The sponsors were looking for a Big Ten game--any Big Ten game--and got lucky. All it took was money, and they have plenty.
For the price of some airplane tickets and $800,000 to prime the athletic department pumps at Wisconsin and Michigan State, Japan and Coca-Cola have imported the game that will determine UCLA’s opponent in the Rose Bowl.
If Wisconsin beats the Spartans in the 19th Coca-Cola Bowl on Sunday in Tokyo--Saturday night, at 8 PST, in the United States--the Badgers will play in Pasadena for the first time since Jan. 1, 1963. If Michigan State wins, Ohio State is the Big Ten champion and UCLA’s opponent on Jan. 1.
In Madison, Wis., and environs, if the Badgers go to the Rose Bowl, folks will gather around television sets New Year’s Day, watching something that has not been seen since Kennedy was president.
“I know some people who told me they weren’t going to make our game the last time we played for the Rose Bowl, who said they would see the next one, are retired now if they saved that money,” says a chuckling Pat Richter, Wisconsin’s athletic director and captain of the Badgers’ last Rose Bowl team.
It was Richter, in fact, who was on the receiving end of 11 of Ron VanderKelen’s 33 completions as Wisconsin rallied from a 42-14 deficit against USC in that ’63 game. The Badgers wound up losing, 42-37, but many still consider that game the most exciting in Rose Bowl history.
Elsewhere in Madison, people sigh at the irony of Camp Randall Stadium sitting idle while the biggest “home” game in 31 years is played 8,000 miles away.
They are placid, perhaps surprisingly so for a student body that spilled from the stands onto the field with such exuberance after a victory over Michigan a month ago that 17 were injured, some critically.
Students you would think would be writing ‘60s alumni for instructions on painting protest signs and organizing demonstrations against Wisconsin’s contribution to the U.S. trade deficit with Japan understand why the game is there.
“I think people realize this is something that happened a long time ago, at a time when if you told students they would be going to the Rose Bowl, they would have laughed at you,” said Terge Langeland, a senior.
Those laughs are the reason Wisconsin is playing in Tokyo this week.
The process began in 1989, but less than $300,000 was offered. It accelerated nearly two years ago at Anaheim, at the NCAA convention in January, 1992, and the pot was sweetened.
Under various names, the Coca-Cola Bowl had been in business since 1976, when it began with a game between Grambling and Morgan State. Sponsors typically looked for teams struggling with attendance, and that’s how they got Oregon State to switch its game against UCLA to Tokyo in 1980, and Oregon to play USC there in 1985.
Pacific 10 schools had played in the game. So had teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Eight, Southwest Conference. Even service academies had been there, but no Big Ten schools and that was the goal. Enter George Perles, Michigan State’s coach.
He had coached in an all-star game in Japan and had met the sponsors of the Coca-Cola Bowl.
At the NCAA convention, “They were trying to drum up interest for the (1993) game,” Ken Hoffman, Michigan State’s sports information director, told the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. “George really felt nobody was going to take them up on it. Nobody was paying any attention to them. George felt sorry for them and went and talked to them.”
Perles’ compassion had its limits, though. Michigan State would play in Tokyo, but wouldn’t give up a home game to do it.
Wisconsin had a game against Michigan State at Madison on Oct. 2, 1993, and it was for sale for the right price.
“I had been through two recruiting classes, and I felt like I owed (the players) a special game,” said Barry Alvarez, the Badger coach who had been hired in 1990. “I talked to some of the players, and they liked the idea, and then I went to Pat and he went to the administration.”
The chancellor at the time was Donna Shalala, now President Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. She was enthusiastic about the cultural possibilities, as well as exposure for the university to alumni--Wisconsin has an active faction in the Far East--and Japanese firms that might offer research money to a school willing to play football there.
The deal was made in May, 1992, and firmed up a month later. The game would be switched to December for a guarantee of $400,000 for each school, plus the price of 125 airplane tickets for players, coaches and university officials, 70 tickets for the band and 20 for cheerleaders and whatever the universities could get from well-heeled fans for the few remaining seats on the plane.
The money was right--then.
Alvarez had coached teams to 1-10, 5-6 and 5-6 records in his first three seasons at Wisconsin. The 1991 Michigan State-Wisconsin game had drawn 41,074 at Camp Randall, a stadium that seats 77,745. The idea of getting a $400,000 guarantee for the 1993 game appealed to Richter for the same reason Camp Randall had held concerts featuring U2 and Genesis. He was still whittling away at a $2-million deficit, inherited when Shalala hired him from Oscar Mayer in 1989.
“We had had only two eight-win seasons since 1900 and we hadn’t gone to a bowl since 1984,” Alvarez said. “I wanted some kind of bowl for the players.”
He gets two for the price of one.
Who could have known?
Nobody, it seems. Seemingly out of nowhere, Wisconsin has thrust itself into the national spotlight, being ranked 10th in the nation, selling out four of its five games at Camp Randall this season and standing one game from Pasadena.
Suddenly, the $400,000 doesn’t look so big. The athletic department nets about $600,000 for a sold-out home game, and figures to end up about $75,000-$100,000 short of that after playing in Japan.
“But,” Richter says, “the game was scheduled for Oct. 2, and had it been played then, it wouldn’t have had this kind of exposure.”
It wouldn’t have been Wisconsin’s biggest game in 31 years.
When the game’s importance became apparent, Richter and other officials defused a minor uprising by local merchants, who see the spillover revenue from a full house at Camp Randall going overseas. He also has dealt with Wisconsin’s senate majority leader, Michael Ellis, who on Nov. 8, once the Badgers’ success was realized, criticized the decision to move the game.
“It is fair to say that, had we been able to predict the success of this football team, we may not have reached the same conclusion,” Richter wrote to Ellis.
Alvarez is staying out of it.
“We (he and the assistant coaches) sat down and decided that we weren’t going to say anything negative about it,” he said. “We decided to go about our business and not worry about it. We want the players to have a positive experience, and we think they will. To second-guess now would be like second-guessing a decision in a game--you don’t do it.
“We figure we benefited from the open date in October. We got some players healthy and came back and beat Northwestern. And Michigan State did the same thing and beat Michigan.”
Alvarez coached in the Japan Bowl all-star game after last season and got an idea of what had to be done. Players have taken a course in Japanese culture since September so they will know to take off their shoes at dinner Friday, and they understand why quarter-pounders cost $7 at Tokyo McDonald’s.
Alvarez also has enlisted the help of sleep-deprivation experts to prepare his team for the time change. The Badgers practiced at 7 p.m. Saturday, 8:30 Sunday and 10 p.m. Monday, after which they took a team bus to Chicago for the trip to Tokyo.
Wisconsin spent all last week working on a game plan, while Michigan State was preparing to play Penn State, a game the Spartans lost, 38-37.
School was out for the Thanksgiving break, but the students’ return Monday brought back the excitement of the best Wisconsin season in more than a generation.
“This is to get in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1962 team, and the whole state is excited,” Alvarez said. “The demand for tickets and everything would be so great, we’ll be less distracted in Tokyo.”
At home Saturday night, the beer will flow at TV parties, and newspapers will struggle to get in stories filed hours past normal deadlines for final Sunday editions.
If Wisconsin wins, special sections will be put together for Sunday afternoon distribution in Milwaukee and Madison, and students will begin plots to extract enough money from parents to make it to Pasadena for New Year’s Day.
For Wisconsin’s second bowl.