Most years, followers of Big Ten football wouldn't give a plugged nickel for the chances of either Wisconsin or Iowa in the conference race. And why should they, considering that neither team has gone to the Rose Bowl for what seems eons?
Wisconsin was the most recent visitor, earning a Pasadena sojourn after the 1962 season; Iowa headed west as the 1958 league champion. It's a little premature to say the either one will go this time, but the possibility exists, and in college football circles that is big news indeed.
Michigan and Ohio State have dominated the conference in recent years, one or the other representing the Big Ten in each of the last 13 Rose Bowls. But Wisconsin and Iowa are 1-2 in the current league standings, a situation that may lead to the most exciting finish since Indiana, Minnesota, and Purdue tied for the conference title in 1967.
Wisconsin has already knocked of both Michigan and Ohio State, a feat that once defied description, and now ranks 13th nationally in the coaches' poll. Iowa, with an identical 4-1 mark, is a notch higher, thanks to upset victories over Nebraska and UCLA. Neither team has lost in conference play. Wisconsin's lone defeat was to UCLA, Iowa's to Iowa State.
Both schools appear to be repaying the faithful for their incredible loyalty over many long, fruitless seasons. This ability to put fans in the stadium through thick, but mostly thin, is one thing Iowa and Wisconsin share.
Even during Iowa's winless 1973 season, the Hawkeyes managed crowds of 45,000 to 50,000, and since Coach Hayden Fry arrived three years ago the 60,000-seat Kinnick Stadium has been sold out. Hawkeye rooters even turn out in force for some road games, particularly those in neighboring Wisconsin and Minnesota, where 20,000 Iowans traveled last year.
Once asked why a perennial loser received such support, a former Hawkeye coach replied, "What else is there to do in Iowa City on a Saturday afternoon?"
About the only losing team that consistently outdraws Iowa is Wisconsin, which has a bigger facility in 77,000-seat Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers have averaged about 70,000 since 1974, when they enjoyed their best season in years.
Athletic director Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch was instrumental in building interest in the program even before that with an ambitious, statewide promotional campaign. (Fry provided a similar boost at Iowa by marketing a wide assortment of souvenirs aimed at garnering even greater exposure for Hawkeye football.)
Part of the appeal at Wisconsin has been the just the fun of attending a game -- including tailgate parties and superb band performances. The Badger band has generated special excitement this year by putting a popular advertising jingle to a polka beat. "When you've said Wisconsin, you've said it all," the fans sing to the accompaniment. The foot-stomping has so shook the upper deck, though, the band has been asked to stop playing the jingle during games.
Wisconsin crowds have not always been so jovial. In 1977 spectators pelted the Wisconsin players with apples and toilet paper after a fourth straight loss. The Badgers had begun the season with five straight wins, but collapsed after Michigan beat them 56-0.
Coach John Jardine had to restrain some of his players from doing battle with the ormentors, a task that led to his resignation after eight years on the job and a 37-45-3 record.
Jardine's successor, Dave McClain, has not met with much success until this year, and with six games remaining anything could still happen. In 1978 he took the team to a 5-4-2 season, but back-to-back 4-7 seasons followed.
McClain believes in building with a strong defense and ball-control offense. Last year, the defense shaped up, but the offense was flat-out miserable, the worst in the Big Ten, with less than 70 yards passing and only 12.5 points per game.The Badgers failed to score a touchdown in six of 11 games.
This year, Wisconsin has been able to move the ball, if not stylishly at least effectively. In their 21-14 upset of Michigan, the Badgers racked up 439 yards to beat a team that had outscored them 176-0 the last four years.
Sophomore quarterback Jess Cole doesn't throw often, but he knows how to complete the "money" pass. His only two completions against Ohio State, for example, went for touchdowns. While Wisconsin doesn't have any Herschel Walkers running the ball, it does have Chucky Davis, Georgia's high school player of the year before superb blocking fullback in Dave Mohapp.
The defense has been making the big plays to get Wisconsin the ball, with Matt Vanden Boom among the nation's interception leaders and noseguard Tim Krumrie a strong All-America candidate.
Iowa hasn't had a .500-plus season since 1961, but a rock-solid defense could also make the Hawkeyes a winning team. Statistically, Iowa has been one of the best defensive teams in the country.
It was pretty good in that department last year as well, but not many people noticed during a 5-6 campaign, which saw 17 players out for the season with injuries by the ninth game.
To put it mildly, things are just falling in place this year. Iowa has scored every way imaginable, on a fumble recovery, safety, and interception, kickoff, and punt returns. The offense just hasn't needed to be overpowering, not with punter Reggie Roby leading the country with a 54.1-yard average.
So as the fight songs say, it's "On Wisconsin" and "On Iowa," too.