Bucky the Bridesmaid
Badgers’ football, basketball success welcomed, but championships remain elusive
By the time you read this article, I presume your nightmares about Aaron Harrison shooting a 3-point basket seemingly from the upper deck of AT&T Stadium have sufficiently subsided that we can talk about the Wisconsin Badgers’ run to the Final Four. All things considered, Bucky had a good year in men’s basketball. The team had a heck of a start, was an early pick to make the Final Four and, despite a rough spot mid-season, was still in the running for a No. 1 seed approaching tournament time. Most importantly, Bo Ryan finally made a Final Four. To come within an NBA-quality three of an NCAA Championship game appearance is a good result.
The Badgers are enduring some long droughts: The basketball team’s sole NCAA title was in 1941, while the football team has never hoisted the mythical championship trophy.
Yet how many times is the result of a high-profile Badgers sports season something a little less than a championship trophy? The most prominent sports in Division I college athletics are football and men’s basketball. While different regions place high priorities on different sports – hockey challenges the aforementioned in Upper Midwestern importance – these are the two that get the most national attention and, thus, the most revenue. By this standard, the Badgers are enduring some long droughts: The basketball team’s sole NCAA title was in 1941, while the football team has never hoisted the mythical championship trophy.
The point here is to suggest that, despite the recent run of Wisconsin athletic success on a national stage, the school still comes short at the end of each campaign in the most relevant sports. I came to this realization as the Badgers left the court in Texas that recent Saturday night: “Wait, how many times are they not gonna win it all in these big sports?” You may have caught yourself thinking the same thoughts.
The definition of college sports success is nebulous. Is the primary goal to give students a quality education in life through athletics (cue the jokes in 3, 2, 1…)? Is it winning your conference, since regional domination has traditionally been of primary concern? A prime reason the college football national championship has been deemed “mythical” for so long is precisely because of that regional interest; being the best in the U.S.A. is a relatively recent priority for college football in particular.
To a degree, what matters most is winning relative to our history. The Badgers reaching – and winning – the Rose Bowl after the ’93 season felt like a national championship, and we still look back fondly on the 2000 basketball team’s journey to the Final Four. A strong reason for our excitement in these instances is undoubtedly the lack of success in the years prior. Badger football and men’s basketball were mediocre to embarrassing in the 1970s and ’80s, so when each team suddenly and unexpectedly changed its fortunes, we came to regard the changes like an ongoing victory of sorts. Our state cherished our newfound success.
The Badgers do bring their share of titles to Madison: The men’s and women’s hockey teams have claimed numerous national crowns, to say nothing of the “lower-profile” sports. Yet the big-revenue, big-rating athletics are what get us most excited. That is its own sign of success: UW athletic revenue is surely up in the past two decades of football and men’s basketball success, thanks to updated facilities and TV deals.
As much as Barry Alvarez and Bo Ryan have brought excellence to their programs, I imagine the average Badgers fan still would like to see Wisconsin get the headlines reserved for the Alabamas and UConns of the world. We have become accustomed to high poll rankings and post-season presence, to the point that we take Capital One Bowl trips and the all-time seventh-longest consecutive NCAA tournament streak for granted. It would be nice, however, to see our flyover territory break into the national debate once and for all as the home of one of the top-performing athletic programs in the nation.
The Badger men are considered one of the likeliest teams to make the Final Four when it comes to Indianapolis next year; the team loses only one major starter in Ben Brust. Perhaps Bucky is finally ready to hit the pinnacle of college sports – as long as Aaron Harrison doesn’t fire any threes from Terre Haute.