The evolution of Wisconsin athletics

by Ben Leadholm

Before the Wisconsin football team takes the field at Camp Randall Stadium, a video is played to hype fans up. The video features a montage of highlights from past seasons. In the middle of the touchdowns and big hits is a clip from Barry Alvarez’s introductory press conference telling fans to buy their tickets before it’s too late. The student section robotically cheers, many of whom don’t realize the significance of that moment in Wisconsin athletic history and take for granted the current golden era of Wisconsin athletics that they are currently experiencing.

As the years have passed, and teams and venues have changed, one thing has remained constant — the large influence Wisconsin athletics has on a student’s UW experience.

In the late 1800s and up to the early 1920s, football and men’s basketball were the only sports on campus. Hockey joined the party in 1921, setting the foundation for the “big three” UW sports. Each sport went through periods of success and struggles. Football was rather strong up until the 1930s. Basketball in the 1910s. Hockey, however, took some time to develop. Football again struggled through WWI and WWII, but experienced a brief revival in the 1950s before reaching another long period of decline.

While football suffered, hockey thrived. UW hired “Badger” Bob Johnson in 1966, who spent 15 years in charge of the program and only had one losing season, while also winning three national championships.

During that span, Wisconsin hockey became the number one sport on campus. Robert Schwoch, a UW student from 1978 to 1982, recalled Badger hockey games as a chaotic boozefest.

“As soon as the period was ending, every student would leave, run down to the beer gardens, throw down as much beer that they could and come back up,” Schwoch said, noting that the legal drinking age was 18 at that time.

Some students had a thing called the ‘Second Period Club,’  where they would leave the first intermission and spend the first intermission, the whole second period and the second intermission drinking.

“They would come up rowdier than all get out for the third period,” Schwoch said. “They were so rowdy in the third period that Herb Brooks, who was  coaching Minnesota at the time, was trying to get Wisconsin kicked out of the WCHA because our crowds were so out of control.

Dane County Coliseum

“It was a madhouse, it was a madhouse in that Coliseum.” 

With the hockey games being played off-campus at the Dane County Coliseum (present day Alliant Energy Center), students would take special buses from Memorial Union to the Coliseum. For big series against teams like North Dakota or Minnesota, getting to the game was nearly as exciting as the game itself.

“The buses were just completely rowdy,” Schwoch said. “For a big game, they would just sway going back and forth to the Coliseum and people hanging out the windows and yelling ‘sieve’, flags out the windows.”

While Badger football continued to struggle on the field, rowdy students still filled the stands at Camp Randall.

“The athletic department was trying a billion things to try to crack down on student rowdiness at Camp Randall,” Schwoch said. “It was a hundred times worse than it is today. There was body passing, they were literally ripping the bleachers up and throwing them out of the stadium.”

It got so bad that the athletic department considered getting rid of the student section and spreading the students out amongst the regular crowd. However, the game wasn’t the main focus for the day.

Although the product on the field was less than stellar, the 1970s Badger football gave rise to one of UW’s most beloved game day traditions—the Fifth Quarter.

“Nobody watched football. You went there, rowdied up, you listened to the band, you laughed, they lost, you made trouble and then you went home,” Schwoch said. “It wasn’t game-focused, it was a party to go to. You went mainly for the band.”

That attitude changed quickly with the hiring of Alvarez in 1990, who quickly changed the losing culture at Wisconsin and won three Big Ten championships and three Rose Bowl titles between 1994 and 1999.

Wisconsin men’s basketball also suffered throughout the 70s, 80s and into the 90s.

The basketball team was so bad that Schwoch, who was the sports editor for The Badger Herald at the time, decided that the paper wouldn’t cover the team and instead started a contest to decide who they should cover instead. Ultimately, UW-Parkside, a Division III power at the time was chosen and embraced by The Herald and Badger fans.

“We ended up running a fan bus up to Parkside and we all went to a Parkside game wearing all Wisconsin stuff and saying ‘On, Wisconsin,’” Schwoch said. “We presented them a little plaque that said you are now Wisconsin, you can drop Parkside from your name, all these hijinks, that’s how bad the basketball team was.”  

However, the hiring of Dick Bennett helped lead UW to its first Final Four appearance since winning the national title in 1941, bringing basketball back to the minds of fans of all ages.

Bennett retired in the middle of the 2000-01 season, and UW turned to an experienced, in-state coach in Bo Ryan, to lead the program the following season.

Ryan’s teams were perennial contenders in the Big Ten conference, and never missed an NCAA tournament, highlighted by back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2014 and the national runner-up in 2015.

The Alvarez-era and beyond have seen Wisconsin athletics taken to a new level. Under Alvarez’s leadership as athletic director, UW has won 57 conference titles, 14 national championship teams and 14 individual national champions since 2003-04.

Students storm the field after upsetting No. 1 Ohio State on October 16, 2010.

While in the past one or maybe two UW teams have been dominant at the same time, since 2010 Wisconsin athletics has been exceptionally strong, with three teams vying for fan’s attention.

The football team has gone 71-23 with three Rose Bowl appearances, three Big Ten conference titles and four Western Division titles, all while undergoing three coaching changes.

The basketball team has advanced to at least the Sweet Sixteen six times with back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2014 and finished as the national-runner up in 2015.

While the football and basketball teams have seen their share of triumphs and letdowns, no other UW team has seen this swing more drastically than men’s hockey. The Badgers lost the 2010 national championship game and saw its number of wins decrease over the next several seasons, bottoming out at four in 2014 — the worst in program history.

After another dreadful season in 2015-16, the Badgers made a coaching change, investing big in Tony Granato. Granato and the 2016-17 Badger squad surprised many on their way to a second-place finish in the Big Ten and just missing out on an NCAA berth.

For years, UW was always considered to be a football school, and with a good team and the spectacle of game day, it still might be. However, the continued rise of the basketball program and the resurgence of the hockey program makes that question a bit harder to answer today.
Regardless, one thing has remained the same, whether it be at Camp Randall, the Coliseum or the Kohl Center, students flock to the venues as the game day experience continues to play a huge role in the Wisconsin Experience.