Northwestern in the Rose Bowl Stirs Memories for 1948 Crew

Article excerpt

A room full of cynical old fellows stared at Gary Barnett in disbelief.

"We'll soon be in the Rose Bowl," Barnett said.

What? Had the Northwestern University football coach really just said that?

Two years ago, Ed Nemeth heard him say it. Nemeth had traveled from Birmingham, Ala., to Evanston, Ill., to attend one of his 1948 Rose Bowl champion Wildcats football reunions, and he was part of the gathering of ex-jocks in the 60-something crowd at dinner that night.

And, no, he did not believe.

"He told us they were building and turning the corner," said Nemeth, now 70, who has watched his alma mater suffer miserably on the field the past 47 years. After all, the Wildcats' record between 1978 and 1994 was 32-151-4, so who could blame his reaction?

"We all said, `Oh, yeah,'? " Nemeth said.

To understand Northwestern's history is to understand the grins on the faces of its proud alumni this season as the team prepares for its second bowl game since it began playing football in 1882.

Just consider the time that has passed.

In post-World War II America, Nemeth - fresh off a three-year stay in Europe as a member of the 101st Airborne Combat Division - was a 5-foot-9, 192-pound left guard for the Wildcats.

"He was a little fireplug, short and stocky," said Dick Eggers, the '48 team's starting tackle and Nemeth's roommate and fraternity brother, "but, boy, could he carry his weight."

In post-George Bush America, Nemeth - fresh off retirement from a lifelong career in steel business management - is enjoying his new life as a grandfather in Vestavia Hills.

And, by the way, he now believes Barnett.

"By George," Nemeth said after watching the 1995 Wildcats run up a 10-1 record, a No. 3 ranking and a date with Southern Cal in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl, "they kept winning."

Barnett knew what he was talking about after all. And because of that, Nemeth and his college buddies are packing their bags and taking their wives to Pasadena, Calif., for a New Year's party to celebrate.

When Ed and Nan Nemeth, who have lived in Birmingham since 1974, get to California, they'll hook up with old friends, old NU grads such as Steve Sawle, a starting tackle in '48 who lives in Lincolnshire, Ill., and his wife, Audrey.

Steve, the '49 team captain who lined up next to Nemeth on offense, loves to brag on "Hunky." Everyone had a nickname back then, and "Hunky" was Nemeth's. It referred to his stocky build.

"Hunky made up for his size with his aggressiveness," Steve said.

Audrey is typical of Northwestern alumni, proud of the school but understanding of the football team's fate.

"Several years ago," Audrey said, "I gave my husband a trip to the Rose Bowl when Iowa played. Because I said, `Well, Northwestern will never go, and I want you to see the Rose Bowl. You played in the Rose Bowl, but I want you to see the Rose Bowl."'

The Sowles will be back at this season's Rose Bowl.

"A lot of people see Northwestern as an underdog story that can win," Audrey said. "Hey, put that across your life. People see an underdog can win. I really think there's a great message there."

The message is not lost on Nemeth, who said, "I am very proud," as his scrapbook of the '49 Rose Bowl sits nearby. …