I did most of my growing up in the 1970s, which was generally a bad time for a Wisconsin Badger football fan. While the Badgers had some fairly remarkable players on their rosters in those days, it was always safe to assume that the best result the Badgers could expect was a 4th place finish in the Big Ten. The best team the Badgers had in that era was probably the 1974 squad, which beat Nebraska and finished 7-4 overall. Even so, they got their butts handed to them when the went to Columbus, losing to Ohio State 52-7. A few years later in 1977, the Badgers went into Ann Arbor sporting a 5-0 record and ended up getting edged by Michigan 56-0.
There were a lot of scores of that sort back then. Things have been very different in Madison over the last 20 years since Barry Alvarez came to town and changed the culture completely. This season's squad is 9-1 under the direction of Brett Bielema and has been accused of running up the score, especially after last weekend's 83-20 demolition of a hapless Indiana squad. As a Badger fan, this is a strange sensation.
I watched the last part of the game on Saturday, especially the 4th quarter. It was a lot like watching Benster play Madden '10 on the Wii -- the Indiana team was only making a cursory effort and the Badgers were able to move the ball virtually at will. The most bored man in the stadium had to be the Badger punter, who never had to practice his craft, since the Badgers scored every time they had the ball. Is it bad sportsmanship to score when the other team is laying down?
The question of running up the score is out there because of something that happened earlier in the season, when the Badgers were leading the Minnesota Gophers by 25 points and Bielema went for a 2-point conversion. This move aroused the ire of then-Gopher coach Tim Brewster, who complained quite loudly about the matter to anyone who would listen. Two things were at work -- Bielema and Brewster had a contentious relationship because of their recruiting battles and Brewster realized that his job tenure was in serious jeopardy. While I understand why Bielema might have wanted to rub Brewster's nose in it a little, I wish he hadn't done it. And Bielema's explanation for why he did it (the coaches' card said to) was silly. Brewster got the ax a few weeks later and his team's performance against Wisconsin had a lot to do with his dismissal.
I don't think this week's accusations were fair, since Indiana seemed almost indifferent to their fate. I also find it troubling that some of the critics, especially Mike Golic of ESPN, weighed in even though they hadn't bothered to watch film of the game. The problem for the Badgers is this: once you get a reputation for poor sportsmanship, even if it's for specious reasons, it follows you.
Bielema isn't really old enough to remember the events 1974 or 1977, or much care about that ancient history. Fans do remember, though. And while it's gratifying that the Badgers are now a consistently good program, it's easy enough to imagine a day when 0-56 results return.