Everything is bigger in Texas, and that certainly holds true for the stakes when the Wisconsin football team travels to the Lone Star State in August to take on Louisiana State University.
But even back in Madison, Wisconsin Athletics is taking a page out of the Texan playbook and going big.
As a new group of athletes prepare to come to Wisconsin this fall for their respective sports, and the new class of freshmen prepare for their first year of college, all newcomers alike will enter a Division I university where athletics are often synonymous with success.
However, it didn’t used to be like this. In fact, at one point in the not-so-distant past, being a Badger was hardly synonymous with success on the playing field.
Wisconsin football struggled for some time after an appearance in the 1963 Rose Bowl, not returning to a bowl game until the 1980s. The Wisconsin basketball team, which won its only national championship in 1941, is now expected to make the NCAA tournament year after year. Even the men’s hockey team went through its own turmoil in the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s. But thanks to coaching changes and Barry Alvarez becoming athletic director in 2005, Wisconsin has made drastic improvements — and not just limited to one sport or even just to the three previously mentioned.
The fact of the matter is that Wisconsin used to be a one-trick pony. Hockey was one of the few — if not the only — good things the Wisconsin athletic department had going for it for the longest time. Legendary coach Bob Johnson built the Badgers into a perennial power in hockey and won multiple national championships while at the helm. But outside of hockey, the Badgers were just plain brutal. Things got so bad in the late 1980s and early 1990s that Wisconsin had to cut five varsity sports, including baseball. The football team was underperforming and hemorrhaging so much money that those sports were no longer in the budget.
However, hiring Alvarez as the football coach in 1990 not only turned around the football program but the entire athletic department. Slowly but surely, Wisconsin has made the transition from having a one-trick pony to having a horse in nearly every race.
Wisconsin football’s string of three Rose Bowl berths came to a halt this past season, but in the hands of a new coach this season, the Badgers look to be in the driver’s seat to head to the Big Ten Championship Game and perhaps their fourth ‘Granddaddy of Them All’ in the last five years.
As for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team, they’re coming off a year in which they set a school record for the best start to open a season and then followed that with an unprecedented run to the Final Four, the first since 2000 and the first in head coach Bo Ryan’s tenure.
Things were quite good in the athletic department going into the fall of 2000, as well, with a Rose Bowl win and a Final Four berth the previous school year. But unlike back then, Wisconsin has a lot more going for it today than just football and men’s basketball. The men’s hockey team made its second straight appearance in the NCAA tournament this past year, the women’s hockey team went back to the Frozen Four. Under first-year head coach Kelly Sheffield, the Wisconsin volleyball team made it to the national title game. Wisconsin’s softball team made its second straight NCAA tournament appearance this year. Oh, and don’t forget the Wisconsin men’s soccer team also made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995 this year, too.
That’s not to say that everything is ho-hum in the land of Badger athletics right now. The men’s hockey team did graduate nine seniors this year and lost two talented players early to the NHL. The football team lost several key members, as well, most notably one of the better running backs in school history in James White and perhaps the greatest linebacker yet in Chris Borland. In addition, the men’s basketball team lost one of the best sharpshooters in recent memory with Ben Brust’s graduation.
However, through all of these changes, one thing remains the same: the success of Wisconsin sports is here to stay. By the time this freshman class graduates from this university the wins will outweigh the losses.
About 30 years ago, the only thing to cheer for was the end of another drubbing in football and the start of the Fifth Quarter. Thankfully, and more so than ever, right now is a good time to be a Badger.