Wisconsin Football: More Than a Game

During my brief stint as a sportswriter, I mastered the skill of learning just enough about unfamiliar situations to look like I might know what I was doing. At bowling matches I would throw out a line about oil patterns, at wrestling it was a casual comment about the advantage of starting on top.

In the weeks leading up to my first big college football game (A fact I can only admit now that I am no longer covering sports), I took a few moments away from sweating over the Yankees playoff bid to study up on a few key terms in the University of Wisconsin football glossary.

My efforts seemed to be paying off last Saturday as I sat in Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., among the second-largest crowd in University of Wisconsin football history. Whenever running back Brian Calhoun touched the ball, I joined in the resounding "Hooooon" cheers, and was sure to mention several times how upset I was that Wisconsin alum Ron Dayne no longer played for the New York Giants.

Then the third quarter ended.

Suddenly I was the only person in all of Wisconsin not jumping around like an angry piece of popcorn. Everyone around me -- students, senior citizens, band members with huge drums strapped to their bellies, players from the opposing team -- were jumping up and down, with their arms at their side as House of Pain's "Jump Around" blasted over the loudspeakers.

All I could do was stand there, dumbfounded, searching for the giant sign flashing, "Hey everybody get up and jump!" that I had apparently missed.

"That's one of the big traditions that's not all that old," Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's director of athletic communication and author of "Tales from the Wisconsin Badgers," explained in the days after the game. "It was during a 1998 night game against Purdue and our marketing guys in charge of the sound played it. Now we're known for it."


But, OK, sure, every sporting event has its rituals. What struck me about this one was its pervasiveness. The reverent bouncing was not limited to the vast student section behind Wisconsin's end zone -- although that section had been demonstrating some impressively well-coordinated cheers throughout the evening. The entire stadium was engaged in a shared experience that transcended the action on the field and was totally independent of the team's success or failure.

"It's not that the football game is secondary, but it's the culmination of the day," Doherty said. "Being at Camp Randall Stadium and all around it is an experience for people here."

The origins of the modern Wisconsin experience can be traced back to 1969, well before coach Barry Alvarez's era and the start of the current winning tradition.

That was the year Mike Leckrone took over the Wisconsin marching band and then-athletic director Elroy Hirsch launched the "Get the Red Out" campaign.

"The team had lost 24 straight games the year I started and there was a lot of nonchalance about football," said Leckrone, now in his 37th year as band director. "Elroy wanted to infuse the game with some spirit. He wanted to make football Saturdays a celebration, a social place to be with the hope then that the team would get better and match the enthusiasm."

The band was largely responsible for the start of that enthusiasm.

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