The Golden Age of Wisconsin Football

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The Golden Age of Wisconsin Football
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This is the Golden Age of Wisconsin Badger football.

They have the best all-around team ever assembled in university history that looks to send no less than 10 players to the pros next fall. They have a very real chance of finishing the season with a top 5 BCS ranking, and have set records at many of the skill positions. 

Most of this is lost on Badger fans having made the trip to Southern California. They’re shuffling and shuttling around Los Angeles in their forward W t-shirts, eating, shopping, beaching and partying like it’s any other two-loss year. But this season is different.  It’s special in so many ways. The team is flying higher than they’ve ever flown, and fans can’t see that fact because, deep down inside, most of the red and white faithful are a little heartbroken. 

The Bucky Nation is no stranger to crushed dreams. Every spring, the die-hard cardinal and white inflate their hopes of a transcendent season, only to see a dumb, shoulda-won-can’t-believe-we-lost-that-one game dampen their spirits. In the immortal words of Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane”. Wisconsin Badger fans drink from the keg of hope and drown out their better judgment with each trip around the sun.

The cleansing phase of the yearly heartbreak cycle comes like the thaw. As we look for Punxsatawny Phil’s shadow to determine how much winter remains, we know, sooner or later, the snow will melt away.  

A spring in the hearts of the Badger faithful happens when the budding green shaft of hope breaks through the cold earth within their souls. It’s a psychotic cycle, but one most fans adopt while whistling. They forgive their team, but more importantly, forgive themselves for believing in their grand lie. And so the cycle starts anew. 

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But this year, the team really did have a chance at leaving behind the hoi polloi and living the good life, being served warm cookies and chardonnay by smiling flight attendants as they jetted to Louisiana for a national championship. And that’s the real reason so many Badger fans are depressed. No amount of Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy is going to numb the pain. They know. 

It started out with back porch whispers across dairyland deep in it’s humid summer. By August a BCS National Championship run had been quietly considered. The favorable schedule was examined. Line-ups and schemes explored. The Badge would be returning a powerful run game, 7 starters on a tough defense, and their ace in the hole: Russell Wilson, their very first legitimate blue-chip quarterback. 

As August rolled into September, and Mr. Wilson and company kept racking up double-digit wins, those pockets of murmurs grew into cacophonous screams.  Once the middle of September brought newly minted Big Ten power Nebraska to town and saw them leave with a “Welcome to the Big Ten” greeting stamped across their collective foreheads, it was on. A sea of Badger fans swelled and swayed in fifth quarter bliss high above in the best luxury suite in the house,

Barry Alvarez smiled. And why not? He not only bested his alma mater, but had dragged this once sad program out of the Dark Ages and into elite status, racing past their toughest game on schedule with nothing but green lights ahead.

ALVAREZ AND BIELEMA

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Upon being named new head coach by then-U.W. athletic director Pat Richter, Barry Alvarez referred to Wisconsin as a “sleeping giant”.  Taking over a lackluster Big Ten program from ousted Don Morton was the perfect situation for the Notre Dame coach looking for his first front man gig. Then he won, and won often, taking his team,  and its adoring fans to bowl game after bowl game. This happened regularly until he ascended the floors of Camp Randall full time as athletic director and named his assistant coach Bret Bielema as his on-field surrogate. 

Alvarez and his prodigal son are now the king and prince, respectively, of not only UW but Wisconsin overall. They lord over a clean program that plays in December or January every year, and thus supplies its rabid followers with winning records, freshly printed bowl shirts, and most importantly, warm weather getaways. A statue of Alvarez stands at the front of recently upgraded Camp Randall Stadium, a symbol of the spoils of numerous victories.

To make rain in a barren desert gives a man something more than money, it gives him legend status. And with that comes continuity. 

What goes unnoticed in each post-game interview given is that Bielema and his mentor are into the long, long game. In addition to their propensity of shaping players over years, not months, to fit in into their system, they’re calling plays and running an offense, not only to win games now, but keep the recruiting river flowing into Madison. This system has proven effective. Last year, the Badgers sent more players to the pros than any other team in college football.

