Those Early 70s Saturdays

October 11, 1969: The Wisconsin Badgers, riding a 23-game winless streak, get a late touchdown pass from Neil Graff to Randy Marks and beat Iowa 23-16. It’s the first win for the Badgers since the 1966 season finale, a streak eased only by a tie with Iowa in 1967.

November 23, 1974: The Badgers meet Minnesota in their traditional season finale. Wisconsin tailback Bill Marek rushes for 304 yards and five touchdowns as the Badgers destroy the Gophers, 49-14. The Badgers end the ’74 season with seven wins and four losses, their first winning season since 1963.

I saw both of those games. They weren’t on TV, and I didn’t have a ticket—but they were on the radio, and that was enough.

Bob Miller was the play-by-play man who described the Iowa game. Two weeks later, I’d hear him call the tense final minutes of the game against Indiana, as Wisconsin fought to protect a two-point lead. I can hear him even now, repeating the score over and over again: “Wisconsin 36, Indiana 34.” Miller wasn’t long for Wisconsin sports after 1969. In 1973, he became the play-by-play voice of the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings, a post he still holds today.

By 1974, my voice of the Badgers was Earl Gillespie, a Wisconsin sports legend who broadcast the Milwaukee Braves on radio from 1953 through 1963 before going into TV. By the 70s, he did Badger games on a statewide radio network, and his voice was as much a part of my youth as those of Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, and the rest of my Top 40 heroes. His color man was Ted Moore, who had a significant claim to fame of his own as the man at the mike during the Green Bay Packers’ glory years of the 1960s. Together, Gillespie and Moore provided the soundtrack for several years of autumn Saturdays.  Gillespie would say “First down for Bucky Badger!,” and introduce commercial breaks by saying, “Now before the next kickoff, listen to this.”

Those early 70s Saturdays had their own rhythm. Games almost always kicked off at 1:00. Around halftime, East Coast scores would come trickling in, from places like Harvard and Holy Cross. At halftime of home games, the broadcasters would always pause so the fans at home could hear the fans at the game sing Wisconsin’s traditional song, “Varsity.” And late in the season, the games would end as night began to fall. So it was on the day Marek blew up the Gophers—although his touchdown record has been tied, no Wisconsin running back has ever gone for more yards on a single day.

Not even Rufus “the Roadrunner” Ferguson, my first Badger hero. He almost did it, however, during the first Badger game I ever attended at Camp Randall Stadium, against Syracuse on September 23, 1972. He went for well over 200 yards rushing in a 31-7 win, and would have cracked 300 if a long touchdown run hadn’t been called back by penalty. It was the only time I ever saw him play—at least with my own eyes. The Badgers were never on television in those days, so all most fans knew of Ferguson came to us over the radio.

I’ve been a Wisconsin football season-ticket holder since 2004. One of my favorite memories from more recent seasons is from the day the Roadrunner came back to Madison. During a halftime ceremony in his honor, he broke out his famous touchdown dance, the Rufus Shuffle. The ovation threatened to shake the old stadium to the ground—a greater ovation, I think, than the one received by a more recent Badger hero, Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1999. Or at least I think it was greater. Maybe it seemed greater to me because Ferguson was a hero to the 12-year-old me the way Dayne couldn’t have been to the me-pushing-40.

Some people say baseball is the best sport on the radio. They could be right. But when I think of my favorite radio sports broadcasts, they’re all football games.

Also: Today at Popdose, there’s another edition of One Day in Your Life.

4 responses

  1. Oh man!!!! You just brought back some really great memories. Do you remember this one?….Wisconsin playing #2 Nebraska in 1973. I can still picture being with my Dad and listening to that game on the radio in a little office he kept in a farm machine shed in Belmont. It was 7-7 in the 4th quarter when Nebraska kicked a field goal to go in front, 10-7. Earl Gillespie took a commercial break and when he returned, he said…”Well, while we were away, Selvie Washington returned the kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.(actually it was 96 yards) The Badgers now lead 14-10.” Nebraska would come back to win that game 20-16, but the Badgers got revenge the following year with a 21-10 win on national television. Wow! What great memories!

  2. Wow. I had to do a bit of research, but I knew I recognized the name Neil Graff. Sure enough, I saw him play in a couple games for Pittsburgh in ’77.

  3. My alma mater was NCAA Division III. Our campus radio station was a joke but our football team was respectable (they won the Div. III National Championship in 1994) and the guys who did the play-by-play & color commentary, Pat O’Connell & Bob Bruner were both classmates of mine. The humor they injected into their coverage made listening quite enjoyable. When the refs would talk to one another O’Connell & Bruner said they were arguing over which toppings to order for their post-game pizza. Not funny in and of itself. But they had good pacing & rhythm making even the lamest of jokes seem much funnier than they actually were.

    For the pros, I only tend to listen to Red Wings & Penguins hockey games on NHL.com (from the local radio feeds of those teams) and the Cleveland Browns (although this season, with their 1-8 record thus far I’m not wasting my time with them).

  4. And then there were the names…Alan “A-Train” Thompson, Neovia Greyer, Ken Starch, Greg “Grape Juice” Johnson, Rick Barrios, Vladamir LaBunn (of course, he was the place-kicker), Neil Graff, Rudy Steiner, and Larry Mialick…just to name a few.

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