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Northwestern Territory Spreads to Fashion Island : Sports: Thousands of long-suffering, purple-clad fans attend rambunctious pep rally for the Rose Bowl-bound team.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was kind of like that scene in “Casablanca.”

All was calm in the Fashion Island food court Saturday until someone sat down at the grand piano and began to play the Northwestern University fight song.

En masse, loyalists throughout the lunch crowd sprang to their feet and sang a throaty, emotional version of their alma mater’s anthem, drowning out all conversation (and all thought of defeat) for the next few minutes.

The scene was enough to bring tears to the eyes of any Midwesterner, but it was merely a prelude to the day’s main event, when 5,000 graduates and groupies of long-suffering Northwestern gathered at Fashion Island Newport Beach for a good old-fashioned pep rally.

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Everywhere there were grinning alums in purple sweatshirts and purple caps, some waving purple pompoms, others sporting purple-painted lips, all celebrating the unprecedented purple reign of 1995’s Big Ten champs, who now face USC in Monday’s Rose Bowl. Northwestern has not been to Pasadena since 1949.

“This is the best event so far,” said Northwestern cheerleader Julie Witka, she of the purple “N” on her cheek, who had attended a preponderance of peppy events in the previous 72 hours and, therefore, knew whereof she spoke.

(Forgive the overwriting here, gentle reader, but a dash of purple prose seemed called for . . . )

“We’re still a little dazed to be here,” said Joanna Gwinn, class of ’66, who journeyed to Newport from her wintry home hard by the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Ill.

Gwinn and most other Northwestern alums can--and will, at the slightest provocation--tell you everything there is to know about Northwestern’s dreary football history, from the infamous 34-game losing streak that beclouded the early ‘80s to the 23 consecutive losing seasons.

They also will tell you--purple-clad chests puffed out with pride--that their somber alma mater song (as opposed to the stirring fight song) is based on an ethereal composition by Haydn.

“That’s why it’s the classiest alma mater song ever written for any school in the country,” said Gwinn’s husband, Don, the Northwestern registrar, who was pretty sure that Mozart and Bach composed nothing of note for any NCAA Division I school.

Certainly, the Gwinns have a firm grasp of Northwestern trivia--but they take a back seat to Harriet Rotter of Ann Arbor, Mich., who dominated the Fashion Island rally in the manner of a ferocious linebacker.

“You know the last time Northwestern won nine games?” Rotter demanded, her voice like a quarterback’s intense cadence. “1903.”

This year, she pointed out, though no one asked, the boys in purple have already won 10.

Now, in case you were wondering about that nail polish Rotter was wearing, it’s called “Wet ‘n’ Wild Purple.”

“And that’s how I feel!” she shouted gleefully.

Want to know how long it took to beat Iowa, which Northwestern did this year?

“Twenty-seven years,” Rotter said to no one in particular.

Standing on a chair and clapping her hands raw was Rotter’s schoolmate and equally spirited sorority sister, Lee Hausner, class of ’60.

Hausner was not only proud of her school, she was pretty proud of herself, because she still fit into the sweater she wore 35 years ago as a “Block N Captain,” which is something like a cheerleader.

“I never thought I was going to wear this to a Rose Bowl!” she said.

Of course, not everyone was caught up by such rah-rah spirit.

“Excuse me,” Brandon Hunter asked a man in a purple baseball cap. “Can you tell me what’s going on here?”

Incredulous, the man asked if Hunter was kidding.

He didn’t know that Hunter was a graduate of Brigham Young University, who had wandered innocently into Fashion Island, hoping to do a bit of post-Christmas bargain hunting.

“Is this a pep rally or something?” Hunter asked the Northwestern alum, whose chin when it fell and hit the ground might have made a sound like a football being spiked.


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