Acting as if they are Oklahoma or Miami, those fearsome Northwestern Wildcats are preparing this week to take on their second consecutive top-25 opponent.
Two weeks ago, it was Notre Dame. This afternoon, the Wildcats play their home opener against No. 22 Boston College.
This looks good on the recruiting trails. “Come to Northwestern and see the college football world,” coaches can tell high school seniors.
But during game week, with videotape winding through VCRs in the coaches’ offices, it doesn’t look so promising.
And Jerry Brown, a former long-time assistant at Cal State Fullerton who now coaches Northwestern’s defensive backs, has been spending a lot of time with VCRs this week.
“It’s kind of neat,” Brown said Wednesday from his office in Evanston, Ill. “It entices other young men to come here. If they as players have a vision of going beyond the Big Ten, they’re going to get exposure. And with Northwestern’s academics to sell, it’s not hard (to recruit).
“It’s fun playing those guys. Sooner or later, we’re going to beat them on a regular basis, and they’re going to back away and not play us.”
Back away? From Northwestern? Brown, who worked under Gene Murphy at Fullerton from 1980-87, might not be as crazy as he sounds.
In 1971, Brown was a second-team all-Big Ten defensive back and helped Northwestern finish second in the conference.
Now, after a coaching career that included four years with the Minnesota Vikings, Brown is back at his alma mater, insisting that Northwestern, too, can be a winner. And the Wildcats did go 3-5 in the Big Ten last season, their best performance in the conference since 1973.
“They say that it’s different at Northwestern,” Brown said. “Supposedly, all of our young men are students. But you know what? They’re regular people, too. They do crazy things like the players we had at Fullerton and with the Vikings. They’re normal people--they just have better IQs.”
Coaching at Northwestern differs from coaching at other schools in the Big Ten mainly during recruiting. Northwestern, the only private school in the Big Ten, simply can’t get the students into school that other universities can.
But during the season, Northwestern practices 20 hours a week--just like Michigan and Ohio State and everyone else playing under NCAA rules.
The biggest difference between Northwestern and some of the other Big Ten schools is that Wildcat boosters aren’t down a coach’s throat after every loss.
“There probably isn’t that kind of pressure,” Brown said. “I don’t know if Northwestern could ever reach that situation. I don’t think they want to reach that, where they pressure coaches to win, win, win.
“Here, it’s learn, learn, learn and then play, play, play. Those are the kinds of things that parents want here. There is solid support for our program here, but you don’t see it in the forefront.
“It’s like anywhere else. The more you win, the more people jump on the bandwagon. It’s like at Fullerton--no one gave a hoot about us. Then, in 1983, we started to win, and people started coming out.”
Brown spent a year as a graduate assistant at Northwestern in 1972, took a few high school coaching jobs and then moved to Eastern Illinois to coach defensive backs in 1977. He went to Fullerton in 1980, coaching wide receivers for eight years and serving as offensive coordinator from 1983-87.
He left Fullerton in 1988 for the Vikings, where he worked with the wide receivers for two years and the defensive backs for two more before being fired when Dennis Green took over as coach.
Brown sat on the sideline last fall, still on salary with the Vikings. Northwestern Coach Gary Barnett hired him in March.
“First of all, he brings a Northwestern degree, knowledge of the university and how it works to the program,” Barnett said. “Second, his expertise in secondary play and his professional background. We needed to make a few changes. Third, his personality and demeanor, he blends right in with the staff.”
Brown, whose wife, Denise, is also a Northwestern graduate, said he feels as if he is back home.
“It’s kind of fun,” he said. “There’s a certain spirit taking place here that is similar to when I played.
“When I got here in 1968, Northwestern had done some losing. But we had a unique freshman class that didn’t buy into that losing stuff. By the time we were juniors, we were turning it around. It’s the same kind of thing here.
“It’s similar to Cal State Fullerton. Cal State Fullerton was tagged as a no-way winner, too.”
But four years after Brown’s arrival, the Titans made it to the 1983 California Bowl. And in 1984, they went 11-1, their best season.
“I think he’s a great coach and a great human being,” said Murphy, who remains close friends with Brown. “Other than that . . .
“Dennis Green is not my favorite coach. I think he’s a jackass--and you can quote me on that. (Brown) is a guy who is as good a coach as you’re going to find. He coached two years on one side of the ball in the NFL and two on the other side. You just don’t see that.”
Brown wasted no time putting his mark on the defense once he got to Northwestern. One of the first things he did during spring ball was approach Barnett and ask if two offensive players could be transferred to the secondary.
“The first meeting, he’s trying to trade players,” Barnett said. “I told him, ‘Jerry, this is college.’
"(But) he executed a draft and a trade in his first week here.”
The two players Brown requested, Rodney Ray and Chris Martin, are starting in the Northwestern secondary.
Yes, Brown says, give them time, and the Wildcats will surprise some people.
“I think the good Lord placed me here,” Brown said. “I really believe it. It’s funny--when I got into coaching, I used to have thoughts of coming back to Northwestern. But I said I would not come back if the atmosphere stayed in touch with losing.
“I wasn’t going to come back here and suffer losing. I have enough character--I don’t need to build it by losing.”