Weekend showcases Wisconsin's athletic prowess

MADISON, Wis. -- It's a scene right out of a college brochure.

A sun-splashed Saturday morning is framed by the autumnal technicolor of green, red, orange and gold leaves.

The primary color in play is the hometown favorite as thousands of cardinal-clad Badgers fans make their way toward historic Camp Randall Stadium.

It's only 8:30 a.m., but time isn't a deterrent as the grills are smoking and the beverages are flowing, and in the background you can hear the legendary Wisconsin band warming up for another day of revelry in the north end zone.

Kickoff between the host Badgers and border rival Minnesota is still nearly three hours away. On the line are bragging rights in the most-played series in Division I-A (116 games and counting) and a not-so-little wooden trophy known as Paul Bunyan's Axe.

But it's more than that: This picturesque campus, the centerpiece of Wisconsin's capital city, will host six sporting events over three days.

It's Homecoming in Madison. And it might be the perfect college sports weekend.

A Bronze God
Fifteen hours earlier, there was a deep chill in the air and the threat of snow flurries hung overhead.

As a kickoff to the homecoming festivities, a small crowd gathered at Gate 1 outside Camp Randall for the unveiling of a bronze sculpture of the architect of the current athletics renaissance that is being enjoyed at Wisconsin.

"This crowd reminds me of the crowd we had at that last home game in 1989," former athletic director Pat Richter said.

The line got a laugh from the dignitaries, family and friends assembled to honor Barry Alvarez.

Richter, who helped hire Alvarez in December 1989 to try to save the Badgers' moribund football program, couldn't help but smile. His recommendation turned out to provide the foundation for a complete rebuilding of UW athletics.

In Alvarez's 16 years patrolling the Wisconsin sidelines, he amassed 118 wins, three Big Ten championships and three Rose Bowl titles. In the process, he restored a sense of pride that is evident on campus and throughout the Badgers state.

"I'm thrilled that we are able to honor Barry in this way," UW Chancellor John Wiley said of the 6-foot, 300-pound sculpture. "He has made very significant contributions to not only the athletic department, but the university as a whole. This sculpture will serve as a permanent reminder of his commitment to excellence as Wisconsin's football coach."

This year, Alvarez has traded in his coaching duties to concentrate on his role as director of athletics, a department that has more than 300 employees and an operating budget in excess of $70 million.

"I love coming to work everyday," Alvarez said. "It's the greatest feeling in the world. I have truly lived my dream, and it's not over yet."

And he joked that he could now wave to himself every morning as heads into his office inside Kellner Hall -- which is attached to Camp Randall and is just steps past his new bronze likeness.

A Banner Day
Take a 10-minute walk down Dayton Street and you'll arrive at the Kohl Center, a $76 million state-of-the-art building that is the home of the Wisconsin basketball and hockey teams.

As the hockey team prepared to play North Dakota, the nearly 15,000 who would be in attendance for the home opener were just as anxious for what would happen before the puck was dropped as they were for the latest renewal of one of the WCHA's best rivalries.

Wisconsin, the No. 2-ranked team in the country, celebrated its 2006 national championship one final time when it unveiled the latest championship banner.

At 7:29 p.m., just after the video montage of the best highlights from the Badgers' sixth national title were played, the banner was unfurled from above the student section to a loud roar from the fans and a loud pyrotechnics display from the rafters.

"The coaching staff, to a man, said they had goose bumps," head coach Mike Eaves said. "The fans knew the plays and when the plays were shown, a crescendo of noise would rise. It was very emotional. You tell the kids to enjoy the moment and then you have to turn the switch. That's a difficult thing to do.

"But it's good to get going. One thing about the offseason is you get pulled in a lot of directions. Now we're back to a routine. It's done. Now we can move forward."

Or in the case of this Friday the 13th game, possibly take a step (or three) backward.

The Badgers not only suffered a tough 3-2 overtime loss to UND but also lost three key players to injuries along the way. Ross Carlson (knee), Jack Skille (elbow) and Kyle Klubertanz (thigh) could all miss extended time, which would put an added burden on a nine-man freshmen class to grow up in a hurry.

"For the younger guys, it was their first time at the Kohl Center, and that's a heck of way to start here and see that," assistant captain Jake Dowell said. "The noise that the fans were making and the banner being [lowered] and how exciting that was; I'm sure there were some jitters and I think it was tough for them."

The Badgers recovered with a hard-fought 1-0 win over the Fighting Sioux on Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd of 15,237 to earn a series split and retain their No. 2 national ranking.

Field (House) of Dreams
At the opposite end of the shiny glass and steel superstructure spectrum is the Wisconsin Field House, home of the Badgers' volleyball and wrestling teams.

Opened in 1930 and adjacent to the south end of Camp Randall, the cream-colored brick building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Walking into the Field House is like walking into a time warp or a scene from "Hoosiers." The crowd was a surprising electric mix of older fans and families with young kids -- many of whom lined the court to give and receive high fives from the Badgers' players as they were announced.

On Friday night, the 14th-ranked Badgers used a quick start and several runs to sweep No. 9 Purdue 3-0 (30-12, 30-20, 31-29) in front of 4,002 at the Field House.

"Playing in the Field House is one of the greatest parts of Badger volleyball," head coach Pete Waite said. "The size of our crowds and the history of the building are known nationwide. The Field House and the fans are two of the major reasons that top recruits say they want to play for Wisconsin."

The Badgers returned to the Field House on Sunday afternoon and were greeted by a season-high crowd of 7,064 and a 3-0 weep of Indiana (30-9, 30-17, 30-27).

Wisconsin is averaging 4,341 fans per match at the Field House, which ranks second nationally behind Hawaii.

It should be noted that there are hundreds of Division I men's basketball teams that don't average 4,300 fans.

