Tate: On Wisconsin!
Even when they change, they reflect continuity.
That’s Wisconsin’s Badgers. And continuity is just one of many factors that has kept them rumbling through the second decade of this century.
In what oddsmakers project as a replay of the UI’s trip to Nebraska, the Illini are wading in Saturday night against a focused opponent that has capitalized on cultural advantages. And we’re likely to see legions of Badgers fans here willing to tell us about them.
(1) Key hirings
With Tom Osborne having left the chair at Nebraska, throwback Barry Alvarez is the Big Ten’s only former head football coach promoted to handle the department’s administrative affairs. He is the third leg of a triumvirate that changed the Badger culture: Chancellor Donna Shalala carried through an agenda to uplift varsity athletics, and she pried Pat Richter away from a lucrative job to be AD. Richter hired Alvarez.
The football team is 190-90-4 since Alvarez arrived from Notre Dame in 1990 (the Badgers were 1-10 that first season), and he has gone on to become one of the most powerful ADs in the country.
Alvarez led the drive to toughen nonconference football schedules and add a ninth game to Big Ten slates, has been named to serve on 2014’s playoff selection committee, and has earned strong fan and political backing as a mover-shaker around the state capital.
(2) Money is flowing in
Even as Alvarez holds the line on ticket increases in football, basketball and hockey this year, the athletic budget exploded to $133 million with the one-time expenditure of roughly $31 million to construct the lavish $78 million Performance Center north of Camp Randall.
This will be the new headquarters for academics, weight training, sports medicine and locker rooms for various sports.
(3) City haul
The three-county area around Madison holds more than 570,000 citizens. The white-collar city, with its impressive lake-lined skyline, shows a median household income of $53,363, up more than $11,000 since 2000. Median condo values leapt from $137,700 to $213,900 in that same time period, a sure indication of a booming community. State unemployment is 6.7 percent compared to Illinois’ 9.2 percent.
With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Everything’s up to date in Madison City; they’ve gone about as far as they can go.”
Or as my source relates: “There are pulses beating in so many places ... and people who come here don’t want to leave.”
(4) Tough tickets
The last two Big Ten home games drew more than 80,000 fans. Hockey is feverishly supported with large crowds at Kohl as the Big Ten embarks on its first six-team conference race. And Bo Ryan’s basketball program is generally seen as the most consistent overachiever in the nation.
(5) State loyalty
A random check on 1,800 Illini football lettermen covering more than a century shows — incredibly — just 16 who can be verified from the neighboring state of Wisconsin. As with Indiana basketball prospects, the gate at the Wisconsin state line for football players is one way (hold on there, though injured last month, Rice Lake linebacker Austin Roberts is committed to the UI).
The Badgers have 60 current squadmen who “stayed home” including star receiver and former walk-on Jared Abbrederis, quarterback Joel Stave, time-sharing halfback Melvin Gordon, fullback Derek Watt (who has fullbacks these days?) and three huge offensive linemen.
It makes a difference when there’s only one Division I football team in your state. As with Nebraska, divided loyalties don’t exist. And the Badgers are doing their best to capitalize, having won three straight Big Ten football titles.
— The Badgers come to Champaign with two Big Ten Player of the Year candidates. Linebacker Chris Borland heads a defense that threw two early shutouts and held Northwestern without a TD on Saturday (the Wildcats were 2 for 17 on third-down conversions). Melvin Gordon is averaging nearly a first down per carry (9.7 yards on 90 attempts).
— Perceptions of both Michigan and Penn State changed in the wake of the Nittany Lions’ four-overtime win. Since the Wolverines defeated Notre Dame, they’ve struggled repeatedly, going to the wire with Akron (28-24) and UConn (24-21) and, after downing Minnesota 42-13, fell from the Top 25 with Saturday’s loss. Fitzgerald Toussaint was held to 27 yards on 27 carries at Penn State and we must conclude: Michigan isn’t as good as Michigan is supposed to be.
— Multiple Big Ten coaches speak highly of Connor Cook, the Michigan State sophomore who’ll be here in a week. Said Spartans coach Mark Dantonio: “Confidence breeds success and allows us to do more with him. He’s been getting better since the third game when he threw four touchdown passes against Youngstown State.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.