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."

Weird.

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.

Under Leckrone, the now-legendy Fifth Quarter was born, in which the band plays traditional school songs like "Varsity," "On, Wisconsin" and the "Bud Song" for up to an hour after the game. The performance is hardly limited to playing music, however. One of the band's trademarks is its interaction with the crowd. And during the Fifth Quarter, both the band and the fans dance their hearts out.

The Fifth Quarter was officially named in 1978, and its traditions have been passed down through the last three decades. About 10 years ago, according to Leckrone, any freshman who didn't know the rituals before they entered the university, were indoctrinated with them at a special orientation run by Leckrone before the first game.

"It's getting so a lot of the freshman know the songs before they get here," Leckrone said. "This year I was amazed. We just started the tunes and I didn't have to prompt them at all."

Wisconsin football mania has expanded beyond the confines of the university. The team is a matter of pride for all state residents, part of a tradition born of the same stuff that has inspired the fanaticism surrounding the Green Bay Packers.

Granted, while the Badgers have not reached that frenzied point of the Green Bay Packers, who sold out of season tickets in 1960, they are well on their way. This year, the Badgers sold out of season tickets before the first game of the season. Wisconsin has drawn a crowd of more than 70,000 fans to 78 consecutive home games, 68 of which have been sellouts, according to Doherty.

Badger fever reached such a frenzy among the student body last year that the university had to modify its ticket distribution policy.

"Last year you could get your ticket on Wednesday before the game," said Brian Leitzke, one of several students who dress up as the school's mascot, Bucky Badger. "People would sleep outside for a week in line in order to get front row tickets to the big game. Now they can't get tickets until 90 minutes before the game."

"Wisconsin fans have been through good and bad times," Leckrone said. "Right now we're going through some good times, but I hope they never take it for granted. I hope people don't get too used to winning and lose enthusiasm if we go through some hard times in the future."

Wisconsin was named as having the best football game-day atmosphere in the Big Ten Conference in this week's issue of "Sports Illustrated on Campus," and from my seat in Camp Randall, I couldn't imagine it dropping in the rankings any time soon.

My boyfriend, Gust, a 1991 alum, actually worried I had been robbed of the Wisconsin football experience because we attended such a thrilling game where Wisconsin defeated Michigan for the first time since 1994 in a down-to-the-wire 23-20 victory. The students were "too into the game," he said. They weren't "as rowdy" as usual.

Gust lost most of his Midwestern loyalties when he moved to New York right after college, trading in his Cubs T-shirts for the Mets and cheering for the Jets rather than the Bears. But last Saturday I witnessed how deep the Wisconsin blood runs in the veins during the Fifth Quarter when the band started playing "If You Want to Be a Badger," and Gust, tattoos and all, busted out the state dance -- the polka.

Next time we go back, I will know better and jump on the dance floor with him.

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