Back when everybody in the Big Ten was kicking us around," recalls Uncle Ed Schmitz, a Madison merchant who attended the University of Wisconsin for over a month in 1911 and who is now the chief fund raiser for the football team, "what few people as came to the game at all would pack their lunch at home, get there in time for the game, and leave right after it. Now they come in the night before and they don't go home 'til Sunday. Now, when Wisconsin plays at home, I put on seven extra clerks Saturday morning. Seven of 'em. I love a good game, but I'm mercenary too."
Football at Wisconsin supports more than Uncle Ed's seven extra clerks. Football took in $517,447.96 of the $720,921 Wisconsin total athletic take last year. Basketball is the only other sport that pays for itself at Wisconsin; it is football that carries the 13-sport program. Football will pay for the new $1,500,000 field house, football uniforms, the 180-piece band and sends the Crew to California. With twelve straight sellouts in a row and more to come, with a team undefeated in four starts for the first time since 1927 (only look out for Ohio State this Saturday) everybody is happy at Wisconsin.
This success is based on a winning combination of two incongruous elements. One is the tall, agonizingly shy head coach, Ivan B. Williamson, a living contradiction to Dale Carnegie. The other is a likable kid, born Lino Dante Amici, who now receives mail addressed to The Horse, Wisconsin.
October 25, 1954
Al Ameche, as he is known to most people, is a 6-foot, 210-pound fullback, 21 years old. Red Sanders, the U.C.L.A. coach, says that Ameche is a stronger runner than Bronko Nagurski. Esco Sarkkinen, the Ohio State scout who has studied Ameche three games a year for four years, says: "Ameche is the greatest fullback on the North American continent today. He is powerful, he's shifty, and he's fast and he's all of them all of the time. He's big, too, but he doesn't need to be. Not with that heart."
Against Rice, a fortnight ago, Ameche was the real old-time line-smashing fullback. Against Purdue last Saturday, he showed his shiftiness and speed. The Badgers had a skinny one-point lead, with the ball deep in their own territory. Ameche got it on a pitch-out, and took out around end. Now shifting, now turning, knees flailing, he skirted the end and turned on the speed. He made 26 yards. And now Wisconsin sparkled and down the field the red team went. Ameche plunged five yards for the score. Purdue began throwing the ball around in desperation, and Billy Lowe intercepted and ran 98 yards for a touchdown. It was Wisconsin again, 20-6.
Off the field, slopping around the campus on his slew feet, Ameche is a big, amiable, intelligent, hard working young man of good character and surprising sensitivity. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, and they have two children. He is living in a fog these days, because the demands on the nation's No. 1 Football Hero are constant and harassing—"The only time we're together is when somebody's taking our picture," his wife, Yvonne, says.
THE UNWRITTEN CARD
Ameche tries hard to be a levelheaded normal citizen. On Yvonne's birthday, two days before the Purdue game, he got up early and gave the baby its bottle. He was going to write something sweet on a birthday card, too, only the phone rang. Yvonne found her card, together with Al's pen, in the bathroom after he had rushed off late to class. She cried a little bit because he had tried.
Ameche has been on top of the world for six years. He got more publicity as an all-state high school halfback than any other member of the Wisconsin varsity gets now. As a freshman he used to come in at night to find coeds sitting on his doorstep.
Ameche takes his publicity in stride. He has spent hours on the weights, developing those big shoulders, hours running in soft sand to add power to those speedy legs, hours on the practice field, working on blocking, on defense. "After all that I should get a swelled head and kill my own self off?" he asked. "You think I'm nuts?"
The Wisconsin players do not resent Ameche's stardom. "Al is the most popular man on the team," Captain Gary Messner says. "He makes our own jobs easier. You can block a man a lot better when he's looking at somebody else."
Ameche came to Wisconsin in 1951, when freshmen were eligible in the Big Ten. He played in a junior varsity game against Iowa, on a Friday afternoon, hammered the line as usual, and broke away for a couple of nice long runs. He was pulled out of the game and sent immediately to the varsity. Next day he played against Marquette. That season, an eighteen-year-old freshman, he set a new record for the Big Ten, carrying the ball 147 times for 774 yards, an average of 5.3. Next year, as a sophomore, he was All-Conference. Wisconsin lost to Southern California in the Rose Bowl, but Ameche was outstanding. He carried the ball 28 times and made 133 yards.
Al grew up in a house in Kenosha surrounded by a freight yard, a junk yard and a coal yard, but it was always spotless and Al was always clean and neat. He was the younger of two boys, the baby of the family. Al's mother is named Mrs. August Ameche, his father is named Mr. Augusto Amici. "The old man is pretty hard-headed, he won't change his name," Al says. Ameche isn't absolutely sure about his own name. He knows that his first name is Alan, because he and his brother went to the federal building in Kenosha together and, for 50¢ apiece, turned Lindo into Lynn and Lino into Alan. (Lynn thought up both names.) Whether his name is officially Amici or Ameche is something that Al never thought about before; he intends to ask Lynn about it.
Lynn is five years older than Al, and his hero. Lynn started Al out in football, talked his parents into letting him play. Lynn also introduced him to music, nursing him along with Tschaikowsky's piano concerto and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody until he could feel his own way into Beethoven and Franck.
