Today is a day that will be long remembered in the annals of Wisconsin athletics, as the ambassadors of the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl formally invite Barry Alvarez and the Badgers to their glorious sporting spectacle. Okay, I know that I’m laying it on a little thick, but the point is that this is nothing but the latest verse in the sad song that is Badger football.
In my four years at Madison, the modus operandi of the Wisconsin Badger football team has been preseason hype followed by a disappointing season, then a bowl appearance sure to be spun as some sort of monumental step for the program.
In 2000, Camp Randall was supposed to be the home of a national championship contending team. Of course, had the Shoe Box scandal not been so overblown, that very well might have been the case. Regardless of that, when all was said and done, and all the dust had settled, the Badgers finished the season with a 9-4 record and a victory over the UCLA Bruins in the Sun Bowl, a rather anti-climatic finish to a highly anticipated season.
Sure, winning the last game of the year is nice, but did that really thrill anyone? I certainly did not rush to the mall and plop down $20 for a “Wisconsin Badgers, Sun Bowl Champions” T-shirt.
Speaking of T-shirts, the following year’s slogan was “Taking care of business.” Well, Wisconsin apparently had business elsewhere, because on the football field they stunk, finishing the season 5-7 and watching bowl games on television (insert your own Nick Davis joke here).
Last year saw the Badgers go 2-6 in conference and still manage a bowl berth thanks to their non-conference schedule. If that is not proof that being bowl eligible is anything but a tremendous achievement, then nothing is. And while the Alamo Bowl was perhaps the best football game I have seen in some time, it does not make the season a success by itself.
Then came the 2003 season. Picked by many to be contenders for the Big Ten title, the Badgers had as many offensive weapons as any team in the conference, sporting four receivers who could be considered starters on other teams and three running backs capable of carrying the load. Despite embarrassing losses to UNLV and Northwestern, and injuries to Anthony Davis and Jim Sorgi, the Badgers were one play away from a New Year’s Day bowl game. Alas, the team is instead heading for Nashville, the home of country music, not college football history.
I am not going to dispute the fact that the program is better off than when Alvarez took over; it’s not possible to make that claim. He turned a perennial joke into a nationally respected football program and is one of the best recruiters in the entire country. In 1990, Wisconsin won a whopping one game. When the 1994 season rolled around, the Badgers were the defending conference champions, coming off a Rose Bowl victory. Two more Pasadena wins capped off the 1998 and 1999 seasons, solidifying Alvarez’s kingly status in Madtown.
But when, week in and week out, coaches talk about focusing on the present and taking it “one game at a time,” I find it to be a bit hypocritical to continue to hang your hat on what happened four years ago. You can’t have it both ways. Yeah, the back-to-back Rose Bowl wins were great, but it’s time to move on. Maybe the Music City Bowl can be the springboard many hoped the Alamo Bowl would be, and maybe Badger fans will not be suffering from deja vu next year.
What Alvarez has become is a victim of his own success. Three Rose Bowl wins have forever raised the bar for Wisconsin football, and his recent teams have fallen short. If this program is to take the next step, no one should be content with simply making a bowl. That is what second-tier teams in small conferences do. Playing in a power league like the Big Ten, Wisconsin is hardly a second-tier team. Maybe I’m wrong, but I am pretty sure that Alvarez, every Wisconsin player and every Wisconsin fan does not see this program as second tier.
With the non-conference schedule the Badgers have played in recent years, there is no reason why they should not be bowl eligible. For Wisconsin to become a top-flight program, making a bowl should not be viewed as an accomplishment; it should be expected.