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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Column: New Year's resolutions for Wisconsin’s sports

As the year concludes and everybody makes resolution lists, I decided to make a list of resolutions for Wisconsin athletics.

As a great year of Wisconsin sports wraps up, fans, players and athletic staffers look ahead to the next.

Some teams excelled — volleyball, men’s basketball and women’s hockey — while others entered a period of transition — football and women’s basketball. Despite the progress made, or the lack thereof, it’s time to look toward the future. With the incoming influx of Big Ten money, there has never been a greater opportunity to correct some of Wisconsin sports’ most obvious issues.

Everybody makes a list of New Year’s resolutions. If I’m Athletic Director Chris McIntosh, these would be my resolutions for Wisconsin sports. 

Make men’s hockey matter again

Look at all the country’s best hockey teams — they’re all in the Midwest, and many are in the Big Ten. It should drive McIntosh crazy that all of Wisconsin’s peers are succeeding while the Badgers struggle to even compete against Big Ten opponents.

Despite recent memory, Wisconsin is a historically great hockey program. Head Coach Bob Johnson brought the Badgers their first championship in 1973, and Wisconsin has won five more since. From 1973 until their most recent championship in 2006, Wisconsin averaged a win every 5.5 seasons. It’s now been 16 years since their last. 

It would be less alarming if the team remained viable, but the Badgers haven’t surpassed the regional semifinals since 2010. Worse yet, mediocrity is becoming acceptable.

In current coach Tony Granato’s six full seasons, his teams have finished with a winning record only twice — most recently in the 2020-21 season when they were led by two top-15 draft picks in Cole Caufield and Dylan Holloway. A proud hockey program with two top-15 picks barely won 20 games and lost in the first round. Since those two stars left, Wisconsin went 10-24-3 last season and started 7-9-0 this season with a 1-7-0 Big Ten record. We shouldn’t act like this is normal.

Despite recent mediocrity, the Badgers truly aren’t that far away from regaining relevance. Wisconsin still brings in talent. On the current roster, there are currently three top-100 draft picks — Corson Ceulemans, Ty Smilanic and Sam Stange. Some project freshman Charlie Stramel to be selected in the first round. 

If McIntosh wants to show he’s serious about improving men’s hockey, the first step is firing Granato. Wisconsin will continue to bask in mediocrity if Granato is at the helm. He’s still able to recruit well, but their talents are being wasted.

The Badgers can become a powerhouse again, if they care.

Recruit an awesome QB

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The potential for a legitimate quarterback at Wisconsin has never been greater.

Everybody knows about Wisconsin’s run-heavy approach. It’s their identity — hence the plethora of great running backs and offensive linemen throughout the Badgers’ history. Wisconsin shouldn’t abandon their identity. Every successful team has a clear identity — the Badgers don’t have to worry about that.

However, we’ve seen what Wisconsin looks like when they expect a great running back to cover up an abysmal passing game. The Badgers become predictable, easy to defend and thus easy to shut down — look at the last two years.

Historically, their competition has been other Big Ten West teams with similarly limited offenses. But, the world is changing. Divisions in the Big Ten will be no more in 2024. So, instead of competing with Iowa and Minnesota to reach the Big Ten title game, it’ll soon be Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. 

If Wisconsin wants to sit at the cool kids’ table in the Big Ten, they can no longer be a one-dimensional offense. 

McIntosh recognized how much the program must improve — hence the hiring of coach Luke Fickell. The Badgers could have easily promoted the familiar Jim Leonhard, but instead they opted to swing big and hire the reigning national coach of the year. McIntosh and co. must stay aggressive and pour more resources into the recruiting, NIL and transfer departments.

The new regime may also have better luck than past Wisconsin coaches at bringing in a legitimate quarterback. At Cincinnati, Fickell coached Desmond Ridder, who was just selected in the third round of last year’s NFL Draft.

Fickell spent 15 seasons as an assistant coach at Ohio State. During his final years in Columbus, the Buckeyes’ quarterbacks were J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. Fickell observed the blueprint to win in the Big Ten without a superstar quarterback.

Luckily for Wisconsin — a historically lackluster recruiting school — more players are transferring than ever before, including quarterbacks. The Badgers also haven’t been more desperate for a quarterback in years. Graham Mertz just entered the transfer portal. Chase Wolf is graduating. Currently, the only realistic option on the roster is freshman Myles Burkett, a three-star recruit with five career pass attempts.

Next season will be the last with Big Ten divisions. The Badgers must be aggressive while their competition is still Iowa and Minnesota. If Fickell and co. fail to strike while the iron is hot and don’t get a somewhat decent transfer quarterback, the first year of the Fickell era will likely be riddled with disappointment.

Improve jerseys

Wisconsin has an image issue. We are among the schools that epitomize the Big Ten’s style — white, traditional and bland. A variety of factors contribute to that reputation, but one of the easiest to fix is team branding. The Badgers’ uniforms stink. Most Wisconsin uniforms simply look half-assed and forgettable. 

The biggest reason for the uniform blandness is the font. In recent years, Wisconsin uniforms have grown to exclusively use the same bold, boring font. The path to improving uniforms starts with ditching what’s become the norm. This is a potential period of transition for the Badgers. Uniforms should be included in that transition.

Even the football team wants to improve their uniforms. Earlier in the season, running back Braelon Allen requested they change the color of their pants. 

“It’s cool to be able to wear something different,” Allen said. “We’re real traditional, so to be able to throw some different things in there is nice.” 

I was a fan of the temporary switch. It’s not likely to continue, but it’s a sign of the desire to improve.

Beyond the issues with the normal uniforms, the state of alternate uniforms is even more alarming. 

The Forward uniforms are boring and forgettable. There’s far too much white. The banner on the helmet that reads “forward” is the best and most distinctive part of the uniform, but is hardly even visible.

A black alternate uniform would be a simple starting point. Earlier this season, Ohio State destroyed Wisconsin while wearing black alternates. They looked incredible — making the loss even more painful.

The men’s basketball team even created a black alternate uniform. They ditched the basic font and also added some gold. More of this, please. 

Every sport deserves more alternate options. A complete overhaul is necessary but not exactly realistic, so adding more alternates is a feasible starting point.

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Donnie Slusher

Donnie Slusher is the sports editor for the Daily Cardinal. He has written multiple breaking news stories, sports columns and an in-depth examination of race in Wisconsin football. Follow Donnie on Twitter at @DonnieSlusher_

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