Roach: Favorite Sons
"Wisconsin football has been a program that didn't need a championship to be the best act in town."
Well, Chris McIntosh sure gave Wisconsin fans a heads up.
In a dramatic midseason turn, the guy everyone knows as “Mac” dismissed favorite son Paul Chryst. The coach’s kid.
Sports Illustrated went so far as to characterize the move as “ruthless.”
It is telling that the margin for error that existed for some of Barry Alvarez’s down years did not exist for Chryst. Such is the nature of the new beast.
At this point in the column, the perfunctory disclaimer that the Roach clan is friends with the Chryst clan is comical, because the same could be said for scores of families in Madison, Platteville and around the state. It’s what made Chryst’s run and departure at Wisconsin touch so many folks. That family vibe existed for his players as well.
But as things settle, and gratitude to Chryst and his wife Robin is expressed, I am struck by the boldness of McIntosh’s somewhat off-brand move and his willingness to own his vision for Badger Saturdays.
First, Mac had to deal with an immediate chess piece at risk; he didn’t want to lose the other favorite son in the picture, Jim Leonhard, to the University of Somewhere Else.
And then in his news conference, Mac went further. In clear terms, he inferred that Wisconsin football is not about just being respectable, but being in the business of “winning championships.” He didn’t specify what kind of championships, but it is safe to say he means both the Big Ten and the national title. Even as Leonhard sat next to him, Mac spoke of the search for a new coach to be launched at the end of the season. That certainly is viewing things with a gimlet eye.
Wisconsin football since the arrival of Alvarez has been a combination of overachieving teams with surprising productivity combined with an authentic celebration of community. It’s been remarkable to witness. Even more of a marvel, it was echoed by Bo Ryan’s basketball teams.
To the nation, Wisconsin athletics became the slightly smaller engine that did.
The Wisconsin Badgers football program is in the national top ten for both winning records and attendance through the last three decades. The Badgers won a handful of Big Ten titles in the last 30 years, but never a national championship. Ever. But that hasn’t stopped game days at Camp Randall from being ranked as the best college football experience in America.
To put it more succinctly, Wisconsin football has been the program that didn’t need a championship to be the best act in town.
Which is incredibly cool if you think about it.
In fact, one of the great things about Wisconsin fans is that they don’t carry the burden of bitterness that comes with having won a national championship. There is a sad, unpleasant vibe from Nebraska, Penn State, Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State, and Michigan fans. They are unhappy nearly every damn year. Some will never be happy again.
McIntosh has a complicated chess board before him. What he beholds is a frenzied college football scene flush with billions of television dollars, conference realignment, transfer portals with players who are now undisguised professionals, and the strange, new Pandora’s box called “collectives.” All within the forever-clumsy partnership with higher education.
Along with McIntosh’s vision comes an arms race against the championship model created by powers like Alabama and Ohio State. They have arrived at a new place before anyone else: They are professional grade.
And they will spare no cost to hold their high ground.
To be what these guys are, to win those coveted championships, Wisconsin and others must become them.
Mac seems to understand this new reality. Things are going to get very different, very fast.
I hope he can keep the best of Wisconsin’s culture as the model evolves.
He certainly knows the formula. So does Jimmy Leonhard.
After all, they’re favorite sons, too.
Meanwhile, that other favorite son will likely be watching it all from a lake in the woods.
Here’s hoping he knows that he lived up to his alma mater’s charge in full.
To be a good coach and an honorable man.
John Roach, a Madison-based screenwriter and producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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