Football at the University of Wisconsin had been irrelevant for nearly two decades. Since a 1962 run to the Rose Bowl and #2 national ranking, the Badgers had just three winning seasons over the next 19 years. One of those came in 1978 when Dave McClain went 5-4-2 in his first year, but that was promptly followed by two straight 4-7 campaigns. No one was expecting the 1981 Wisconsin football team to break the drought, to pull some memorable upsets and to set the stage for a modest run of success.
Wisconsin’s best players were on defense. Tim Krumrie was one of the nation’s best defensive tackles, making 1st-team All-American. Krumrie went on to a good NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals and has since been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
In the secondary, David Greenwood and Matt Vanden Boom were all All-Big Ten and each intercepted six passes. Defensive lineman Mark Shumate and linebacker Dave Leveneck were each second-team all-conference.
There were no standouts on offense, even though the Badgers ranked modestly higher in scoring points than they did in preventing them—52nd nationally on offense compared to 56th on defense. Jess Cole was the quarterback and only completed 43 percent of his passes for 5.9 yards-per-attempt. Even allowing for a different era with much less dazzling passing numbers than we see today, those are low.
Michael Jones was the best receiver, catching 23 passes and averaging nearly 18 yards a catch. The offensive line had solid blockers in Ron Versnik and Bob Winkler. Three different backs shared the load. John Williams was the leading rusher with 634 yards at 5.5 yards-per-carry. Dave Mohapp and Chucky Davis each went over 400 yards.
I grew up in southeastern Wisconsin and was 11-years-old in 1981. Suffice it say there were no expectations when the Badgers hosted Michigan to open the season. Well, there was an expectation the Wolverines would deliver a beatdown. Michigan had gotten head coach Bo Schembechler his first Rose Bowl win the previous January and were ranked #1 in the country to start this season.
Instead, Wisconsin stayed in the game. It was a 14-14 tie late in the third quarter. On his own 29-yard line, Cole flipped a screen pass to Williams. The running back raced 71 yards for the touchdown. Vanden Boom intercepted three passes, the last of which made the 21-14 score stand up. Wisconsin had shocked the nation and was ranked #20 when the next week’s polls came out.
There was no time to celebrate (although that’s never stopped anyone on the campus in Madison). UCLA was the next team coming into Camp Randall. The Bruins were ranked #9 in the country. This one went a little more according to script, a 31-13 loss for the Badgers.
Neither Michigan nor UCLA would live up to expectations this season. In fact, they played each other in the Bluebonnet Bowl after three-loss seasons. But they were still pretty good and given where Wisconsin had been, being off to a 1-1 start seemed like a dream come true.
The Badgers knocked off Western Michigan 21-10. Purdue came into Madison for the first weekend of October. The entire state was abuzz. Although not because of anything to do with football. On that Saturday afternoon, the Milwaukee Brewers were clinching their first ever postseason appearance. I was in attendance at Camp Randall that day and after Wisconsin posted a 20-14 win, we found a place to watch the Brewers beat the Tigers.
Ohio State was another traditional power that didn’t have a great team in 1981. But like Michigan, they were still part of the juice in this conference. The Buckeyes came into Madison on October 10 and took a 14-6 lead late in the first half.
Wisconsin was punting with 1:34 left and looked ready to go into the locker room. Ohio State fumbled the punt. The Badgers recovered. Cole threw a 24-yard touchdown pass and then converted the two-point play. Then, with Ohio State trying to kill the clock, they fumbled and Greenwood recovered. A 50-yard field goal from Wendell Gladem gave Wisconsin a surprising 17-14 lead.
And the Badgers kept that momentum going into the second half. Cole threw another touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes didn’t score until a touchdown with less than a minute to play. When UW covered the onside kick, the 24-21 win was preserved.
Wisconsin had done the impossible and that was beat Michigan and Ohio State in the same year. It was one part of what was a wild year in college football, with traditional powers falling and new upstarts stepping forward. The Badgers were squarely in the middle of it and ranked #14 in the country.
But the road was not kind to Wisky. They were hammered 33-14 at mediocre Michigan State. Then Wisconsin dropped a narrow 23-21 decision at a pretty good Illinois team that had Tony Eason at quarterback.
A home game with winless Northwestern was just what the doctor ordered and the Badgers won 52-0. Then they went to lowly Indiana and got an easy 28-7 win. There were two weeks to go and the Big Ten race was jam packed.
Everybody had lost at least two conference games. Wisconsin and Michigan were both playing a full league schedule, meeting all nine conference opponents. Everyone else was playing eight league games. For now, that was fine. The Badgers and Wolverines were each 5-2, a half-game up on 4-2 Ohio State and Iowa. Illinois was 4-3. Of course Wisconsin had the tiebreaker on Michigan, so the Badgers controlled their destiny for the Rose Bowl.
Iowa came into Madison. And the Badgers proved to be not-quite-ready-for-prime-time. They lost 17-7 and it really wasn’t that close. The Hawkeyes had control throughout.
The Rose Bowl dream might be finished, but just getting to a bowl game wasn’t easy in this more stringent era of postseason college football. And winning at Minnesota in the finale wouldn’t be easy either. The Gophers came in 6-4 and had Chester Cooper, the only 1,000-yard receiver in the conference.
When Cooper caught a touchdown pass with 1:54 left to put Wisconsin down 21-20, it looked like this fine season was going to have a disappointing ending. McClain called on backup quarterback Randy Wright. After throwing one incompletion, Wright connected on four straight throws, covering 82 yards and scoring the winning touchdown. The Badgers pulled it out 26-21.
A bid to the Garden State Bowl, played at the Meadowlands in mid-December, was the reward. Tennessee, off a 7-4 season themselves was the opponent. The Vols had notable future pros in speedy wide receiver Willie Gault and hard-hitting strong safety Bill Bates.
Wisconsin led 7-3 early on, but Gault changed the game with an 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Badgers trailed 21-7. They did their best to hang in, but ultimately lost 28-21.
No matter. It had been a breakthrough season. It was the first of four straight winnings seasons under McClain, three of which ended in bowl trips. In the era before Barry Alvarez transformed the program and expectations, it qualified as a virtual golden age of Badger football.