The late 1980s were desolate times for Wisconsin football. Following the sudden passing of head coach Dave McClain in 1986, the program found itself in a tailspin. Wisconsin soon embarked on a dreadful voyage known as the Don Morton era and found no success experimenting with the veer offense. Other than a few individual standouts like Paul Gruber and Don Davey, the Badgers were irrelevant.
What's worse than being irrelevant? How about losing lots of money. When Pat Richter stepped in as Athletic Director in 1989, UW's Athletic Department deficit topped $2 million.
The crappy product on the football field was an obvious problem. Even after hiring Barry Alvarez prior to the 1990 season, the Badgers finished 1-10. Prospects didn't look that much brighter. If having an all-time great like Troy Vincent couldn't get people out to Camp Randall, trotting out Tony Lowery under center wasn't going to cut it either.
Predicting a Rose Bowl invite for the 1993 team would have been blasphemous to most folks around Madison. Little did people know that Alvarez's plan was working. He had been recruiting guys willing to buy in to his message of a grand turnaround.
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I was 13 years old in 1993, busy with after school sports, video games and trying to figure out girls. The march to Pasadena coincided with the start of eighth grade for me, and therefore I remember a lot about that season. Even decades later, certain moments with that team will never leave me.
Not only was Wisconsin an awakened giant on the field, but the fanbase was revived and thirsty for more. The team had showed enough signs of life in 1992 that a 2-0 start was good enough to receive a Top 25 ranking right away. Three games into the conference slate, Camp Randall had already sold out twice.
By the time the No. 15 Badgers rolled into the Metrodome at 6-0, I was legitimately hoping for a national championship. I had not experienced many soul-crushing losses yet as a sports fan, nor was I the sports pessimist I am today.
Needless to say, the Minnesota game was devastating. It was so frustrating to watch the Badgers fail to convert on so many opportunities. This might have been the first game I deliberately turned off to "cool down." I was at a neighbor's house and we found something else to do for awhile, then turned it back on, only to see Darrell Bevell's fifth interception spoil the comeback bid. The 28-21 loss featured a combined nine interceptions overall.
The silver lining was that the Badgers posted 605 yards of offense on the road against an archrival and just looked like a superior team. Redemption was right around the corner.
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October 30, 1993
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Wisconsin was welcoming Michigan to town the next week and I had tickets. Dad sure came through on that one. So what if the Badgers had not beaten the Wolverines in 12 years? This one was winnable. Both teams were ranked at the low end of the Top 25. While I didn't expect UW to win, everyone knew it was a big game and there was hope.
It was a cold day, naturally, so I put on some layers. Now, here's how irrelevant Wisconsin football had been up until this point: I WAS WEARING A MICHIGAN SWEATSHIRT THAT DAY! It was safely hidden the entire game by my winter coat, but still. My dad, not being a Wisconsin native, had never pushed the Badgers on me. I didn't even own a Wisconsin sweatshirt yet. The lesson here is that Michigan was a respectable team for an objective observer to root for and Wisconsin wasn't.
And that basically ended October 30, 1993, when the Badgers toppled Michigan, 13-10.
Of course, what people recall about that win these days is the craziness in the stands after the final whistle. Obviously no one was expecting a tragedy, so what we focused on instead were the kids trying to tear down the goal posts. The goal posts proved to be a more formidable foe than the students anticipated.
"You guys don't even know how to celebrate!" joked a good-natured Michigan fan a few row behind us, standing at his seat. "Y'all haven't had much experience with this, have you?"
The guy was good for a few laughs as we watched the undeniable futility of the goal post effort. However, I owe my father for letting us hang around to see whether those darn things would come down or not, because I won't ever forget what we saw and heard next.
Our seats were located in the upper deck near the north end zone. Section KK, way up there. Really we had a perfect vantage point from which to observe the human tidal wave coming down the student sections to rush the field. You could notice there was a problem at the bottom, but really had no idea of the severity from that distance, even though people were getting crushed up against the barrier fence.
The barrier finally gave way and folks started getting trampled. Soon it was clear to everyone left in the stadium that something was very wrong.
"We have a pulseless, non-breather down in Section O," rang the voice on the public address system. That phrase will forever be ingrained in my memory. It kept repeating as an ambulance tried to make its way across the turf. Seventy-three students were injured, several of them critically. I was standing there giddy about the win, but could only muster a blank expression on my face because I knew I was watching much less joyous history being made down below.
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November 6, 1993
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One week later, my friend's parents were driving a minivan full of boys back from a birthday party in Milwaukee with the Ohio State game on the radio. Wisconsin was on the move in the final minute, tied 14-14 with the undefeated and third-ranked Buckeyes. We arrived at the first classmate's house just in time to literally catch the final play of the game on television. Everyone hopped out and ran into the house.
Easy field goal. Blocked.
Jaws dropped. Disbelief ensued. Dreams were dashed that evening. No more Rose Bowl, it was easy to assume. Luckily, days later, a silver lining again emerged.
First, think about having Michigan and Ohio State visit for back-to-back home games. The city was buzzing. Now, think about the fact that UW didn't lose either of those games. Was this real life? Is this what having a winning football team is like? The Green Bay Packers hadn't made the playoffs in a decade at that juncture (though they would later that same year) and the whole state was erupting with Badger pride.
