LORE has it that after yet another drubbing of Northwestern in the 1970s, some wit ventured out to the highway near campus and altered a sign to read: ''Interstate 94, Northwestern 0.''
Back then the outcome of a Wildcats football game was as sure as the yardage required for a first down and other rules of football: Northwestern loses.
But this season they are not laughing at Northwestern University on the interstate - nor, for that matter, at Iowa State, Penn State, Michigan, or even Notre Dame.
The Wildcats, which most fans cannot remember being anything but the Big Ten's purple-and-white doormat, have come to life.
Not only has Northwestern logged its best record (9-1) since 1903 and its first winning season since 1971, it is also a favorite for the Citrus Bowl. The team, ranked No. 5, will go to the Rose Bowl if it wins at Purdue Saturday and undefeated Ohio State loses or is tied by Indiana or Michigan.
Hometown Evanston is flush with a ''Purple Passion'' deepening with each victory. Northwestern flags flutter from houses where, in other autumns, flagpoles were bare. Every other pedestrian appears to be wearing at least a dash of purple, from sneakers and laces to knit-cap pompons. On game day, Dyche Stadium swarms with zealots with two-tone painted faces: purple on one side, white on the other.
''This is an unbelievable accomplishment, a very, very dramatic turnaround,'' says Ara Parseghian, Northwestern's football coach from 1956 until he left for Notre Dame in 1963. Last season, the Wildcats' winning percentage was .334. This year, it's .900.
The rise of the Wildcats, Mr. Parseghian says, stems largely from one big change: ''Attitude.''
The team and its coaches have overcome a history of defeat that sapped hope and stunted ambition. The goal of proven loser teams is often just to keep the losing margin as slim as possible.
Far from giving up at the start of games, Northwestern has repeatedly come from behind to win. Against Illinois, the Wildcats went into the locker room at halftime trailing 14-0. They roared back with 17 unanswered points. So too was the case last Saturday against Iowa State. The Hawkeyes, having beaten Northwestern in 21 games straight, took a 14-3 second-quarter lead only to see the Wildcats claw its way to a 31-20 win.
''Northwestern certainly is not a fluke; they have made a solid comeback,'' says Kent Stephens, curator at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.
Northwestern has apparently pulled itself up through top-notch coaching, better recruitment, and greater financial support. Coach Gary Barnett has won the most credit for raising the spirits and reversing the fortunes of the Wildcats.
''It's his enthusiasm, the way he represents both himself and his team,'' said Flo Fitzgerald, standing in three inches of new-fallen snow in the stadium parking lot before watching her son, middle linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, play Iowa. Fitzgerald, the leading tackler in the Big Ten, broke his leg during the game. The junior finished the season with 130 tackles, 99 of them solo.
''When Coach Barnett recruited Pat, we knew the coach was going to turn the program around,'' Mrs. Fitzgerald said, recalling how Coach Barnett brought his fervor into their home in a talk around their kitchen table.
The hiring of Barnett in December 1991 signaled that the rising heap of losses had grown intolerable even for Northwestern. Months before, university officials had determined that ''a truly competitive football team is consistent with our quest for excellence in all fields,'' says spokesman Ken Wildes.
''The key was when we decided to make a coaching change, and we went after one of the best young coaches in the country,'' Mr. Wildes says.
Of the four Northwestern teams Barnett has led since leaving Colorado as assistant coach, this squad most clearly shows the stamp of his strategy and recruitment skill. He has built a well-rounded team that relies heavily on a solid, opportunistic defense.
''They are not a very flashy team,'' says the Hall of Fame's Mr. Stephens, ''but they win basically with a very good defense that takes advantage of opponents' mistakes.'' The defense has allowed an average of just 13 points per game.
Still, Barnett has not neglected the enlistment of glittery playmakers. This year's star is sophomore tailback Darnell Autry, who has run more than 100 yards in 11 straight games and is a Heisman Trophy contender. (See story, left.)
Barnett has been helped throughout his four years at Northwestern by a National Collegiate Athletic Association rule that blunted a longstanding recruitment edge held by big-time state schools.
Eight months after Barnett signed on, the NCAA cut the number of football scholarships a school may offer from 95 to 85. Suddenly, gifted players who might have played for state teams were available to Northwestern.
Barnett has further leveled the playing field with less academically minded state-school rivals by searching farther afield. This year the university has players from 24 states and Canada.
Meanwhile, in an effort to keep new recruits in school, Barnett has instituted a mandatory freshman study session from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m. every weekday.
The university has apparently shored up the football program with ample cash. It recently announced a campaign to raise $20 million for athletics. The money would go toward building an indoor practice facility for football and other sports and a $17 million revamping of the stadium.
The largess helps Northwestern players win while meeting costs and academic standards that are stiffer than those at state schools. During its decades in the gridiron cellar, the Big Ten's only private university found consolation in the fact that the average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of its players surpassed those of its opponents. Back then, a favorite cheer was, ''S-A-T! S-A-T! S-A-T ...!''
The triumphs and euphoria at Northwestern may prove hard to sustain. ''Getting to the top of the mountain is a heck of a lot easier than staying there,'' Parseghian says. ''Next year, everyone will want a piece of Northwestern.''