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Beautiful Losers

When a lovably inept NCAA football team upends its own tortured history and actually starts winning games, remembering the bad old days feels pretty darn good.

Author Jason Gay Illustration Paul Blow

BIG-TIME COLLEGE football makes me feel conflicted. Not that I don’t love the sport, which is a thousand times more crazy and passionate than the NFL, what with the face-painted freshmen, the chest-painted sophomores and the butt-painted sixth-year seniors. But it’s just become so intense. You’ve got ESPN off ering round-the-clock coverage, coaches earning millions of dollars, spurious (and perhaps not-so-spurious) allegations of players cashing in, and college towns demanding scalps if a team dares to lose two games, heaven forbid three.

But what really jars me is my own college football team: the University of Wisconsin Badgers. We’re good now. Not crush-you-like-a-walnut, Tiger Woods good, but not bad at all. The Badgers were 12-1 a few years ago, and they finished No. 5 in the USA Today coaches poll. They go to a bowl pretty much every season, including the last five. They’ve become a reliable power in the Big Ten Conference and have managed to do it without scandal, which is something to be proud of, especially these days.

Call me a killjoy, but I’m not on the shiny new Badgers bandwagon. I don’t recognize that team. When I went to Wisconsin a couple of-cough-decades ago, the football team won nine games. in four years. They went 1-10, 2-9, 1-10, and in my final year, they stumbled onto a bona fide winning streak, going 5-6. It was the diametric opposite of the program that the Badgers have become. We couldn’t pass or run. We couldn’t defend. We didn’t schedule cupcake opponents in the early season to puff up our schedule. We were the cupcake opponent-and nearly every Saturday, we got smooshed.

But here’s the thing: It was a blast. My friends and I didn’t mind at all that the Badgers were Big Ten doormats, that our games were over before they started, that the only bowls we’d ever see were in the restrooms. Outside of the poor guys who actually played on the team, no one at our school took football too seriously. It was part of our identity: It was cool not to care. Those colleges where they lived and died with the scoreboard every Saturday, camped outside at night to get tickets, rioted over the slightest referee injustices? They were nuts.

It wasn’t like we didn’t go to games. The Badgers may not have sold out Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium, but it didn’t look like a Kansas City Royals day game, either. Not that we were always there to see the team. Wisconsin has a tradition called “the Fifth Quarter,” in which the school’s tremendous marching band takes the field after the game for a raucous, tuba-swinging concert. The Fifth Quarter has its origins in another Badgers fallow period, the late ’70s. The idea was that if the team couldn’t pack the stadium, the band would help draw people in. “It was all about the Fifth Quarter,” my old college friend Dicky remembers.

There was something truly lovable about this, in a Bill Murray-Meatballs sort of way-not caring about the score, cheering for the band as much as for the team. The stakes were low. A loss didn’t send our student body into a deep funk and cast a pall over campus on Saturday night-we’d forget defeats by the time we hit the parking lot. Our cheerleaders didn’t sob at the end of games-they made evening plans. We didn’t mind that the Badgers were terrible. In fact, we maybe loved them more.

“The biggest part of the fun was how bad they actually were,” Dicky recalls. “Anyone can say their team lost to Michigan by two touchdowns. But how many fans can say they showed up at the end of the first half and saw the team down forty-two to nothing? That takes some work.”

(For a moment, I thought Dicky might be embellishing or a little foggy from all the Old Style we used to drink, but then I looked it up-the Badgers lost to Michigan, 62-14. That wasn’t even the most brutal whipping we saw, however: The next year, they lost to Miami, 51-3. According to legend, on the first play, a Miami defender hurled a Badger to the turf and said, “Welcome to the jungle, baby. You’re going to die.”)

Now, I’m not naïve. I know most people think it’s fun to support a great college football team. I know the sport is a big revenue earner, and the millions raked in by a bowl contender can transform a university. I know that sometimes the schools even spend that revenue on books and academics, as opposed to fancy new locker rooms and practice facilities.

I also appreciate the sense of pride that a high-quality football program gives its alumni, how it raises a university’s national stature and feeds endowments. As much as we’d love to titillate the fat cats with the strength of a philosophy department, nothing gets the alumni atwitter like a top-10 team.

But when I watch my team now, with its frenzied fans hooked on the action, I can’t relate. Everyone dresses in Badger red-I don’t believe I ever thought about what I wore to a game-and screams from kickoff to the final whistle. They’ve added luxury boxes and a statue of Barry Alvarez, the coach who transformed the team from pit stop to powerhouse. In case you’re wondering, Barry’s still alive.

But the worst part is “Jump Around.” This started not long after I graduated, apparently. During every home game, just before the fourth quarter begins, the PA system plays House of Pain’s “Jump Around” really loud, and all of the students pogo in their seats like a giant kettle of popcorn. Cute, quirky display of school spirit, right? Except “Jump Around” is nothing less than the worst hip-hop song in the history of mankind.

We’ve become like every other football-loony university, living and dying with every play, jabbering about bowl berths and conference championships and whether or not we crack the top 20. Wisconsin now prides itself on having the craziest football fans ever. Of course, nearly every school thinks it has the craziest football fans ever. That’s what college is for-thinking you’re the center of the universe.

Make no mistake, I’m a proud alum. Wisconsin’s a phenomenal university, with fabulous departments and teachers and one of the most beautiful campuses in America. I still have the friends I made there, two decades later. But college sports have become less about college these days and more like an industry, beholden to success and money and television ratings. Lovable losers aren’t so lovable anymore.

I still root for the Badgers, even though they mostly win and House of Pain overshadows the Fifth Quarter. However, I wouldn’t mind if they started losing again. Say, by 50 points. Maybe then, I could get a ticket.

Contributing writer JASON GAY was disinvited from his Wisconsin touch football team for not being good enough.

MAJOR CRUSHES

Three of the gnarliest routs in the history of professional sports

1940 – FOOTBALL // In the championship game, the Chicago Bears mauled the Washington Redskins 73-0.

1998 – HOCKEY // In the Asia-Oceania International Junior Hockey Championships, South Korea iced Thailand, 92-0.

2007 – BASEBALL // Texas Rangers blasted the Baltimore Orioles, 30-3.

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