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Wisconsin's secret weapon against Ohio State: Camp Randall Stadium

MADISON, Wis. -- David Gilreath never planned on becoming a Wisconsin Badger. Instead, he arrived for a visit intent on reaffirming his commitment to Minnesota. The wide receiver prospect attended high school 12 miles from the Metrodome and hadn't experienced a college game anywhere else.

Then, he witnessed the power of Camp Randall Stadium.

"You get a sense of what college football is supposed to be like as far as the fans," said Gilreath, who found himself looking into the stands as much as he watched Wisconsin beat Penn State back in 2006. "Being out there, it was pretty crazy, seeing the Jump Around, seeing the wave they do, seeing the chants, how packed it was. I wasn't used to that. I remember that being the main factor. That was one of the main factors of saying I'm going to Wisconsin -- the stadium."

So it was only fitting that four years later, Gilreath would be responsible for producing one of the most memorable and loudest plays in the stadium's long history when he returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against No. 1 Ohio State. As the crowd of 81,194 erupted under the lights of a primetime matchup, the ground shook beneath Gilreath's cleats. It felt, Gilreath said, like a movie starring the players. They rode that emotion to a 31-18 upset victory, and students stormed the field to share in the revelry with the team.

"I think it has to be one of the best atmospheres in college football," Gilreath said. "This is a huge stage you're on, and fans are right on top of you. It overwhelms the other players a little bit."

The X's and O's are important. Camp Randall Stadium, however, could represent one of No. 8 Wisconsin's biggest advantages when No. 2 Ohio State visits Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ABC). The Badgers' playoff dreams are at stake, and they're listed as a 10.5-point underdog. But, as Gilreath or anyone else who has played there will tell you, don't overlook the Camp Randall affect, particularly at night.

"It was pretty nuts for a 3:30 kick," said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose last visit there was a 2012 overtime victory. "It's going to be loud -- really loud."

Camp Randall Stadium, the fourth-oldest facility in the FBS, provides a home-field advantage that is generally considered among the best in the country. Since the start of the 2004 season, Wisconsin has compiled a 75-9 record there (.893 winning percentage). Among Power 5 programs, only Ohio State (80-9, .899) has won a higher percentage of its home games in that time frame.

During big night games, when Camp Randall is the center of the nation's attention as it will be Saturday, the place is notably manic. It's so loud even Jim Harbaugh was speechless back when he played at Michigan. And with all due respect to Virginia Tech's heavy metal entrance from Metallica's "Enter Sandman" or Tennessee's rendition of "Rocky Top," nobody rocks like Wisconsin when "Jump Around" blares through the stereo system.

Come for the football, stay for the party and even walk home through a Civil War camp. When you say Wis-con-sin, you've said it all.

"There's a game that's labeled homecoming, but every game is a homecoming, I think, for people at Camp Randall," said Matt Lepay, in his 23rd season as the Badgers' football radio play-by-play announcer. "It's a social gathering, and the fact the team has been pretty good more often than not makes it that much better. It's more than a football game that gets people there."

'This is the longest delay I have ever seen because of crowd noise'

Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh backed away from center, pointed toward a referee and placed his hands on his hips, incredulous as boos rained down with strength and vitriol.

It was Oct. 4, 1986, and No. 4 Michigan was in town to face Wisconsin in the first night game in Camp Randall Stadium history. The Badgers weren't a particularly good team, but damned if the 75,898 fans in attendance weren't going to turn the event into a raucous occasion.

As Harbaugh drove Michigan in the third quarter toward the north end zone and Wisconsin's student section, the collective roar reached an ear-splitting decibel level, to the point that Harbaugh claimed teammates could not hear his signals. For 10 minutes, Harbaugh repeated the process of crouching under center, walking away and then trying again, only to complain to officials. It marked the second occasion that night in which he delayed the game. Each time, the crowd grew more incensed.

"This is the longest delay I've ever seen because of crowd noise," an announcer said on the television broadcast.

