MADISON, Wis. — Now this is the Big Ten, turned up to 11.
If Iowa on Tuesday was a friendly, mom-and-pop gateway to Nebraska’s new league, Wisconsin on Wednesday is the bigger, cooler, tougher brother with a fried walleye sandwich, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a red sweatshirt that looks a whole lot like yours.
Bucky Badger is bolder. Burlier. This bustling, vibrant capitol city is alive and so is the campus. It feels crowded and urgent, but friendly. The state’s politics may be in turmoil, but UW athletics is steady and ascendant, if bound by the same Midwestern modesty you recognize in Nebraska.
I see the success of the last two decades in the facilities, highlighted by Camp Randall Stadium and the Kohl Center. I hear it in the relaxed, confident voices of Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema, who comfortably, cleverly play Wisconsin’s patented underdog card even if there’s nothing underrated about this place or this team. Even if Alvarez’s statute welcomes Wisconsin fans to the stadium.
You should know now that the two frontmen of Wisconsin football — and Alvarez is unquestionably a presence here — feel pretty darn good about these Badgers, coming off a 12-2 season and a 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl.
“If that game goes five more minutes,” Bielema says of the Rose Bowl, fully aware that TCU’s time-consuming, field-flipping drive robbed the Badgers’ offense of the opportunity to wear down a smaller, faster Horned Frogs defense.
Bielema ticks off his team’s strengths: It’s as smart, he says, as any team he’s ever had. More than half of the players had a 3.0 grade-point average or better. The defense had nine penalties — period — all of last season. The offensive line doesn’t hope to be good — it expects to be. With the Ohio State mired in NCAA sanction limbo, the Badgers become the Leaders Division favorite.
“We have a very, very good football team,” Bielema said. “Everybody wants to focus on the guys we lost. We got a lot of good players coming back.”
And then there’s Russell Wilson, the former North Carolina State quarterback who transferred to Wisconsin for his senior season. Bielema doesn’t downplay Wilson’s arrival. Not at all. He glows about the kid while stopping short of handing him the starting job. He skillfully researched and courted Wilson while adhering to tricky NCAA rules about transfers. Then Alvarez personally vetted the kid in a one-on-one meeting.
The Badgers put in, it seems, considerable due diligence. They wanted Wilson badly. He is that missing piece. The caliber of athlete, Alvarez said, Wisconsin hasn’t had at quarterback since he arrived in 1990.
“It’s going to be fun to see what grows out of the position,” Bielema said.
Wisconsin’s biggest offseason recruit wasn’t a player, but making sure offensive coordinator Paul Chryst didn’t head to Texas. Bielema said UT head coach Mack Brown offered to triple Chryst’s salary. He stayed in Madison for a $100,000 bump in base salary instead.
Each of Bielema’s assistants had job offers after last year. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren is now the head coach at Northern Illinois. Another coach left for the NFL. But most of them stayed.
A certain brand of tough football — and tough kids to match. Players don’t get in much trouble, in part because Madison busies itself with political prizefights instead of obsessively fawning over athletes. And the football facilities are sharp. Nearly equal to Nebraska, which has a slight edge in its indoor practice area.
The 80,000-seat Camp Randall lives up to its billing. Cavernous. Bielema’s office is located near the suites on the east side; he has a long metal balcony outside that overlooks the whole field. Alvarez, down in Kellner Hall — a new athletics building added in 2005 — has a balcony, too. Both offices, interestingly enough, have glass jars full of giant gumballs in them.
Wisconsin’s football offices aren’t quite as gaudy and futuristic as NU’s marble donor wall, cascading fountain and football experience room, but it serves the same purpose. And it would impress a recruit.
The Badgers’ indoor practice facility is a little shorter than 100 yards, but it seems nearly as wide as the Hawks Championship Center. The press box at Camp Randall isn’t as big as NU’s massive media house; I’m curious to see how it accommodates a horde of Husker beat writers in three months.
The UW volleyball team plays in the Field House. It’s every bit as cool as — and considerably bigger than — NU Coliseum. Alvarez would like to mount a video screen inside the Field House when the Huskers come to town so extra fans can enjoy the game experience. If he can pull it off, it’d be worth the price of admission.
But the crown jewel of Wisconsin’s facilities is the Kohl Center located a few blocks away, closer to downtown. On its front lawn, girls sunbathe and text friends. Inside, the basketball and hockey teams run up impressive home records. And the design is a big reason why. Nebraska would be well-advised to take a few pointers as the Haymarket Arena is built.
The Kohl Center is big but intimate, as the third “balcony” level hovers slightly over the second. The suites have been integrated so they don’t hog a bunch of room. The concourse has a well-done history walk that recounts victories from the last half-century. Glass-blown sculptures by Dale Chihuly adorn the main entry hall. It’s a terrific blend of artistic, corporate and collegiate. It’s not a singles bar, but it’s not a stripped-down, personality-challenged morgue, either. You want to watch a basketball game here. Or, for that matter, a hockey game when UNO presumably visits next year.
You want to visit Bucky Badger, period. It’s not a trip that Nebraska fans will necessarily make every other year. But once? Absolutely. Madison — and Wisconsin — makes its mark.
Come October, it’ll be bursting at the seams with a new, more curious Sea of Red.
A confident, capable Wisconsin team — likely with Wilson at quarterback — awaits.