Wisconsin had a bye the next weekend. The week after that, Ohio State laid a colossal egg at Michigan in an early game and the Badgers took care of business on the road at llinois, 35-10. Team captain Joe Panos said in a radio interview recently that it was early on in this game when knew Wisconsin would be going to the Rose Bowl. The Badgers had gotten the Ohio State score and were playing like they weren't going to be denied any longer.
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Alvarez, hoping to provide a bowl-like experience for his first recruiting class after two challenging seasons, had gone to Richter two summers earlier to express interest in playing overseas in the Coca-Cola Classic. Richter was trying to cut into his department's bulging deficit and along with Michigan State was able to negotiate a guaranteed $400,000 payout plus travel expenses for a caravan to Tokyo. The deal was made official in June of 1992.
Back in Madison, some people grumbled about losing home game revenue for the "Tokyo Bowl" now that the team was hot. The bigger issue to me was that my family didn't have cable. The game was picked up by ESPN, but in the midwest it was going to start at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. So I stayed over at a friend's house to watch Wisconsin take on Michigan State in Japan for the right to represent the Big Ten in Pasadena.
I honestly don't remember too much about the game. The Japanese were randomly assigned a team to root for, which I thought was odd, yet efficient. Wisconsin won handily. I remember the coaches looked so happy. Roses were everywhere.
My friend still has the special edition newspaper from the next morning framed and I am legitimately jealous and upset I didn't do the same.
In the days that followed, your mission -- if you chose to accept it -- was to buy as much Rose Bowl gear as possible. People could not buy enough and stores could not keep it in stock. Special edition hats, sweatshirts, pins ... you name it, it was being sold. As for me, I kept things simple: I arranged for my next door neighbors to bring me back an official game program. The thick and glossy book that returned was a prized addition to my bookshelf for years.
One of my most vivid memories is listening to the unofficial theme song of the 1993 Badgers. In December, WOLX (94.9 FM), the local oldies station in Madison, produced a cover of Jan & Dean's 1960s surf rock hit "Little Old Lady From Pasadena" called "The Big Red Badgers Go To Pasadena." It became a phenomenon. The cassette tapes sold like hot cakes. And my friend's little old grandmother was one who bought one. No one was immune to the Badger fever.
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January 1, 1994
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As for the game itself, you probably already know how good it was. Badger fans drenched the Rose Bowl seating in red, to the point where UCLA head coach Terry Donahue was complaining about it after the game. Wisconsin running back Brent Moss, basically my hero before he got into all his personal trouble, was an absolute workhorse against UCLA. Halftime felt like party time with the Badgers leading 14-3.
The mood changed at some point in the third quarter. UCLA had just stopped Moss on a fourth-down run deep in Bruin territory when when tempers boiled over into a small fight. Star wide receiver Lee DeRamus was ejected along with fullback Mark Montgomery and two Bruins. I was ticked off. All of a sudden, every catch by UCLA's monster wideout, J.J. Stokes, seemed like the end of the world. The Bruins whittled away at the lead with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Wisconsin failed to answer UCLA's long touchdown drive and momentum looked like it would swing towards the Pac 10 champion. However, the UW defense, which had been superb all day, forced yet another fumble immediately to get the ball back to its offense in great field position.
Then, "The Scramble" happened. It was 2nd-and-8 on the 21-yard line when the ball was snapped for the most iconic play of the season.
UCLA dialed up a blitz and flushed Darrell Bevell out of the pocket to the left side. The sight of the lead-footed Bevell taking off running was far from comforting for Badger fans. But at that moment, he was possessed by something special. Perhaps the spirit of the Little Old Lady from Pasadena??
If you watched the game on television like I did, you know the camera couldn't show the TV audience how out of position the Bruin defense was to make a stop on Bevell. But you could hear the roar of the crowd getting louder in anticipation. Once Bevell made that improbable juke at the 12-yard line, the jumping up and down ignited in living rooms across the state. It seemed like an eternity, but Bevell finally made it to the end zone with his arms raised to the heavens.
The ensuing extra point pushed the lead to 21-10. We all kind of felt then that it was destiny. As long as Stokes was running free, he kept you nervous about the final outcome, but you could taste it. The Bruins scored once more but failed on the two-point conversion. On the final frantic drive, UCLA quarterback Mike Cook foolishly allowed the clock to expire by scrambling without a timeout.
It was over, the Badgers had arrived.
* * *
It wasn't until many years later that I made my first trip to the Rose Bowl personally, to root on Wisconsin versus Oregon. That Russell Wilson-led team will go down as one of the greatest three-loss teams ever assembled, even though it came up a few plays short against the Ducks.
The 2011 Badgers were arguably the most talented team UW has ever fielded and that entire season was exhilarating, heartbreaking and unique in a multitude of ways. None of it would have been possible without the 1993 team though. They laid the foundation for future success on the field and in recruits' living rooms, all while spurring the profitability of the school's future athletic endeavors. About five years later, the Kohl Center opened on campus to house the resurgent basketball team and the acclaimed hockey team. Everything points back to the unforgettable 10-1-1 campaign in Alvarez's fourth season.
When it comes to Badger football, that '93 team was my first love, as I'm sure it was for thousands of others. That is what will set that season apart from all the other special seasons until the day Wisconsin wins a national title. And if that day ever arrives, I sure hope Panos, Bevell, Moss, Scottie Nelson, Lamark Shackerford and the rest of that team is around to revel in it.
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For more 1993 Rose Bowl nostalgia, make sure to check out this week's Kielbasa Kings Sports Extravaganza podcast, where B5Q staff will discuss the game and its impact. You can follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.
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