Camp Randall Stadium has become known as one of the rowdiest venues in the Big Ten, if not the country, because of a fan base that exudes passion -- even if that passion can occasionally manifest itself in detrimental ways. Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry once called Camp Randall the "worst place in the world" to take a visiting team to play, which occurred after he said eggs were thrown at coaches and players, and beer and peppermint schnapps were poured on the team as well.

Still, the electric atmosphere that pings through the stadium during big games is usually unforgettable, as it was 30 years ago, when Michigan coach Bo Schembechler bemoaned the "ridiculously loud" noise and chastised the entire Wisconsin crowd.

"I promise you, I will not allow the Michigan crowd to do that, and they won't," he told reporters afterward. "People who come into our stadium are treated courteously."

The incident was eerily similar to a November game six years earlier, when Michigan quarterback John Wangler refused to snap the ball inside Camp Randall because of excessive crowd noise. Seven times, Wangler backed away from the line of scrimmage, as Michigan faced a fourth-and-one at the Wisconsin 4-yard line.

Following two warnings, referee Glenn Fortin assessed Wisconsin a timeout on the third occasion. Then, he took away the Badgers' second and third timeouts. When those punishments failed, Fortin handed out two delay-of-game penalties, moving the ball to the 2-yard line and then the 1. Michigan scored the next play on a run from tailback Butch Woolfolk.

"I was in the stands," former Wisconsin athletics director and Badgers All-American receiver Pat Richter recalled. "I remember seeing a friend of ours come racing down the stairway and I'm thinking, 'What the hell is he doing?' He got down around the fences behind the bench. He was hollering at Schembechler. He was madder than the dickens.

"Only Bo could have gotten something like that. All you need to do is warn the fans it's too noisy. You know what you're going to get. It was quite the scene."

Even the first documented complaints of excessive crowd noise at a college football game trace their roots back to Madison. According to the David M. Nelson book "The Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules and the Men who Made the Game," famed Chicago Maroons coach Amos Alonzo Stagg claimed his team didn't win a 1914 game at Randall Field because of overzealous fans.

Chicago's left end, John Vruwink, became rattled because several Wisconsin supporters were cheering loudly with megaphones near the corner of the end zone. Instead of holding a block for his fullback, he pulled into the backfield amid the hysteria and collided heads with him. The game ended in a 0-0 tie, in what Nelson wrote, "may have been the first outdoors crowd-noise interference."

After all these years, some things never change.

'Kevin cranked that on, and the place went nuts'

Ryan Sondrup's football career had ended prematurely because of an injury, and the former Badgers tight end began his last school year yearning for a way to fill the void. When he opted for a volunteer role with Wisconsin's athletic marketing department in 1998, he couldn't have known that search would spawn one of the great traditions in college football.

Sondrup, who spent three seasons on the team, believed part of the game-day experience felt stale and inquired with his bosses about how to enhance fan involvement. The response: Create a list of ideas and get back to us. Several concepts fell by the wayside, but one that seemed feasible to Sondrup was compiling a CD playlist to amp up the crowd.

One night at Wando's, a popular downtown bar and grill, Sondrup and a few friends on the team began scrolling through the Jukebox. Up popped House of Pain's 1992 hit "Jump Around," a song with a high-energy introduction that encouraged everyone to -- what else? -- jump around.

Eyebrows raised, and the group shared a collective thought: Hey, this could be something.

"That was our big moment, our big momentum-building idea to get the student section raucous, so to speak," Sondrup said.

Sondrup presented his playlist to Kevin Kluender, an assistant marketing director at Wisconsin. Earlier in the season, Kluender had been searching for the right entertainment combination before the fourth quarter began. The stadium featured a primitive message board with a student section race, the dots ticking frame-by-frame across the screen. Kluender would follow up by playing a random song.

