When Bob Morgan packed his bags for the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1950, a new chapter would soon be written in an already storybook boxing program.
A self-described shy kid from Duluth, Minn., Morgan arrived on campus unsure about his boxing future or college life in general. But by the time his days at UW were over, Morgan would have a national championship under his belt, a degree in economics and a place among the greatest UW boxers to ever step into the ring.
“Bob didn’t have a lot of help when he was a kid,” said friend and former Wisconsin teammate Dick Murphy. “He was a little bit timid when he came in, but we took that out of him. He was a great guy, what you’d call a stylish boxer. Not much of a hitter, but he could out-point (his opponent), and that’s what he did. He fought a lot of kids that were probably tougher than he was, but he still won.”
While many NCAA fighters had 40 or more amateur fights in Golden Gloves, AAU meets or the military before getting to college, Morgan started his UW career relatively inexperienced.
He had fought 24 fights as a two-year member of the Duluth Golden Gloves team in high school, registering a record of 19-5, but was offered a partial scholarship by UW head coach John Walsh largely based on sheer talent — and the recommendations made by Bob Gerber.
Gerber was Morgan’s Golden Gloves trainer and knew his young fighter had the potential to box at the college level. So he, along with the support of fellow trainer Bob Burke and Morgan’s high-school principal, helped convince Coach Walsh that Morgan was a gamble worth taking.
“Bob Gerber is still my friend,” Morgan said. “He not only wrote to the college and got me a scholarship, but he and Burke would both come down for the fights. And then he ended up being godfather for my first child; he came to my wedding; he loaned me $10,000 to get into business … He’s been my friend. He’s been almost like a father throughout my life.”
The first face Morgan saw when he arrived in Madison was Wisconsin State Journal sports writer and former NCAA boxing champion Warren Jollymore.
Jollymore was a longtime friend of Bob Gerber and would soon become both a friend and mentor to Morgan.
“[Jollymore] was such a charismatic character,” Morgan said. “When he first introduced me to people, he’d say: ‘Here’s the next Welterweight NCAA Champion.’ He helped give me confidence. Moving up from Golden Gloves to the University of Wisconsin was quite an upgrade and challenge … He raised your talent bar quite a bit, so ‘Jolly’ was very much like Gerber in kind of loaning me his self confidence.”
When Morgan first arrived on campus, the fall semester was already underway and he wouldn’t be able to enroll for classes until February.
This time spent out of the classroom could be considered anything but downtime, however.
He began each day working as a construction laborer for eight hours, before heading to the gym to work out with the boxing team. Then, at night, he ran three miles to get his roadwork in and would cap off his day by hanging his work glove on a string from the ceiling and jabbing at it — a testament to his hard-working nature.
And Morgan’s hard work ultimately paid off.
His first official season as a Badger began in January of 1952, a season in which he not only wound up winning the NCAA championship at 147 pounds, but also helped UW claim the overall team title.
While he has a number of fond memories from his boxing days at Wisconsin, the night Morgan won the national title in 1952 ranks as his personal favorite.
“I would have to say that the highlight of my career was winning the nationals that particular night, because nothing like that ever happened again in my life,” Morgan said. “We had many other good times on road trips and many other fights that were great, but for me, that memory stands out the most.”
The NCAA boxing tournament was a three-day event in which fighters had to win to advance to the next day of action. According to Morgan, the two fights preceding his championship bout were so physically draining, he was unsure how well he would fare in his title bout with Michigan State’s Dick LaForge. In the end, however, Morgan followed Coach Walsh’s advice, relaxed and won the biggest fight of his collegiate career.
“I was exhausted after the first two bouts,” Morgan said. “I won each fight, but I was just wiped-out exhausted. In the third bout, it was one of those rare times when everything came together. I boxed really well, and I wasn’t at all tired at the end of it. It was just one of those things that I couldn’t make a mistake, and the other guy couldn’t do anything right.”
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1955, Morgan became involved with the Army’s ROTC program. He spent six months training in Ft. Ustis, Va., and his military obligations lasted for a total of eight years — serving in a two-week long training camp every summer.
After his six months of training in Virginia were over, Morgan went to Chicago, Ill., to work for a steel company. He eventually grew tired of working for a corporation, though, and decided to get into the commercial janitorial business.
It was at this juncture of Morgan’s life that his hard-working nature once again shone through.
By the time he retired in 1994, he had built his company into a 125-employee business, etching yet another mark in an already momentous life.
A life, according to Morgan, that would have looked much differently without his experiences at the University of Wisconsin.
“My life, frankly, was turned around entirely from the time I first came to school,” Morgan said. “The people I met and the things I did were all for the best. In other words, I would have still been in Duluth probably working at a grocery store or something if I hadn’t gone to college.”
Aside from his achievements as an athlete, a soldier and a businessman, Morgan is also an accomplished author.
His autobiography, “Goodbye, Geraldine,” is a firsthand account of how a shy kid from northern Minnesota working in a paint and wallpaper store can become a true American success story.
A success story that currently finds Morgan residing in a picturesque area of Boulder, Colo., happily married to his wife Susan.
Although it’s been nearly 50 years since he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Morgan still keeps in contact with Dick Murphy and many of his other former UW teammates.
These relationships would have never developed had Morgan given up on boxing after his first four Golden Gloves fights.
“I won my first fight and lost the next three,” Morgan said. “It made me wonder if I was in the right sport.”
As Badger fans and Morgan himself soon discovered, he certainly was.