And this was why Al went to Wisconsin. He could have gone anywhere, but the choice settled down between Notre Dame and the State U. All that was involved at both schools was a free education—nobody has ever offered him a convertible. Frank Leahy visited his home and won his mother over. Leahy also got Don Ameche, the actor, to call Al long distance from Hollywood. It was the first time the well-known voice of his second cousin had been directed to Al personally, but he wasn't impressed. Yvonne wanted him to go to Notre Dame, too. There were no coeds there. Notre Dame finally agreed to take Al and two of his high school teammates. Wisconsin agreed to take seven, and Al went to Madison.
"But that isn't the real reason he went," Yvonne says. "When we were sophomores in high school Lino spent a weekend in Madison, visiting his brother. He came straight to my house as soon as he got back to Kenosha. He had on a white shirt and a red tie and he looked awful cute. He told me that the Wisconsin campus was the most beautiful place he had ever seen and that the Wisconsin song was the most beautiful he had ever heard. He sang it for me, from beginning to end. But what really got him was the music room. He said they had every phonograph record in the world there, and you could play them as loud as you wanted to. Lino was sold on Wisconsin from that day on."
THE 11 PHONE CALLS
Yvonne visited Madison one weekend, late in his first season after Al had become The Horse. Waiting for him in the dormitory parlor she heard the phone ring eleven different times, and eleven different coeds wanted to speak to Al-an. Ameche never had a chance after that. Yvonne and Lino were married in his sophomore year, when both were nineteen. They had been going steady since the ninth grade.
They live in a nice little house in a diaper village outside of Madison. Al drives a 1951 Ford bought second-hand. He has no money in the bank. He pays no income tax. He now owns three albums, but he still doesn't have a phonograph to play them on.
Al Ameche is by no means living high on the hog, but anybody who thinks he is paying $85 a month rent and feeding a wife and two children on the $150-a-year scholarship and $500-a-year job he is officially marked down with is a little naive. Wisconsin, Williamson and the Western Conference all work under the same high-minded system when it comes to getting and keeping football players. It is so high-minded that only a cad would stoop to investigate possible infractions of the rule. Actually, any gumshoe of Junior G-Man competence could discover evidence of illegal feeding of the animals. However Ivy Williamson and Wisconsin have managed to win ball games, offer a sound education to deserving boys, stay on the good side of Tug Wilson's office, and not spend too much money, all at the same time.
FIRST A HORSEMAN
Wisconsin got started toward big-time football in 1935, the year the Badgers lost seven out of eight. After some mild dissension as to whether to fire the football coach or the athletic director, the Athletic Board settled things amicably by canning them both. Harry Stuhldreher, one of the famous Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and a big name in football, came in to take both jobs.
Stuhldreher is a dynamic man with charm, energy and ulcers. He got Wisconsin booster clubs started from Minnesota to Ohio. But Harry spread himself too thin. His clubs flooded Madison with run-of-the-mine players, while the real stars, the Chuck Ortmans and their like, snuck off somewhere else and made All America. Harry did not win ball games. Membership in the Good-Bye Harry club became de rigueur on campus. Harry left.
The second stage was the hiring of Williamson, a long man with a long face and an administrator who would be top man in any business. He, like his star Ameche, has the capacity to learn and do. He made all-conference end at Michigan in 1932, worked under two head coaches at Yale, spent three years in the Navy, then returned to Yale under a third coach.
"I guess then's when I took a look at myself," he says today, ducking and bobbing shyly behind his desk. "I figured as long as I was a football coach, I ought to try to be a good one."
After a two-year stint at Lafayette College he was ready for the big time. Benny Oosterbaan nosed him out of the Michigan post and the next one that opened up was Wisconsin. Williamson and his staff draw over $65,000 a year in salaries alone, and don't do a thing but football, all year round. Williamson gets $15,000 a year, Milt Bruhn, the line coach, gets $10,000, and Paul Shaw, ends, Bob Odell, back-field, Fred Marsh, chief scout and George Lanphear, freshman, all draw $9,000 apiece. Part-time scouts and assistants make up the rest.
They all do a lot of speaking too, even Ivy. "When Ivy goes to an alumni meeting," Uncle Ed says, "he stands up and mumbles for about three minutes, and then he passes out some white cards. 'Here, you fellows write out your questions and I'll try to answer 'em,' he says. Last year half the cards had the same question: Who was the best back you played against, Paul Giel of Minnesota or Paul Cameron of U.C.L.A.? Ivy scrapes his foot on the floor, thinks for a minute, and then he looks up with that little smile he's got and says, 'Well, I'd like to have both of 'em here at Wisconsin.' Everybody applauds like hell. They think he's the wittiest man in the State."
Williamson is not coy about the man in his life. He knows very well that Ameche has won games Wisconsin would have lost. Ameche, in turn, knows that it is the superb Williamson defense which gets the ball for him in the first place.
The Wisconsin offense is an Ameche offense, with a few passes thrown in. Williamson has even revived the old single-wing formation, with its massive and obvious concentration of moving bulk, for Ameche. He never gets a lead from center, incidentally. He is under instructions to sit quietly on his haunches until he receives the ball. He then must look at it carefully, making sure that it is genuine and that he really has it in his own two hands, before taking it anywhere. "They think I can't catch the thing," he says bitterly.
RUNNING FOR DAYLIGHT
Williamson gives The Horse his head completely. Al runs for daylight, cutting in or sweeping wide, wherever an opponent is not. It is the instinctive coordination of eye and foot, the incredible maneuverability, which makes The Horse a constant touchdown threat in addition to a battering-ram.
Ameche is a natural for professional ball. He is up for a commission in the Transportation Corps, but he'd like to make a little money first. Pro football is the only possible way, he figures, that he can get a phonograph of his own to play his three albums on.