But everything changed during Wisconsin's only home night game that season on Oct. 10, 1998, against Purdue. Boilermakers quarterback Drew Brees was in the process of setting an NCAA passing record by completing 55 of 83 throws, and the game had begun to drag on. After the third quarter, Kluender scanned Sondrup's playlist trying to liven up the fan base. He settled on "Jump Around."

"My back was sort of to the student section a little bit," Kluender said. "I could see that people are pointing and looking. I turned around and saw everyone jumping. It just kind of looked like popcorn. You had never seen anything like that."

Added Sondrup: "Kevin cranked that on, and the place went nuts."

The stadium shook and the press box swayed, infusing a new energy into Camp Randall. Wisconsin went on to win the game 31-24 on its way to a Rose Bowl appearance.

Kluender played the song during Wisconsin's final two home games, but it wasn't until the following season when he realized what a gem the school had on its hands. Even during nonconference blowouts against overmatched opponents, students stayed in their seats just so they could bob their heads and hop up and down to "Jump Around."

Controversy briefly followed in 2003, when Richter, then the athletics director, asked for the song not to be played in the home opener against Akron because the stadium was under construction, and he feared the shaking could be dangerous. Outrage reached such high levels that Chancellor John D. Wiley was forced to step in. He announced "Jump Around" could be played the next week during a home game against UNLV after a study determined the building would remain structurally sound.

"Man, you should've seen the people when the song didn't happen," Richter said. "All of a sudden, boos. I got emails and letters from people saying, 'It's a right that we have.' It didn't take long for the administration to change it. I said, 'This is a good way to leverage some of the profanity that will happen if you don't play Jump Around.' The administration decided to bite the bullet."

In the years since, "Jump Around" has been cemented as a staple, alongside renditions of "Sweet Caroline" and "Build me up Buttercup." It has quickly become considered one of the best traditions in college football, and Saturday will mark the 91st consecutive home game in which "Jump Around" is played, providing an energy jolt that is difficult to replicate elsewhere.

"You see other stadiums try to do it," Sondrup said. "They'll play 'Jump Around,' and you kind of laugh. To see the student section embrace it, I think it's that energy of Camp Randall. They're the ones that took it and ran with it and made it what it is. It's just a great place to play."

'There is certainly a mystique'

When Daniel Einstein overlays sketches of Camp Randall Stadium with the area as it existed 152 years ago, a historical significance surfaces that separates the edifice from every other in college football.

There, lining up perfectly in the student section on the field's north side, is where a group of barracks was built for enlisted Union men during the Civil War. The space for the stadium's luxury suites once served as a hillside headquarters for Camp Randall military operations.

"When the football players are marching down the field, they are following in the footsteps of the military parade ground during the Civil War period," said Einstein, the historic and cultural resources manager at the University of Wisconsin.

"Most people don't have an awareness of the precise cohabitation of the present activities with the Civil War activities. I wouldn't say that the level of awareness is very high. But there is certainly a mystique."

From 1861-65, roughly 70,000 enlisted men came through the complex -- nearly as many people as what fills the stadium on game days now. Camp Randall differed from many Civil War training grounds because it was used temporarily as a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. At the end of April 1862, 1,400 Confederate soldiers, captured at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, were brought back to Camp Randall. The roughly 140 who died in Madison from battlefield injuries are buried at the northernmost Confederate cemetery in the United States.

Following the Civil War, the land again became the state fairgrounds. When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant visited the site 15 years later, he called the transformation "a symbol of beating the spears of war into the plowshares of peace."

In 1893, veterans successfully lobbied to have the land donated to the university as a memorial athletic site. Veterans settled on "camp" instead of "field" to preserve the memory of the venue. Football was first played at Camp Randall in 1895, and construction of the current stadium began in 1913. The stadium became fully functional in 1917 and has increased in seating capacity from 10,000 to 80,321. All the while, its connection to the past has endured.

