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Citizen Dave: In college football, losing has its place, even at Wisconsin

Don Morton
Don Morton
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By all accounts, new UW football coach Gary Andersen is a good coach and a fine person. I wish him well on a long and successful career with the Badgers.

He certainly got off to a good start last Saturday with an expected 45-0 drubbing of UMass. But all that proves is that liberals can't play tackle football, though the Kennedy's played a mean game of touch. We already knew that.

But as the new season gets underway, the man to really thank for the glory of Wisconsin football Saturdays is Don Morton.

As Morton is mostly a forgotten coach, let's take a moment to remember him. He came to Madison in 1987 from Tulsa to coach the Badgers and in three seasons he produced a record of 6 and 27, with a Big Ten record of 3 and 21. The Badgers finished last in his first two seasons and second from last his final year.

Morton was fired and replaced with a fellow named Barry Alvarez. The team improved after that.

Not only were the Badgers bad during the Morton years, they were also boring. Morton was an evangelist for something called the veer, an offense basically based upon a complicated version of the option play. It was all about running and, as executed under Morton, falling down.

Morton wasn't alone in coaching futility. From the early 1960s until the arrival of Alvarez, only Dave McClain had a winning record, and just barely at 46-42-3. McClain died tragically and suddenly in 1986, and Morton was hired to take over.

So why remember Morton? Because he and his predecessors forced Wisconsin football fans to enjoy the stadium scene more than the game. It is not an exaggeration to say that for a couple of decades or longer, the band was a whole lot more entertaining than the team. Halftime was much better than any game, and festivities before and after were more fun than what took place on the Camp Randall turf.

And now, even after twenty years of success on the field, that legacy lives on. Dianne and I had relatives visiting this weekend from California, and they insisted on going to the UMass non-contest because they had heard about the atmosphere at Badgers games. We were relieved to learn that our guests couldn't quite make out all the cheers coming from the student section, but they loved the band and Bucky doing push-ups and "Jump Around." As Stanford fans, they were amazed at the fun spirit of the place compared to Palo Alto, where polite cheers precede a return to the library. "You can feel the pride," said one of our visitors.

Contrast that with the goings-on in places that take football -- which is, after all, just a game -- way too seriously. Penn State comes to mind most painfully. The most revered coach in football, Joe Paterno, crashed to the ground after it became clear that he had covered up for a pedophile assistant coach in the name of saving his "program."

There is just too much money these days in the college game. The New York Times recently ran an excellent three-part series about how ESPN is now dictating college game-day schedules and even creating made-for-television playoff systems. The power of money leads directly to a loss of perspective at major universities where winning becomes more important than any other value of the institution, and where star coaches like Paterno become untouchable until it's too late.

Can that happen at Wisconsin? Of course it can. But our legacy of losing helped put the game in perspective for a generation of Badgers fans. Let's hope Andersen is successful, but if he's not, that wouldn't be all bad.

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