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Back in Fashion

After 30 less-than-rosy years, football is again in style at Wisconsin

Fashion flash from Madison, Wis.: Earrings are becoming passè in this Berkeley in the heartland. Beatniks and Wisconsin undergrads along State Street are opting for pierced nostrils and, in some cases, pierced lips. Shocking the bourgeoisie isn't as easy as it used to be.

Among Wisconsin football players, meanwhile, letter jackets are making a comeback, for the simple reason that the Badgers are no longer embarrassed to wear them. "There were a few years when we just left them in the closet," says senior strong safety Reggie Holt. "For a while we were a laughingstock."

Having humbled Purdue 42-28 last Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind., the Badgers are 6-0 and off to their best start since 1912. They are tied with Ohio State for first place in the Big Ten and ranked seventh in the country by a computer at The New York Times. (They're No. 15 in the AP poll.) A school-record four games have been sold out at 77,745-seat Camp Randall Stadium, and a sense, of entering unexplored territory pervades the football program.

Consider novelty-item quarterback Darrell Bevell, one of the world's oldest sophomores. A Mormon who will turn 24 in January, Bevell won the starting job at Northern Arizona in the spring of 1989. A few weeks later he surprised his coaches with the news that he was embarking on a two-year mission for his church. Recalling the long days he spent knocking on doors in Ohio, Bevell says, "I think everyone in that state owns a rottweiler."

When Bevell transferred to Wisconsin in the spring of '92, he hadn't worked out in two years. "He had the muscle tone of a dishrag," recalls offensive coordinator Brad Childress, who held that post at Northern Arizona when Bevell was there and recruited him for the Badgers. Says offensive tackle Joe Panos, "I saw him and thought, This guy's gonna lead us?"

Affirmative. Against Northwestern on Oct. 9, Bevell completed his first 14 passes and finished 17 for 18. Then he torched Purdue with four touchdown throws before leaving the game early in the third quarter. After only 16 starts Bevell is seventh on Wisconsin's alltime passing list. Says coach Barry Alvarez, "We break records every week." Pause. "They're not hard to break, actually."

Alvarez struggles to be tactful when talking about the shambles he inherited three years ago. His predecessor, Don Morton, had come to Wisconsin from Tulsa in 1986. Morton's plan for the Badgers: recruit in Texas and Arkansas and run the veer option. Hey, it worked at Tulsa. Morton won six games in three years. One week during the '89 season, he began his TV show by sitting up in a coffin and declaring, "I'm not dead yet!"

His career at Wisconsin, however, was. Alvarez, who had been defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, took the Badger head job in January 1990. His practices were so arduous that in less than a year 58 players, many of them walk-ons, quit the team. After going 1-10 in '90, Alvarez had two five-win years before turning the corner this season.

He has surrounded himself with assistants who have had success in the Big Ten and who can recruit. In his first staff meeting at Wisconsin, Alvarez told his coaches that they were to go after the best athletes in the country, something their predecessors had not dared to do.

The marquee name in this year's batch of recruits was Carl McCullough, an All-America tailback out of St. Paul who was also recruited by Miami and Florida State. McCullough, who has 26 carries for 143 yards and one TD this season, was sold on Wisconsin by defensive coordinator Dan McCarney, who regularly poached Minnesota's best high school talent when he was an assistant at Iowa. Badger tight ends coach Bernie Wyatt, who worked at Iowa as well, was renowned for luring studs from the Eastern Seaboard. He and McCarney have diverted their pipelines to Madison.

A state capital that prides itself on its progressivism, Madison can take some getting used to. One brisk March afternoon several years ago, Childress saw a group of women demonstrating in front of the courthouse for the right to go topless on Dane County beaches. To drive home their point, they picketed topless.

Another of the town's traits was apathy toward Badger football. Donna Shalala worked to change that. From 1988 until last January, when she became Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton Administration, Shalala was the university's chancellor. Unlike previous chancellors, she saw no reason why Wisconsin should not complement its academic prowess with athletic excellence. She fired Morton and forced out athletic director Ade Sponberg, replacing him with Pat Richter, a Madison native and nine-year NFL veteran who had caught three TD passes in Wisconsin's 42-37 loss to Southern Cal in the 1963 Rose Bowl.

Richter's first act was to hire Alvarez. Shalala made a habit of dropping in on practices, and she visited Alvarez after tough losses to tell him not to worry. Last February, Shalala backed out of a dinner with the Clintons to appear at a Badger recruiting function, at which she told the crowd, "I told Bill I had to get back and help Barry Alvarez finish the best recruiting class in Wisconsin history."

Now the Badger bandwagon is overflowing. The increased ticket sales at Camp Randall Stadium have helped erase a $2.1 million athletic-department debt. In the process the Camp has also regained its rep as one of the most inhospitable pits in the Big Ten.

The Badger teams of the Morton era were so abominable that students who didn't bag games altogether created their own amusements at the Camp. These included body-passing and the slow-motion wave, which takes at least five minutes to make its way around the stadium. "They still raise hell," says Alvarez, "but now they're more into the games."

Just ask the Iowa State assistant coach who this year took his linebackers on a slow pregame jog past the Wisconsin student section, where they ran into a fusillade of uncooked hot dogs, toilet-paper rolls and marshmallows. Marshmallows? How do you throw a marshmallow 30 yards? "They stick pennies in 'em," says Childress admiringly. Pause. "Of course, we don't condone that kind of behavior."

They don't object to it, either, and they may well see more of it on Oct. 30, when Michigan comes to the Camp, or a week later, when the Badgers host Ohio State. For the first time in three decades a Wisconsin team stands a chance of being fitted for Rose Bowl rings.

Wouldn't those turn some heads on State Street?



A Badgering D brought down Purdue's Mike Alstott.