Embracing the Expectations
It's barely 7:30 Saturday morning, but most of the Wisconsin men's basketball players are already dressed and ready 15 minutes early for a team meeting that will mark the official start of practice for the 2006-07 season.

One of the first players out of the dressing area is the Badgers' all-everything forward, Alando Tucker. The senior from Lockport, Ill., is a leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year and should show up on several All-America teams.

As Tucker goes, so goes Wisconsin. And he clearly understands that his role is to take advantage of the vacuum in the Big Ten this season.

"We definitely have worked our way to the top [of the conference]," Tucker said. "Nationally, we're noticed now and being compared to some of the better teams out there. We definitely want to win a Big Ten title, but ever since I've been to the Elite Eight, I've wanted to get further before I left.

"Last year we had some setbacks with some guys being ineligible, but we definitely think we have a chance to make it to the Final Four. We have that type of team, we have that type of depth, but everything has to come together."

Because there will be another hockey game later in the day, the Kohl Center isn't available for practice. So the Badgers head upstairs and across the lobby to the attached Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion that serves as a practice gym for both basketball teams.

The players entered the gym just before 8 a.m. and, after stretching for a few minutes, began a two-hour practice that is as old school as their head coach Bo Ryan.

The Badgers' first practice focused on fundamentals. Passing. Dribbling. Footwork. And Ryan's trademark stifling defense -- highlighted by what's called a PITA (Pain In The Ass) drill. It takes nearly two hours before shots of any kind are taken, and the first ones are simply the byproduct of a defensive ball screens drill.

In his five years in Madison, Ryan's teams have won at least 19 games a season, including a school-record 25 wins in back-to-back seasons (2003-04 and 2004-05). But the Badgers are coming off of what some have described as a disappointing 19-win season -- which included the first winless postseason in Ryan's tenure.

When 19 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance are viewed as negatives, the expectations surrounding this program have clearly changed.

But that's part of the bargain when a rabid fan base has tasted a new level of success.

"The fans here are unbelievable," Ryan said. "Look at the sports that we've had on the national level that compete very well. It's a great place to be from that standpoint, and the fans are absolutely as supportive, or more supportive, than any I've seen. And that's OK.

"These guys better have high expectations. You want to compete at a high level."

Most preseason publications predict the Badgers to finish at or near the top of the Big Ten and also have them well into the upper half of the national top 25.

That helps to explain why Wisconsin's sellout streak will hit 71 games this season.

"Kiss Our Axe!"
The highlight of homecoming weekend centered around football, and the centerpiece of the Badgers' football program is venerable Camp Randall Stadium.

Built in 1917, and originally a training ground for Civil War soldiers, it's the fourth oldest college-owned stadium. It recently received a nearly $110 million renovation, giving it a perfect blend of history and modern amenities.

And Badgers fans help create quite a home-field advantage, thanks in part to 75 sellouts in the last 85 home games -- including 22 consecutive sellouts and counting.

One of the many game-day highlights in Madison -- not including the creative student section, the Bud Song or the band's Fifth Quarter celebration -- is "Jump Around." Between the third and fourth quarters, Camp Randall literally shakes as House of Pain's "Jump Around" is blared from the sound system and thousands of fans do as the song commands ("So get out your seats and jump around, jump around, jump up, jump up and get down. Jump.")

Since 2004, Wisconsin is a Big Ten best 15-1 at home, with the only loss coming last season versus Iowa in Alvarez's final home game.

"I had a couple of people that came to the hotel [Friday] night and talked about how crazy it was -- all the people and the traffic," head coach Bret Bielema said. "I knew the stadium would be wound for sound."

This 99th edition of UW's Homecoming welcomed the hated Gophers to Camp Randall.

But from the opening kickoff, there wasn't much fight in Goldy as the No. 25 Badgers rolled to a 28-3 halftime lead and eventually to a 48-12 win -- keeping Paul Bunyan's Axe in Madison for another year.

Leading the way was quarterback and Minnesota native John Stocco. The senior threw for 193 yards and a career-high four touchdowns -- including two to tight end Travis Beckum. And freshman sensation P.J. Hill ran for 164 yards and two TDs to highlight his sixth 100-yard performance of the season.

"I know all the seniors feel the same way -- having that ax stay here in our last go at them just feels great," Stocco said. "I was waiting for [the ax] well before it was over. I was getting my hands on that thing first. It is a big deal because it's a rivalry game, but you try not to make it bigger than it is."

The easy win improved Wisconsin to 6-1 (3-1 Big Ten) and made the Badgers bowl-eligible on the earliest date in school history. But Bielema -- whose philosophy is to go 1-0 each and every day of the season -- isn't about to get caught up in the midseason accomplishment.

"It's not going to change our approach," Bielema said. "One thing I've emphasized to those kids -- more than they want to hear -- is 1-0. But for every game that they are able to put in that win column, it's one step closer to where we want to be at the end of the year."

With Ohio State and Michigan conceivably headed to BCS bowls, it's likely that the Badgers will once again end up playing in a Jan. 1 bowl game.

After the game, Bielema was asked whether it was good to get all the off-field distractions out of the way and return the focus to what happens on the field. The first-year head coach paused and then looked quizzically because he had no idea what the reporter was talking about.

Earlier in the week, the Wisconsin band was put on probation for a series of misconducts during a September road trip to Michigan.

"I never talk to my guys about the band," Bielema said with a laugh. "I'm just worried about the football team. I know that athletic director Alvarez doesn't evaluate me on the band's performance, so all I'm worried about is the football team."

These days, there isn't a lot to worry about regarding athletics in Madison, because Wisconsin seems focused on the trappings of success -- namely sculptures, banners and trophies.

David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.