes just went up directly with the addition of Nebraska [to the Big Ten].''

But for now there is this 5-1 team and success occurring almost regularly.

Northwestern may not make it past Michigan State next week, or even Indiana after that.

But they're in the big-time now.

And the Wildcats no longer settle for those 64-0 losses to Iowa (see 1981).

Thank you.