The ancient Japanese study of flower arrangement is called ikebana. While your average college football team wouldn't know ikebana from Ickey Woods, the Wisconsin Badgers are authorities on both flowers and Japan. Look at what they did in a Tokyo hothouse on Sunday afternoon. As tailback Brent Moss put it, "You might say we turned dandelions into roses."
In making mulch of Michigan State 41-20 in the Tokyo Dome, the Badgers became Big Ten champions, bound for the Rose Bowl only three seasons after finishing winless in a conference that includes Northwestern. What's more, "They have done something that 30 years of Wisconsin football teams could not do," said athletic director Pat Richter, an All-America tight end on the Badgers' last Rose Bowl team, in...1962. Make that 31 years.
Richter wore a necktie speckled with roses on Sunday. Though the tie looked brand-new, Richter confessed that it was rather old. The Wisconsin program's fallow history is precisely why coach Barry Alvarez agreed two years ago to give up a home game in 1993 and play in Japan: so that his seniors could appear in one bowl game, even if it was something called the 18th annual Coca-Cola Bowl. As Badger bowl hopes went, Coke really was it.
Of course, if Alvarez had foreseen all that would be at stake in the Michigan State game, he would have taken a Pasadena on Japan and played before 77,000 cheddarwurst-addled Badger fans in Madison—instead of the 300 or so who joined the Japanese crowd of 51,500 after grilling brats and swilling brews at a Wisconsin tailgate party outside the Tokyo Dome. In that very dome Mike Tyson had his Seiko clock cleaned by Buster Douglas in 1990, and a similar upset by the Spartans would have left Wisconsin with little evidence of its finest season since the missiles were removed from Cuba.
Win, and you are Big Ten champions. Lose, and you are third in the conference (behind Ohio State and Penn State). Win, and you play UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Lose, and you play Brigham Young in the Thrifty Car Rental Holiday Bowl. Win, and you play on New Year's Day. Lose, and you play on New Year's Eve eve. "In short," said Badger offensive tackle Joe Panos, "this game means everything."
How awkward, then, for Michigan State and Wisconsin to have to fly from Chicago to Tokyo together on the same charter—even if Spartans and Badgers were strictly segregated throughout the 15-hour, four-movie affair. The 747 made one stop. "We could have played this game in Vancouver, British Columbia, and saved ourselves a lot of time," said Alvarez. But like a presidential haircut, a Big Ten game on the tarmac would have tied up air traffic something fierce. Thus the teams proceeded to Tokyo, landing early Thursday morning. Somehow the players were wide-eyed on arrival.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Spartan punter Chris Salani. "I don't think I'll ever get here again."
For the Badgers the trip would be the capstone of a one-credit course they're taking on Japanese culture. Their instructor, Professor Pempel, expected a six-page report from each of his students upon their return, so the players conducted field studies on Thursday night, when they dined in the homes of Wisconsin alumni living in Japan. "I learned that if you're full, you wipe your hands off with a towel, or they'll keep bringing you food all night," said oversated receiver Lee DeRamus, who still managed five catches for 91 yards and a TD on Sunday. "And when you drink, they keep refilling your cup so you never see the bottom."
Never see the bottom? Wisconsin? In the last three decades Jacques Cousteau has not seen this much bottom: Between their last Rose Bowl appearance and this season, the Badgers suffered a 119-196-9 arid spell. In 1990, Alvarez's first year as coach, Wisconsin's only win was over Ball State, alma mater of David Letterman. If the Badger football program was ever going to make a Top 10 List, it would clearly not be the one compiled by the Associated Press.
Yet here were the 10th-rated Badgers on Sunday running over the Liberty Bowl-bound Spartans on the power of two churning little pistons, 5'9" running backs Moss and Terrell Fletcher. Moss, whose 133.2-yards-per-game average going into the game was third in the nation, went for 147 yards and two touchdowns on a painful turned ankle. On only 10 carries Fletcher rushed for 112 yards and two TDs, the second of which was a 40-yard streak that gave the Badgers a 17-7 second-quarter lead that would never shrink. Said Moss, "We're the best one-two punch in the nation."
What's more, they are mere juniors. Quarterback Darrell Bevell, who completed 14 of 19 passes for 235 yards against the Spartans and nearly 70% of all passes on the season, is a 23-year-old sophomore, for heaven's sake. It was for heaven's sake, incidentally, that Bevell left Northern Arizona in 1990 to embark on a two-year Mormon mission to...where? Australia? Bolivia? Portugal, perhaps? Bevell wondered himself before his papers were processed in Salt Lake City and word was finally passed down: He would preach to the heathens in...Cleveland.
Upon completing that mission, Bevell embarked on another one, following former Northern Arizona assistant Brad Childress to Wisconsin, where Childress is offensive coordinator. Bevell's absurd Rose Bowl mission also took only two years to complete, which makes you wonder, What is this guy's completion percentage in life?
But enough of the underclassmen. Sunday's victory was for the seniors. To be sure, the game was for Wisconsin fans—those long-suffering Sheboyganites and loss-weary Oconomowoccers—but it meant the most to those Badgers who had to slog through the '90 season without hip waders or nose plugs. Sunday was for linebacker Yusef Burgess and safety Reggie Holt. The pair was in on 26 tackles against the Spartans. Remember '90? Hitman Holt was a wide receiver on that team. What were they thinking?
Sunday was for Panos, a feta-cheese-head whose parents own a couple of restaurants in Milwaukee that serve Greek food. Co-captain Panos was a walk-on in '90. That season he played on the scout team that prepared the Badgers so well for Michigan that they lost to the Wolverines only—what was it, 41-3?
Now here they all are three years later, world-beaters and world travelers, members of a 9-1-1 team that not only takes your lunch but also eats it with chopsticks. Are sports great, or what? As the Badgers left the field in Tokyo on Sunday, they each clutched a single rose, like 70 men in search of 70 tango partners. Ludicrously, those partners now await in Pasadena.