Saturday, January 4, 2014

Jan. 4, 1997- A great day to be a Wisconsin sports fan

Today being January 4, it's always a memorable day to me, based on a great sports afternoon in Madison 17 years ago.

In early 1997, I had gotten my bachelor's from the UW the previous May, and had plenty of connections to Indiana University, having gone to high school there for 2 years and having lots of friends that had either just graduated from IU, or were in their 5th year there. When I saw the UW basketball schedule come out and have the Hoosiers come to Madison on Saturday, January 4, I got in contact with 3 friends from IU, and asked if they wanted to make the roadie. They said yes, I got 4 tickets, and we planned from there. One of my first posts on this site mentioned how much IU-UW basketball games mean to me, and you could probably multiply that intensity by 5 in 1997, given that "adult" things like politics and taxes and paying bills weren't nearly as important to me back then.

The NFL playoff schedule came out, and the 13-3 Packers were scheduled to play the 12-4 San Francisco 49ers that Saturday at 11:30 (they used to have NFL playoff games at 11:30 and 3 for both Saturday and Sunday, kids), 2 hours before the Badgers-Hoosiers tipoff. I immediately called my IU buddies and said "We need to meet at the Regent Street Retreat no earlier than 10:30 or 11." I knew the place would be jammed for the Packer game, and wasn't in the mood to miss it.

Sure enough, in the pre-cell phone times of 1997 I got to the Retreat early, but my IU friends hadn't shown up by 11 and then 11:15. I'm getting the dirty looks from holding down the tables, and I let others take the other 3 seats there. The 3 IU guys walk in 5 minutes before kickoff, and the place is a raucous zoo. Given that their experience with the NFL was the pre-Peyton Manning Colts (meaning no one gave much of a care), the atmosphere was stunning to them, to say the least.

Unlike what it'll be for Packers-Niners tomorrow, this Jan. 4 was relatively warm. Upper 30s and a downpour of rain, turning the Frozen Tundra into a sloppy mess, and causing the game to be known as the Mud Bowl. But the mud wasn't stopping certain Packers from breaking loose, as Desmond Howard took a first-quarter punt to the House, and took another into the red zone, leading to another quick Packer TD.

Not only was the Pack winning with special teams, they were physically dominating the 49ers, outrushing the Niners 139-68, with pictures like this being common.

With the Pack in reasonably good shape, we took off around halftime to walk 10 minutes to the UW Fieldhouse to watch Badgers-Hoosiers basketball. This may be odd for younger fans to recall, but UW basketball was a joke for decades, while Indiana was a national power under Bob Knight. The General was still in Bloomington 1997, and had won every game against the Badgers since 1980- 31 in a row, which I believe was the longest streak in Big Ten history at the time. I had graduated from UW the previous May, and my alma mater hadn't beaten the Hoosiers since I was in KINDERGARTEN. Dick Bennett had been hired in Madison in 1995 and took the team to the NIT the year before, but the program still had only been to one NCAA tournament in the previous 50 years, and certainly wasn't expected to win this game, even with IU being relatively mediocre in '97.

I tried to catch some of the Packer game on a TV set up under the Fieldhouse stands. As I was looking out to the court, I could see the Badgers keep scoring, and the Hoosiers keep turning the ball over, eventually stretching out to a 17-0 Wisconsin lead! After Antonio Freeman fell on a fumble in the end zone for another Packer TD in the 3rd quarter to put GB up 28-14, I felt comfortable enough with the Packer lead to head back up to the stands and watch the rest of the basketball game. After a second-half IU run cut the Badger lead to 5, Bucky pulled away again, and rolled to a 71-58 win over Indiana.

Interestingly, the game was not broadcast live on local Madison TV that day. There was no Big Ten network at the time, but there was a number of over-the-air affiliates for Big Ten games on weekends. Unfortunately in Madison, that station was NBC 15, and they had the late game of the NFL playoffs to show between Denver and Jacksonville (in one of the largest playoff upsets in NFL history, the Jags shocked the Broncos in Denver, despite being 14 1/2 point underdogs). So as we headed back to the Regent Street Retreat, we came upon a guy shooting darts with his girlfriend. Noticing the Indiana sweatshirts on my friends, he asked, "So, how'd the basketball game go?"

I grinned, "Wisconsin won."

The guy's eyes got huge "The Badgers won??!!"

I nodded, and the guy high-fived me. My IU buddies shook their heads in embarrassment. At least 2 or 3 times that night, one of them would moan out of nowhere "I can't believe we lost to Wisconsin!" It's quite a contrast to what we have today, where Bucky hasn't lost to IU in the last 12 meetings on the hardwood, and it's the Badgers that are often thought of as the consistent winning program that IU would like to become (yes, the Hoosiers won the Big Ten title last year, but they look to be middle-of-the-pack this year after Tan Tommy Crean lost all of his best players to the NBA and graduation).

That night, we headed out to a new downtown brewpub called the Great Dane (yes, it was a long time ago), and randomly ran into some old college friends of mine, as will happen when you're 22 and just out of school. I introduced the IU guys to Madison nightlife, and even with the students gone for Winter Break, the town was in a borderline manic, "Can you believe this?" mood that seems innocent compared to what we have today, now that the Packers and Badger basketball have been good for such a long time.

It's still one of my favorite days as a sports fan in Wisconsin, and with the Packers playing the Niners again in the playoffs this weekend, followed by the 14-0 Badger basketball having a big game with nationally ranked Iowa, I can't help but think back to it.

P.S. Today's also the 10th anniversary of another great Packer playoff moment.

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