Some Nineties Nostalgia We Could Do Without

lackluster year for Packers, Badgers football and basketball calls to mind ho-hum early ’90s

Luc Anthony

BEFORE THE “MOTION W.” Barry Alvarez became Wisconsin head coach in 1990. The team went 1-10 that season.
BEFORE THE “MOTION W.” Barry Alvarez became Wisconsin head coach in 1990. The team went 1-10 that season.

The three most popular teams in Wisconsin, including our part of the state, are the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin Badgers football, and Badger men’s basketball. We like the other prominent teams in the state (with some crossover from the Twin Cities and Chicago), but these are the three that move the proverbial meter. The reason is quite simple: They’re always good, at least in recent memory.

2018 may have felt like a bit of an odd year to be a sports fan in Wisconsin. The year’s sudden crystallization of ’90s nostalgia in popular culture, combined with recent reminiscence of the era circa 1990 with the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, may call to mind a time when the big three were not all that good. Yes, there really is precedent for a calendar year when the Packers, Badger football, and Badger basketball were collectively “meh.”

Watching this year’s Packers play in a bit of a fog and fail to qualify for the postseason – to say nothing of the mid-season firing of Coach Mike McCarthy – prompted reflection on underwhelming Packers seasons of yore. Sure, there was last year, and a few scattered misses in the Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers era, but they mostly seemed aberrations. However, the lack of December football buzz in Wisconsin was palpable, with the unranked Badgers getting a bowl ticket not to a warm and sunny environ, but, rather, to New York City and the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium. For Bucky, this is like not making a bowl game at all.

I was thinking, “When was the last time Christmas approached and these two titans of the gridiron were simultaneously mediocre?” The situation was similar in 2008, but Aaron Rodgers had his future ahead of him. Also, Badger men’s basketball won the Big Ten in the spring of that year; this past season’s team was the first to miss the NCAA Tournament since 1998.

If you are younger than, say, 33, and your sports formative years began in about 1994 (whether you are, in fact, a sports fan or simply can’t help but notice Packer/Badger passion), I will take you back to a time when championships were not presumed. When the Packers making the playoffs was thought to be a once-in-a-generation rarity. When the Badgers making a bowl game was a major accomplishment. When “Badger basketball” and the “NCAA Tournament” were from untranslatable languages.

Rewind your memories to the beginning of the 1990s. The Pack was ending Lindy Infante’s coaching run and gestating the “Return To Titletown,” while the Barry Alvarez era was just starting to show what it could become, and Badger basketball was hoping to make the second-tier NIT postseason tourney. No one in this state figured any of the three could collect a trophy around that time; Wisconsin’s prime impact then might have been Madison’s Butch Vig producing Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991.

If there is a broad difference from the early ’90s to 2018 besides (insert ’90s cultural reference like Hypercolor shirts and watching Like We Care on MTV), it is that there was plenty of other athletic excellence to be found in 2018. Locally, we had the ECA Stars claim a state trophy in girls hockey – a sport was barely conceived as a prep option 25 years ago. On the pro level in the state, the Brewers and Bucks qualified as buzzworthy (to use another ’90s-era MTV term), with the Brew Crew’s run to the verge of the World Series, and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo changing the definition of sublime basketball play and contending for an MVP honor. “Buzz” was not exactly what one would associate with the Brewers and Bucks a quarter century ago.

Also unlike that time: Two-plus decades of low-quality performance predated the early 1990s. Part of the reason expectations were so low back then was due to a generation of losses. Conversely, 2018 is seemingly an exception to contemporary trends. Already the early current Badger men’s basketball campaign has them back in the national top 25 rankings; 2019 could see them return to March Madness.

Remember that the big three followed their early-’90s morass with their modern eras of excellence. A similar path forward could bring renewed title contention as we enter the 2020s – just in time to celebrate 25 years of the Spice Girls.

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