By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) There was a time when Wisconsin football was Illinois football.
In fact, it was even worse.
Heading into the 1990 season, the Badgers hadn’t posted a winning record since 1984, and had won a total of just seven Big Ten games over the previous five years. Back during the 1980s, going to football games in Madison wasn’t even about football. It was about tailgating.
But then new head coach Barry Alvarez set out to change all that.
And he did.
Come 1993, the Badgers steamrolled the Big Ten, compiling a 10-1-1 record and making the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 30 years. Then out in Pasadena, Wisconsin beat UCLA 21-16 that was just the program’s second bowl victory in its history, but it set the stage for many more.
After that breakthrough season, Alvarez went on to win or share two more Big Ten titles and capture another pair of Rose Bowl crowns, racking up a career record of 118-73-4 over 16 seasons and turning Wisconsin into a new pillar of the Big Ten along the way.
Earlier this week, Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate pointed out that the Badgers – who the Fighting Illini host at 7 p.m. tonight – have now gone 190-90-4 since Alvarez arrived from Notre Dame, with his success bleeding over into the tenures of successor Bret Bielema, and now Gary Andersen. The school’s stellar .679 winning percentage over 24 years is also in spite of a 1-10 record in Alvarez’s first season, and 5-6 marks during both his second and third.
Illinois, meanwhile, shared the 1990 Big Ten championship with an 8-4 overall record during Alvarez’s first year in the league, beating the Badgers 21-3 along the way. Beginning with ’90, however, the Illini have posted a record of just 114-168-2 (.404), light years behind Wisconsin’s clip.
The schools’ roles have certainly changed since then. But one thing continues to ring true year after year: The football program at UW, where Alvarez now serves as athletic director, remains the blueprint – and the ideal – for Illinois.
Today, two decades removed from Alvarez’s breakthrough Rose Bowl season, Wisconsin Football is a brand name. With three straight Big Ten championships, it stands for toughness and it stands for success.
But, as I’ve argued before, Illinois simply shouldn’t stand so far behind it. Wisconsin is a great school with excellent football facilities, but let’s also be honest: There is absolutely no logical reason – none – why the Badgers are a perennial national power and the University of Illinois is an annual also-ran.
Illinois is equally as strong in academics and with the renovations to Memorial Stadium, it has football facilities on par with its Big Ten rivals. Illinois is also located in a state that’s the most populous in the Big Ten and the fifth largest in the country. And, while any Big Ten school needs to recruit nationally to be a power, there undoubtedly is more high school talent within the state borders of Illinois than there is across the Cheddar Curtain in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s one major advantage over Illinois, is that it is the undisputed favored school within its state borders.
But beyond that difference, the question really isn’t why can’t Illinois be a national power. The question is, why hasn’t it ever become one?
The best answer, I suppose, is because lllinois is yet to find its own Barry Alvarez to transform its attitude and its on-field production. When Ron Zook was fired, the hope here was that Illinois might find that transformative coach.
Seventeen games into his career in Champaign, Tim Beckman isn’t looking like a particularly transofmative guy. But we’ll see tonight how he adapts after losing 31-14 to the Badgers a year ago. I won’t be surprised, though, if we end up being reminded again of how far Illinois has fallen behind Wisconsin over the past 24 years.
And how far it still has to go.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.