This excerpt from "100 Things Wisconsin Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" by Jesse Temple is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please click here.
In many ways, decisions made by Wisconsin's athletics department mirrored the mediocrity of its teams during part of the school's sports dive into irrelevancy in the 1960s and 1970s. And the stories of coaches Bo Schembechler and Bob Knight serve as prime examples of the department's clumsy approach. If not for the mishandling of both situations, each legendary figure could have made his name as a Badger.
The story begins with Schembechler, an up-and-coming coach at Miami (Ohio), who wanted to be the head football coach at Wisconsin in 1967. UW needed to replace Milt Bruhn, and the top candidate for the job was Bruhn's assistant, John Coatta. In the 1974 book, Man in Motion, Schembechler recalled that he and Notre Dame assistant Johnny Ray were brought to Madison to interview on a Sunday night, primarily as a dog-and-pony show, with neither having a real chance at the position.
"They brought in all the candidates at the same time but put us up at different hotels," Schembechler said in the book. "Real secret agent stuff. They asked Johnny Ray and me to come down together, and he goes in first before the committee. I guess it's about 10 (p.m.) before it's my turn.
"You have to picture this. They've got 20 guys sitting around, and one of them -- a board member, I guess -- is sound asleep. He is sitting there asleep. I mean, how the hell would you feel? I'm mad. Really mad. I don't even want to be there. I don't want to answer any of their questions."
According to author John U. Bacon, the entire interview lasted all of 40 minutes. Schembechler also wasn't thrilled that a student seemed to relish asking smart-aleck questions during the interview. He promptly walked out the door, found the nearest pay phone and called Wisconsin athletics director Ivy Williamson to withdraw his name from consideration.
"I really got miffed when I got there," he said.
Schembechler coached two more seasons at Miami (Ohio) before taking the Michigan job in 1969. He would beat Wisconsin 18 of 19 times during his tenure at Michigan, the only loss coming in 1981, when Dave McClain led the Badgers to a 21-14 upset of No. 1 Michigan in the season opener. Schembechler's career record at Michigan was 194-48-5. Coatta, who was offered the Wisconsin job, lasted three seasons and went 3-26-1.
In Schembechler's first season at Michigan, he faced Coatta at Wisconsin for the only time. Michigan hammered Wisconsin 35-7.
The story behind Knight's near-hire is equally maddening for Badgers fans. In 1968, he was a coach on the rise at Army and arrived in Madison as one of seven candidates to appear before the athletics board for the vacant men's basketball coaching position. The previous coach, John Erickson, had resigned to become general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Knight wowed the board and was offered the Wisconsin job. There is some dispute as to whether he outright accepted the position or whether he asked simply for more time to think about it upon his return to West Point -- which he claimed was the case in his book, Knight: My Story. Either way, he was not prepared for school officials to leak any news of his hiring to a local newspaper. That move, however, is exactly what happened.
"Almost as soon as I left, they announced me as their new coach," Knight said in his book. "When I arrived home at West Point, I heard what they had done. Now, I was in a hell of a spot. I was up all night trying to figure out what I should do."
The only person Knight could think of to run his decision by was Schembechler, who was still coaching at Miami (Ohio). Schembechler had served as an assistant to Woody Hayes when Knight was in school at Ohio State, and Knight was aware of his situation one year earlier at Wisconsin.
"I told him how Wisconsin had released my name as the new coach before I'd had a chance to talk to them about what was necessary for them to do -- that I'd have liked to take the job but I didn't think I could, under those circumstances," Knight said. "He listened to everything I said, then told me, 'Just call them and tell them you have no interest in the job.' I did."
John Powless, an assistant under Erickson and a compromise choice, was given the Wisconsin job on the same day Knight turned it down. Knight returned to Army for three more seasons, then moved on to Indiana in 1971.
Powless coached at Wisconsin from 1968-76 and posted a record of 88-108 (.449 winning percentage) in eight years. During the same eight-year period, Knight's teams went 176-49 (.782 winning percentage). And in 1975-76, Powless' final year at Wisconsin, Knight's Indiana team finished 32-0 and won the NCAA championship. No Division I team has completed a perfect season since.
Knight would win 902 games over his hall of fame coaching career, capturing three NCAA championships while with Indiana.
Knight recalled that about 20 years after he spurned the Badgers, an alumnus of Wisconsin approached him at a golf course and asked for his version of what happened when he almost became Wisconsin's coach. He told the man about his situation and the one a year earlier with Schembechler
"If Wisconsin had handled both situations a little better, Bo and I might have been coaching there together for a long time," Knight told him.
After relaying the story, Knight could sense disgruntlement on the alum's face. "I think the football part bothered him the most," he said.