Football has always been the biggest draw for students and Badger fans. Every game day is an event, and every beer bottle on the street, obscene fan-made sign and crowded road is a part of the experience.
The stars of the gridiron are the most recognizable students on campus and the program certainly gets its fair share of national attention thanks to Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff. But does football deserve to be the most celebrated sport in Wisconsin athletics?
In their last 15 games, the team earned a losing record of 7-8 and has lacked star power since the departure of Jonathan Taylor after the 2019 season.
Wisconsin certainly can hold their own against most teams, but it’s has been a while since they’ve been labeled as a true “contender.” They’ve failed to make the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014 and are 1-5 against top ten teams in the last five seasons.
Obviously, a Rose Bowl appearance, two Big Ten Championship appearances and a Heisman Trophy contender are nothing to scoff at, but do they deserve more attention than other Wisconsin programs with more recent success?
No team has been more dominant in women’s hockey these past three seasons, or really this century, than the Badgers. They’re a COVID-19 pandemic away from a likely three-peat and have shown no signs of slowing down this season.
Football and men’s basketball, the other top dogs on campus, have gone seventy years without a claim to a title. Despite this, very few would go as far to say that Wisconsin is a “women’s hockey school,” even though the school has an argument for having the best women’s hockey program of all time.
Only Minnesota can say that they have as many titles as Wisconsin with six, and Wisconsin has been able to produce five Patty Kazmaier award winners compared to Minnesota’s two. No other UW team is able to say that they are the best program in the nation right now.
But one sport that certainly could find itself in that position is the volleyball team.
The team has a 33-2 record over the last two seasons, with only two of those matches going to five sets. Dana Rettke and Sydney Hilley may be the two best players at their respective positions in all of the NCAA, which is something that few other Wisconsin teams can boast.
They’ve been so dominant that anything less than a championship will be seen as a disappointment, while other sports may be content with just a playoff appearance.
Between the championships from the hockey team, the dominance of the volleyball team and a solid start from the women’s soccer team (8-3-4), Wisconsin’s most recent success has come from female athletes.
Maybe that’s where Wisconsin’s athletic identity should lie — the school that gives women the best opportunity to show off their athletic prowess and leadership. That doesn’t mean that the men’s teams haven’t also had their fair share of relevance in recent years.
The men’s basketball team certainly has made a name for itself these past two decades. Wisconsin was a lackluster team through most of its history before coach Dick Bennett brought notoriety to the team.
Beginning in 1999, Wisconsin made the NCAA tournament in 19 consecutive seasons under Bennett and Bo Ryan. The peak of this was a national championship appearance in 2015.
Since then though, basketball has been stuck in the same place football has — good, but not one of the heavyweights. The team gained momentum at the end of the 2019-20 season and split a conference title, but the recent play overall has been inconsistent.
The trend is likely to continue for at least one more year, given the inexperience of the current roster. The women’s basketball team has also faced a lot of low marks this past decade. Given these factors, it’s unlikely that Wisconsin will be known as an elite basketball school in the near future.
Why not bring hockey into the argument? After all, the men’s team has just as many titles as the women’s.
Wisconsin has always been able to produce NHL-caliber players, most notably the reigning Hobey Baker award winner, Cole Caufield. With Caufield, Wisconsin had one of its best seasons in recent memory and won the Big Ten along with an NCAA tournament appearance.
Wisconsin hockey is one of the powerhouse programs in the country, having repeated success since the 1970s. Between men’s and women’s hockey, there really hasn’t been a more successful sport on campus.
Then why is football king? Why does basketball seem to be more popular? Surely the more successful program should be the most popular.
Is that necessarily true? One of Wisconsin’s most recognizable sports traditions is the fifth quarter, played at the end of every home football game. It may be surprising to learn that this tradition started after a 24-game losing streak.
Really, Wisconsin sports identity has been whatever the fans and students wanted it to be.
No matter the record, football will always be the first thing that comes to people’s minds when thinking of Wisconsin sports.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing the school has to offer. It’s not just a football school. It’s a hockey school, a basketball school as well as a volleyball school.
It’s a school where female athletes go to succeed. It’s a school that continues to spawn new traditions despite rough patches. Last but certainly not least, it is a school where the most passionate fans come together to support their favorite teams and university.