As the Wisconsin basketball team celebrated earning the first NCAA Tournament 1-seed in program history, unaware of the thrills, laughs and, ultimately, tragedy they would encounter, they were unknowingly cheering another achievement. A far more enduring, and impressive, accomplishment.
Badger basketball had reached the NCAA Tournament the same year as Badger football had reached a bowl game.
That might not sound too special, because, hey, 27 teams had also done it that year. But it was also the latest link in a chain. The Badgers had accomplished the double postseason last year. And every year before that since 2002, giving Wisconsin the longest joint bowl/tournament streak in the country. Only three other teams have done it since 2010.
That feat might be impressive in a vacuum, but then consider what Wisconsin was 25 years ago.
The undergraduate who walks through Camp Randall Stadium or the Kohl Center today might not realize it, but they are witnessing the fruits of one of the great program turnarounds in college sports history.
30,000 in a stadium for 78,000
Wisconsin football used to be bad. Wisconsin basketball used to be bad. Wisconsin hockey was nationally elite, but a strong hockey program wasn’t good enough to carry the department financially, so the Badgers were in the red in more ways than one. To get out of there, first and foremost, the football team had to begin selling tickets, and that was going to be difficult as it slogged along under head coach Don Morton from 1987 to 1989.
“That deficit seemed to be primarily due to the football attendance,” said John Malicsi, (Daily Cardinal sports 1988-’91). “The stadium was probably running 60-65,000 people during the Big Ten season under Dave McLain, and then they went to four years under Don Morton. If you got to 30,000 in the stands in one of those games, it was incredible … Imagine 30,000 in a capacity of 78,000. [Current Wisconsin students] have probably never seen that.”
Of course, it’s not like Morton single-handedly limited the program. Wisconsin had long been at or near the basement of the Big Ten and once a literal laughingstock in the student paper.
“In the Cardinal’s Gameday issue, this would have been in the early 70s through the early 80s, they would have a syndicated feature called ‘The Bottom 10,’” said Wisconsin State Journal editor and Wisconsin native Rob Hernandez (Cardinal sports 1984-’89). “It would … rank the bottom 10 teams in college football and Wisconsin and Northwestern would always be battling for the No. 1 spot.”
Morton’s veer offense was ill-advised with Wisconsin’s natural personnel, and that was compounded by Morton’s lack of interest in recruiting high school players from the state of Wisconsin.
The on-field product was putrid in 1989, all summed up by the first game of what would be Morton’s final season.
“My first game I went to as a freshman, Wisconsin was playing Miami, who was No. 3 at the time,” said Los Angeles Times Lakers writer Mike Bresnahan (Cardinal sports 1990-’93). “I’m at my first college football game, just loving life, and Wisconsin gets the ball first. There’s a couple personal fouls on Miami and Wisconsin moves down the field and they kick a field goal.
“So it’s 3-0 Wisconsin and that might have been best moment as a freshman. They went on to lose 51-3. The chant in the stands that day was ‘We scored first!’ That was really all Wisconsin fans could cheer for.”
Out-of-style office, out-of-style program
Pat Richter wasn’t sure about taking over the Wisconsin athletic department. The former football great was comfortable as Vice President of Personnel at Oscar Mayer and could see Wisconsin’s glaring $1.4 million deficit as a member of the department’s financial committee. In fact, when then-chancellor Donna Shalala first asked him, he recommended legendary hockey coach Bob Johnson over himself. It was only when Oscar Mayer began moving its central activities to Chicago that Richter changed his mind, preferring to stay in Madison and doing something for the university. He accepted the position of Wisconsin athletic director.
He knew he was walking into a dire situation; there was no surprise about Wisconsin’s financial woes. What was really surprising was, well, the carpeting.
“There was shag carpet on the floor, panels on the walls. Everything looked like it was dated,” Richter said. “I had come from Oscar Mayer, where there were call directors, caller ID’s. The university had none of that. Technologically they were way behind. That was a real eye-opener at that point, that there wasn’t only a deficit.”
It certainly didn’t help things when that deficit turned out to actually be $2.1 million. Richter inherited an athletic department that had neglected the business side of college sports and didn’t seem to have a direction or a plan going forward.
Almost immediately, Richter sought to remedy that with more business minds than sports minds.
“Not too long into the burn, I brought on Bob Drane, who was the head of market research at Oscar Mayer,” Richter said. “We brought him in to do a planning exercise with the staff. He basically said ‘Here we are in 1990, let’s think of the year 2000. Looking back, what are the things you would have liked to accomplish over those 10 years?’
“We put down the things we thought were necessary: fiscal integrity, compliance, academic excellence, competitiveness. Hopefully we’d go to a bowl game, hopefully we’d get into the NCAA basketball tournament. It was all to bring back respectability to the department.”
Drane kept working with the department to identify weaknesses of which there were many: attendance, facilities, etc. He found departments outside the Big Ten to emulate in terms of both athletic success and departmental solidarity, like Stanford. The ultimate goal was to find a vision for what true Wisconsin success would look like.