A memorial arch was erected and dedicated in 1912 to the Civil War veterans who enlisted from Wisconsin. The arch serves as the entrance to Camp Randall Memorial Park -- a historic site listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- as well as the entrance to Camp Randall Stadium for the school's marching band on football Saturdays.

"It's not just a park," Einstein said. "It's a place where veterans returned. They actually came back for a 75th reunion. This was guys in their 90s coming back to Camp Randall to remember the comrades that died in that Civil War. It was a special place, and we ought to respect it."

'That's part of the mystery of the Wisconsin fan ... We get all these people to do crazy things'

Devotion is 40,000 fans braving bitter cold and a three-hour football game to stay for a 20-minute performance from the school's band so they can participate in the largest Chicken Dance you've ever seen. Mike Leckrone has witnessed the madness, known as "The Fifth Quarter," up close for decades as Wisconsin's band director. Yet explaining the popularity of those postgame shows remains elusive.

"That's part of the mystery of the Wisconsin fan," Leckrone said. "We get all these people to do crazy things, and they've done it for years and years. I don't know that they've ever been able to do anything quite like it anywhere else in the country. People have called me and said, 'Tell me about this Fifth Quarter.'

"Wisconsin fans are very gregarious, and what we try to do is feed on that and give them some things back that they can pick up on and then have fun with us, too."

Leckrone arrived in 1969 to serve as director of the school's marching band and took over as director of the entire band in 1975 -- a role he holds today at age 80. During the early years, the football team inspired little confidence while in the midst of a 20-game winless streak. On-campus protests during the Vietnam War meant few students were interested in wearing a uniform and marching military style. But Leckrone, whose childhood fantasy was to lead a Big Ten band down the field, never wavered in his enthusiasm while leading postgame shows despite minimal interest.

Curiosity started to pique during a famous 1978 home football game against Oregon. The band had begun rotating through a series of commercial jingles, including the Budweiser tune, "Here Comes the King," with a style imitative of a typical German band. Leckrone seized on the opportunity after fans previously showed great interest in the Beer Barrel Polka. With the help of his band, Leckrone convinced students to change the lyrics from "When you say Budweiser, you've said it all," to "When you say Wisconsin, you've said it all."

During that Oregon game, he played the song on multiple occasions and worked the crowd into a fervor, which coincided with a Wisconsin comeback victory. The song became such a hit that the upper deck of Camp Randall Stadium swayed when it was played, prompting then-athletics director Elroy Hirsch to tell Leckrone not to play the song during games.

Instead, Leckrone had the public address speaker make an announcement that it would not be played until five minutes after the game had completed to allow concerned fans to exit, intentionally making a big fuss to spotlight his band's postgame show. The momentum for the song led local sports writer Glenn Miller to dub the performance "The Fifth Quarter" -- a name that has stuck ever since. The shows became so popular in lean football seasons that Leckrone noted more fans arrived at the end of the game than during.

"What Mike has done there through the years means a lot to people with the game-day experience," said Lepay, the longtime radio announcer. "When you see the band, you see they're having a good time. They're getting involved. The fans see that, they know that, and they like to have a lot of fun with it."

Leckrone has continued to find ways to entertain fans over the years, expanding the band's repertoire. He incorporated the "Chicken Dance" after the school's crew coach, Randy Jablonic, returned from a trip to Europe and suggested Leckrone play it at games. In the 1980s, several of his band members began mimicking Pee Wee Herman's "Tequila Dance," and the song quickly found its way into the postgame performance. His biggest failure, he said, was a rendition of the Macarena that students booed because they were fatigued of its popularity in the 1990s.

While Leckrone can't fully express why the band's performance has become so important to fans, its role in enhancing the game-day atmosphere has proven to be nearly as vital as the actual game.

"We have about 20 minutes of solid stuff that is just foolishness in a lot of ways," Leckrone said. "But it's fun stuff."

The party pulls into town again Saturday for a top-10 battle with playoff implications, and football will only be half the fun. Welcome to Camp Randall Stadium.