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Friday, July 11, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Fair
The Paper

OPINION

Losing has its place in Badger football
It helps put the game in perspective

Morton's awful teams forced fans to enjoy the scene.
Morton's awful teams forced fans to enjoy the scene.
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Badger football fans are still reeling from last week's heartbreaking loss to Arizona State. We shouldn't take it too hard. It's tough enough to win on the road against a good football team. It's even harder when the officials are playing on their side.

Actually, while I was as apoplectic as any Wisconsinite over the way the officials messed up the final seconds of what should have been a glorious Badgers come-from-behind victory, I am actually in favor of the occasional loss. It puts things in perspective. Without it, we become Penn State.

By all accounts new UW football coach Gary Andersen is a good coach and a fine person. We all wish him well, but as his first Big Ten season gets underway this Saturday versus Purdue, the man to thank for the glory that is Badger football Saturdays is Don Morton.

Morton is mostly a forgotten man, so 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 6-27 and a Big Ten record of 3-21. The Badgers finished last in his first two seasons and second to last his final year.

Morton was fired and replaced with a fellow named Barry Alvarez. The team kind of 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 offense, which was basically 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 mid 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 Badger football fans to enjoy the scene more than the game. It is not an exaggeration to say that for a couple of decades or more, the band was a whole lot more entertaining than the team. Halftime here is sweet perfume. For a long while it was much better than any game, and festivities before and after were more fun than what took place inside Camp Randall.

Even after 20 years of success on the field, that legacy lives on. On Labor Day weekend we had relatives visiting from California who insisted on going to the Massachusetts non-contest because they had heard about the atmosphere at Badger 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 pushups and "Jump Around." 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.

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

The fundamental problem is that there is just too much money these days in the college game. The all-sports network ESPN is now dictating college game-day schedules and even creating made-for-television playoff systems. The Big Ten will soon add Rutgers and Maryland to the league only to get a foothold into the East Coast television market. Twelve-year-old kids no longer get a chance to hawk soda at Camp Randall, and you can't buy a Coke there anymore because the athletic department made a concessions deal with a big corporate outfit so they could get a bigger take of the proceeds.

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.

That could still happen at Wisconsin, but our legacy of losing helped put the game in perspective for a generation of Badger fans. The debacle in Arizona helps extend that to a new generation. So, I believe my Badgers were robbed of a win against Arizona State by the officials, and, with a week's perspective behind me, I want to thank them for it.

There are statues of Barry Alvarez and Pat Richter outside Camp Randall. While I like those guys, the graven images are a bad sign of misplaced values. Penn State had a statue of Paterno, too. If we can't lose the statues, let's give ourselves some valuable perspective by erecting one of Don Morton right next to them.


Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at TheDailyPage.com.

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