With a steady hand and continuity from the top down, they’ve built the program brick-by-brick in their image:  a big, burly and methodical machine that rolls over opponents like a tank and is rarely held back. And now, Alvarez’s sleeping giant has risen to stand as one of the most respected and consistently good units in the land. The Nebraska win meant more to the two men than beating the Sage’s alma mater and climbing into the Top 5 national rankings.  It meant they had finally arrived.  But to find the origins of that moment, the record must go back a year ago, when Russell Wilson started to drift towards the shores of Lake Monona.

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FLASHBACK

In front of a nationally televised audience, on the crisp evening of October 16, 2010, Bret Bielema’s Badgers overcame the odds and beat a number one ranked Ohio State Buckeye squad who were heading towards a system wide melt down by year’s end. A euphoric Camp Randall crush took the field in celebration, the overhead cameras swirling around them in cinematic 360-degree glory.

That was a great win for the year, but in Bielema’s post-game proclamation, suggesting his pride for his team’s win and the fact that he runs a “clean” program, he won a whole new level of athletes. The best example was Russell Wilson, who at the time was happily throwing for NC State. Bielema’s earnest coaching style, along with a powerhouse Badger team playing with a senior quarterback, was a perfect fit for the two-sport standout from Virginia. As the Badger underclassmen danced to the fifth quarter tunes in the background, Bielema made his case in front of ESPN’s cameras. 

Bielema has long been known for his fantastic recruiting, and this quiet dog-whistle of a shout-out was the perfect illustration of how he was plying his craft. He sent out a coded message across national television on a frequency the NCAA couldn’t nab him for. No hundred-dollar handshakes or text messages violating Division 1 recruiting rules.  Just a nationally televised, media testimonial, custom tailored to every elite wideout, quarterback and defensive back in the land, suggesting Madison was the place to bring one’s talents.

THE RUSSELL WILSON ERA BEGINS

Helen Keller wrote, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens.” Months after Wisconsin’s Ohio State win, and thousands of miles away from Bascom Hill, North Carolina State head coach Tom O’Brien released Russell Wilson, an all-ACC QB at the time, from his commitment to the Wolfpack football team.

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The record-setting quarterback, having graduated from NC State in three years, was spending his spring playing baseball in other parts of the country. The two-sport stud was locked into a commitment with a Colorado Rockies minor league affiliate, and so, was precluded from off-season workouts in Raleigh.

With that, the Wolfpack coach had enough, and Wilson was free to fall upwards into a perfect situation. Faced with a shortage of game-ready talent at signal-caller position, Wisconsin was scrambling throughout the spring to groom a replacement to solid starter Scott Tolzien, who would be playing on Sundays. 

The prime opportunity to be a one-and-done crown jewel to UW’s national championship hopes was too much for Mr. Wilson to pass up. A favorable but not easy schedule, and a massive, pro-style and pro-sized offensive line to run plays behind, contributed to Wilson’s arrival at Camp Randall. Throw in a top-tier running game to alleviate some pressure, and the table was set.  

Wilson landed in the 53705 to pursue a graduate degree and national championship under the expert tutelage of  Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Along with the massive griddle cakes at Micky’s Dairy Bar, Chryst’s complex NFL- and CFL-steeped schemes were something that enticed many a lineman to play for the cardinal and white, and Wilson was no different.

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Competition for the job was legitimate and welcomed, but ultimately futile. Wilson’s skills, intelligence and maturity won him the job and respect of the players he was still coming to know. And with few exceptions, he’s not disappointed throughout the 2011 campaign. 

In Russell Wilson, Bielema has more than an agile, intelligent player that immediately stood out after decades of slow,  pocket passers and option runners. Wilson is the first Badger QB who could go on to a pro game where he can step in and start year one. More importantly for Bielema and Alvarez, it’s what Wilson importunes that makes him so valuable. That one score led athletic czar Barry Alvarez to intimate “Russell Wilson was like hitting the lottery for us. (He) is the most unique quarterback, best quarterback I’ve ever been around. I’m so excited for him to make the decision he did."

His decision to head north to the Madison winters over Auburn was a sign to future UW recruits that the university was now running with the biggest of big dogs. He’s an ambassador opening the door for more elite level speedsters, showing that Wisconsin is a top tier program. 

