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It's not that easy for Northwestern University football fans to wear their new-found pride on their sleeves.

That's because Wildcats fans will find few vendors of college-sports items sell Northwestern apparel, and those that do don't stock up on extras.

Stores are scrambling to fill a demand from closet football fans finally freed by a winning team, as well as those who just admire how far the Wildcats, from Evanston, Ill., have come.

"Now a lot more tourists are asking, but most companies don't even make Northwestern apparel," said Charles Blatt, owner of Sports Fever in downtown Chicago. "We've been trying to place orders."

Steve Eisenberg, manager of a nearby Sports Authority store, admits that until recently he didn't even consider carrying Northwestern gear. "But that's never been a problem in the past," Mr. Eisenberg said.

And why would it have been? Northwestern boasted a record of 3-7-1 last year, beating 1993's 2-9. It was way back in 1971-a year before any of this year's players were even born-that at least five games were won, for a record of 7-4.

But at 6-1 after beating Wisconsin on Oct. 21 (not to mention earlier wins over Notre Dame and Michigan), Wildcat fans are even beginning to dream of a Rose Bowl appearance.

And now the mighty purple smell green to people selling just about anything.

Because Northwestern handles its own licensing rights, manufacturers must contact the school directly.

"We've had a lot of calls from a lot of people," said Paul Kowal-czyk, Northwestern's associate athletic director for external affairs. "Everyone's trying to get in on the excitement."

From CD-ROM options to T-shirts and Starter Corp. jackets, retailers are attempting to cash in on Northwestern's jump in visibility.

Northwestern already has a highly competitive applicant pool of about 13,000 for 1,850 spots in its freshman class.

VP-University Relations Ken Wildes said it's still too soon to determine whether the exposure will boost the number of applicants. But it certainly can't hurt.

Rob Grady, director of marketing and promotions for Northwestern's athletic department, received 170 phone calls last week alone.

This year's winning season has created an opportunity for the school, Mr. Grady said. "The key is to turn this into a school with a winning tradition. This place could literally be a gold mine."

Bill Miller, manufacturer's representative for Midwest Athletic Sales, is one of the lucky few that sells Northwestern gear to retailers.

Stores that previously didn't carry Northwestern products, such as Sportmart and Fan Fair, have been placing their orders over the past three weeks, Mr. Miller said.

Five of 18 Chicago Sportmarts are stocking up on Northwestern apparel. The remaining 13 will carry Northwestern caps.

By placing Northwestern merchandise in Sportmart stores, said Donald Goldblatt, media buyer for the chain, Sportmart is responding to an increased demand.

"Northwestern is seen as the underdog. People like to root for the underdog," Mr. Goldblatt said.

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