Fourth in a series of stories by Larry Watts on the players of the 1995 Northwestern Wildcats on this, the 20th anniversary of their Rose Bowl season.
When it comes to measuring a secondary in Northwestern football history, they are considered to be the gold standard. Senior William Bennett was at free safety, junior Eric Collier was the strong safety, senior Chris Martin was at left cornerback and fifth-year senior Rodney Ray was at right corner.
During that magical run in 1995, they started all 12 games. Individually, they held four of the top eight positions on the Wildcat tackle charts. As a unit, they had 348 tackles, 20 pass breakups, 11 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries.
They were the last line of a defense that ranked first nationally in points allowed (12.7 per game) and led the Big Ten in fewest touchdowns allowed.
"Wow, 12.7 points per game! That's amazing when you think about it,'' says Bennett, who was a team captain and now works as a talent developer for National Corporate Housing in Denver, Colo. "We were the top team in all of Division I after all we had gone through.''
To reach that gold standard, Bennett, who started the last 43 games of his career, and his crew had to go through some harsh time. Michigan and Iowa combined for 96 points in back-to-back games in 1992. The following year, Ohio State and Wisconsin went back-to-back for 104 points followed by 43 points from Penn State. The '94 season kicked off with Notre Dame posting 42 points at Soldier Field and then an average of 46.7 points allowed to Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State.
"It was a learning process,'' Bennett says. "At that time, we had some amazing players in the Big Ten, guys who went on to have good NFL careers. Playing against them pushed us to prepare even harder in practice.
"What we needed to do in our group was build confidence. We had a lot of serious talks about what we had to do to compete and how to elevate our game so we could dominate. It took the front seven to play very well for us to have such a good year in the secondary. Each player held himself accountable.''
Even when it seemed like the worst of times, Bennett says the team was learning little things about how to win. He uses the 27-12 loss at Notre Dame in '93 as an example.
"It was a close game at halftime,'' he says. "That's when I noticed how the good teams always come out with a second burst of energy in the second half. You had to play the game to the last whistle.
"We got beat up. But looking at the film, you could always find a point in the game where we lost it. The good thing was (head coach) Gary Barnett had been through a winning program at Colorado and knew how to relate to us.
"We had to make up our minds we were going to play better,'' he added. "We had to focus more on gaining an inch, whether it was in a step, a reaction, a grab or taking out a blocker. That inch could make or break a play.''
Bennett, who played his high school ball in Tempe, Ariz., was one of the last signees in Barnett's first recruiting class. He had no scholarship offers until he was asked to come to Evanston on a recruiting visit in January of 1992.
"It was 70 degrees in Phoenix and this was my first time encountering snow and cold at the same time,'' he says with a laugh. "I had been recruited by Gary Barnett and John Wristen when they were assistants at Colorado, so when they changed schools, they stayed in contact. I had done no research on Northwestern prior to the offer.
"I came home with the scholarship offer and Arizona State got in contact with me. They were also going through a coaching change and wanted me to visit. Having already known a couple of the coaches at Northwestern, I decided to run with the scholarship offer and see what I could do.''
When he signed with Northwestern, Bennett was handed both playbooks since the coaching staff had yet to decide whether to play him at wide receiver or defensive back. He spent many hours going over the offensive playbook with former Cat receiver Lee Gissendaner.
"Just before the start of the season, I was finally told to stay on defense,'' he says. "Through Lee's guidance, I think that gave me a better understanding of the offense as a defensive back.
"My mindset as a true freshman was to earn a starting spot or significant playing time. I really didn't know a lot about Northwestern's history. My attitude as a freshman was to do all I needed to do to play. It was a new culture and there were always older players giving advice. You would listen to them, but in the end, you had to put your trust in your coach.''
The first of Bennett's 43 consecutive starts came in the third game at Stanford. Cardinal quarterback Steve Stenstrom passed for 297 yards as the Cats fell 35-24.
"It was really exciting to hear your name called out as part of the starting lineup,'' Bennett says. "I still have that game film.''
A three-time All-Big Ten honorable mention selection, Bennett says the success of the '95 season really didn't hit him until the team returned to Evanston. He finished second on the team with 102 tackles that season.
"We had a rally in Welsh-Ryan Arena and it was packed,'' he says. "I was asked to speak at the rally and I didn't really have a grasp on what we had done. Sure we had won the Big Ten title, but we lost in the Rose Bowl. I had felt my season was incomplete.
"But here were these alums coming up to me, shaking my hand and telling me what an impact that year had been on their lives. Here were corporate executives telling me what a life-changing moment it had been for them and I'm thinking, 'It was just a football game.'''
Finishing his collegiate career with 418 tackles (fifth in Cat history) and 16 passes broken up (12th), Bennett now set his sights on the NFL. Undrafted, he signed as a free agent with the Indianapolis Colts. After getting cut in training camp, he moved on to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League the following summer.
"I started a game and played against Doug Flutie in Toronto and eventually got cut,'' he says. "So the next stop was the New York City Hawks (Arena League).
"I got to play in Madison Square Garden. That was like playing football on a basketball court with hockey walls. I hit one guy so hard that we went into the wall and I rang my own bell.''
After getting cut in the Arena League, Bennett returned to Northwestern in 1999 to work as a graduate assistant on Randy Walker's first staff. He coached the defensive backs under secondary coach Jerry Brown.
"That was a great experience,'' he says. "I learned what it was like to be part of a new coaching staff and what it has to go through in laying the groundwork.
I think that helped me a lot in my current position today because I see so many different personalities walking in as part of new organizations or older organizations bringing in new personnel.''
After his one season back at Northwestern, Bennett was hired as an assistant coach at Slippery Rock, where he would work with linebackers and defensive backs.
"It was a lot of time away from my family and after one year I decided we couldn't afford to live and eat on a Division II coach's salary,'' he says.
Bennett and his wife, Asinna, had only been married a year and they had a newborn. Now married 15 years, the Bennetts have four children: William IV (14), Isabel (11), Alexander (9) and Nyla, who turns 2 in November.
"I still keep in touch with the other defensive backs,'' he says. "We all have our lives and kids, but it's always good to catch up and share stories, especially if someone is down.''