Wilson should go down as the best quarterback in Badger history, not for his win-loss record, but for his intangibles during playing and his endowment that will keep giving long after this season’s close. In addition to setting the NCAA record for throwing at least one TD pass in a game with 37 straight games, he threw at least three scoring passes in 6 games this year. He also holds the record for most pass attempts without an interception, a distinction he arrived at in the UNLV game this season, has protected the ball, and helped Wisconsin’s red zone production percentage settle in the mid-90’s, an incredible stat by any standard.

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FLASH FORWARD TO THIS YEAR

Wilson's coming-out party was against that Cornhusker team intent on being the silver back of the conference. Moments after the Badgers flustered Taylor Martinez and his fellow Cornhuskers on national TV,  the “Wilson for Heisman” media push started in real time, and with it, talk in bars up and down State Street of Bucky doing push-ups in New Orleans. 

The Nebraska win not only altered who the Badgers could recruit but how they could do it. Other than the LSU’s and USC’s of the world who shop for five-star players like billionaires do sports cars, most teams recruit players who fit into their system. The Badgers have done an enviable job in filling their ranks with walk-ons and the few top-tier players they’ve pulled to the cold Midwest, but they’re rarely a destination school for elite QBs looking for a finishing school before the pros. Wilson’s arrival gave access to the top floor of recruits to Bielema and his staff. No more poaching from the penthouse, they had the key. 

But then came the two week run in October where it all fell apart.

STATES OF DISARRAY

In a horrific two-week span in October, the Badgers lost to Big Ten foes Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartan last-second Hail Mary that ruined Bucky’s national championship hopes was made even more excruciating by the instant replay that would only confirm what so many at home watching their 50=inch plasmas already knew. The magical season was lost. 

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Against the Spartans, Wilson vacillated between average and good on a night when he needed to be great, not only to ensure a rankings jump, but to add fuel to his Heisman flame.  By early in the fourth quarter, his chances for a New York anointing were over.

The next weekend,  still saddened and disoriented from the loss, the Badgers played down to their competition and fell again. Ohio State, with an interim coach and an offense trying to find its soul after the loss of Terrell Pryor and other key talent, bested the Badgers. With that second disenchanting defeat, all the “one-loss national champion" arguments disintegrated in Madison.  

The Badgers took the rest of their games and ended on a high note, winning the Big Ten title in dazzling and dizzying roller-coaster fashion over Michigan State. The championship game was a fulfilling counterweight to the heartbreaking loss they suffered earlier in the year, but, just like in Vegas, where winning never feels as good as losing feels bad, that Badger victory in Indianapolis couldn’t salve the deep burn of a season that could’ve been. 

They stood alone atop the Big Ten, but it seemed a bitter and brief tryst with greatness. Nebraska beaten. Michigan State vanquished. Columbus in sanctions; its leader deposed. Wisconsin became the destination program in the Big Ten where they would finally be able to get ahead and steal and stock talent from the rest of the conference and perhaps the country.

But it was for naught. Ohio State got their house in order when master coach Urban Meyer accepted the position as the Buckeye head coach. His twin national championships and SEC bonafides took some wind out of Badger sails the moment it was announced. Wisconsin, it seemed, had fallen back into the pack. And why wouldn’t one think so?

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No Heisman for Wilson. Nor for Montee Ball, though he will go down as one of the all-time Badger greats. By all accounts, Ball will bid Camp Randall farewell at season’s end. He has little else to prove and would be leaving on a high note. His 38 touchdowns this season are within striking distance of matching Barry Sanders’ single-season record of 45. If he was on the fence before, the the loss of his offensive guru, Paul Chryst, would surely nudge him off into the pro field.

Play-calling mastermind Chryst is absconding to the Keystone state, debuting as Pitt’s new head coach and bringing with him offensive line coach Bob Bostad.

To compound the issues, Bielema has yet to proclaim who will take Chryst’s place. This precarious dynamic usually breeds uncertainty that can yield infighting and even defections. With Wilson heading to the pros, the search for a field general will start anew. To complete the picture, the Badgers are losing at least 13 key players. Bielema’s vessel is taking on water and he might not have a Russell Wilson-sized bucket to bail him out this time.

At a glance, it looks like the Badgers are poised to recede back into the Big Ten pack next season.  But there’s evidence to suggest it won't.  Only time will tell if the Golden Age of Wisconsin football has ended, or just begun.

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