“When we were brainstorming and talking about Stanford and what would be an outstanding outcome, one of the first things people said was ‘We win the Rose Bowl.’ That drew hilarious laughter.”
One Notre Dame defensive coordinator
Barry Alvarez was not a humble man.
“When he got to campus, there was a certain confidence and arrogance that said he was either going to take this program to new levels or he’s going to fall flat on his face. I don’t think anyone got done with that press conference and thought ‘This guy’s going to keep the status quo,’” Hernandez said.
That press conference was Alvarez’s introductory press conference, in which he said those famous words now played before every game at Camp Randall: “Let me say this: They better get season tickets right now because before long they won’t be able to.”
Alvarez came from Notre Dame, one of the premier programs in college football. In 1988, he coached a defense that finished third in the country in points allowed and won a national championship. He was a winner and acted like one. Even when he finished 1-10 in 1990, his first season, he had support thanks to his background and his team’s solid play. They were close, they just weren’t winning.
That changed in 1991 and 1992, when the team finished just one game away from bowl eligibility. The Badgers even beat Ohio State in ‘92 and came a single fumble away from winning their final game against Northwestern. The culture change came full circle in 1993.
Even though a fluky loss to Minnesota hurt confidence midway through the season, the Badgers played like a real, scary football team. They bounced back and beat Michigan and tied No. 3 Ohio State in consecutive games. The Michigan game, in fact, sparked a field rush and what could have been a truly horrible incident, as fans were trapped in the stands and nearly crushed by those behind them trying to reach the field. Many were injured, but, thankfully, none were killed.
“The Michigan game is the closest I’ve ever come to dying,” Bresnahan recalled.
The state from which the Badgers had arisen was fully exemplified in their final regular season game against Michigan State in Tokyo, Japan. The game had been scheduled in 1989 with UW brass thinking it could have served as a pseudo-bowl for fans. Instead, it was the game that clinched the Rose Bowl, and every fan probably knows what happened there.
Back to business
A major step forward for the program was the creation of a Director of Licensing position to oversee the program’s face to the fans and sponsors. The man that was hired to that position was Vince Sweeney, currently the Vice Chancellor for University Relations for all of UW-Madison.
Stepping into a position that was not just unprecedented for Wisconsin, but would have been for many more successful programs across the country, Sweeney had to nearly start from scratch.
“There really was no licensing program per se as late as the early 1990s,” Sweeney said.
“Back then, marketing was sending out the ticket renewals and hoping people would fill them out and send them back in. That was really the extent of the marketing that took place at the time.”
The old, plain W logo was replaced with the motion W that you see pretty much everywhere today. Wisconsin began to attract sponsors and sell merchandise. According to Sweeney, revenue from licensing went from $200,000 a year to around $3.5 million today.
Meanwhile, associate athletic director Al Fish began running the athletic facilities and improving them off the board. Before 1989, facilities had become dilapidated and unattractive.
“One of the things that came jumping up when we did weaknesses was the facilities,” Drane said. “Trying to attract good coaches and good talent into the physical setting was difficult. One of the high priorities that came out of looking at opportunities related to upgrading the facilities and making them much more attractive.”
In today’s world of college athletics, teams spend on new locker rooms and workout rooms and everything else with revenues increasing across the board. Back then however, spending was a gambit for a cash-strapped program. Ideally success would lead to better facilities. Instead, better facilities helped lead to success. Of course, winning the Rose Bowl helped too.
“The minute you start to demonstrate that you’re capable of getting to bowls and winning bowls, everything else follows that,” Drane said. “A thousand good things begin to happen to your revenue. People begin to donate, pricing for tickets goes up … Everything that follows from a business standpoint came from a turnaround on the field.”
A new face for the university
“It’s remarkable. This program, this school obviously has an incredible tradition. Athletically, it had a major dip. There’s no question that Richter-Alvarez combination on the football-athletic department side really saved the athletic department,” said ESPN reporter Andy Katz (Cardinal sports 1986-’89). “The athletics were not a drawing card when I came here. It was more the overall experience, State Street and having a great time and a great school. Now the athletics for students as well.”
There are still mountains to climb for the now-perennially competing programs. There hasn't been a Wisconsin football championship nor a basketball championship since World War II. The hockey team has recently hit hard times and more questions loom over the status quo of college sports. But there’s no denying that the transformation has been one heck of a sight.
It took an eye for talent, good business sense and even some luck. In the end, the man at the center of it all didn’t want the job at first and it’s impossible to imagine what might not have been.
“In the athletic world, lots of times the people who are making decisions were great athletes before, knew athletics backwards and forwards and were very popular in the community. But their business acumen was not so great,” Drane said. “One of the great things about Pat, and Donna Shalala understood this, he knew not only the world of athletics … but he also knew that other world [of business] through Oscar Mayer. That was the magic, to be able to put those together.”