From Japan to Green Bay: Why the Wisconsin Badgers are finally ready to take their Lambeau leap
MADISON, Wis. — If you want a table at Brett Favre’s Steakhouse in Green Bay next week, your best option is a slot before Thursday dinner, fingers and toes crossed.
Your second-best? Kiss next week off altogether.
“I know the gentleman who runs (the) restaurant,” Bob Harlan, the Green Bay Packers’ chairman emeritus, told Landof10.com. “And he told me three or four months ago that LSU’s Alumni Association had totally rented out their restaurant the Thursday night before the game. They’re going to fill up every single seat and every single table in the restaurant.
“I’ve talked to hotels as far as Appleton and Oshkosh, and they’re all filled up with LSU fans. So it’s really amazing, the number of people coming from Louisiana.”
Harlan doesn’t have a dog in the fight, but the circus along Lombardi Avenue on Sept. 3 — Wisconsin meeting LSU at historic Lambeau Field, ESPN Gameday pulling up the trucks and the talent, legions of red and packs of bayou purple streaming north — might not have happened without him.
The road to Badgers-Tigers starts, in many ways, some 16 years ago, with Harlan, one of the most unassuming and powerful football men in a football-mad, football-proud state, going door-to-door, metaphorical hat in metaphorical hand. At the time, Harlan was canvassing the locals, trying drum up grassroots support for public funding — a half-cent increase in sales tax — to renovate Lambeau Field.
The measure passed in the fall of 2000, 53 percent to 47, but not without scars along the way. When the word “tax” is involved, earth gets scorched, the kind and neighborly sprout fangs, blood pressures start running high and middle ground is scarce.
In order to pass a referendum, Harlan explained, the city told its beloved NFL franchise that Lambeau needed to be used for more than just 10-12 Packers games every fall and winter, that it needed to serve as a community magnet for entertainment options beyond pro football — even beyond sports.
“People are saying that this game is going to bring in more revenue than a Packers weekend,” said Harlan, the club’s former president and CEO (1989-2006), chairman and CEO (2006-07) and president (2007). “A Packers weekend is about $13 million.
“The concerts we’ve had have been extremely successful. And if this football game is extremely successful, I’m sure the community will want to do more.”
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It’s not so much the history as it is the rarity. Ground was broken on Lambeau 60 years ago, in October 1956, and the building officially opened the next September. But next weekend marks only the fourth collegiate game ever held at the NFL’s most historic venue, and the first in Green Bay since 1983, when nearby St. Norbert (Wis.) College knocked off Fordham, alma mater of Packers icon Vince Lombardi, 18-9.
That was the second in a two of contests dubbed “The Vince Lombardi Memorial Game,” with proceeds used to raise funds for the Vince Lombardi Colon Clinic. St. Norbert — a Division III program in De Pere, Wisc., and host to the Packers’ training camp since 1958 — won the 1982 matchup at Lambeau as well, 14-10.
Big college programs like to give up home football games as often as Popeye likes to give up spinach; In most FBS locales, fall Saturdays are the financial lifeblood of an athletic department, a pledge drive with a pep band. The Packers reportedly paid Wisconsin $3 million for hosting the game. The NFL club is assuming all operating costs but also gets to keep the ticket, parking and concessions kitty.
The Packers hosted two preseason games in mid-August but don’t play at Lambeau again until a Week 3 visit from Detroit on Sept. 25.
“It’s unbelievable what (a home game) makes to a community,” Harlan said. “For example, when we were going through our referendum in 2000, (while) we were doing the stadium, (they) said to me, ‘Would you take the team out of town for one year?’
“And I said, ‘Absolutely not. If it takes an extra year to build it, we’ve got to do it.’ And my two biggest reasons were, first of all, it’s not good for your team, because now you’re on taking your team on the road for 16 straight weeks. And second, it’s not good for the community, because I know every business in this town budgets for those 10 weekends. You take those 10 weekends away from these businesses, for some of them, it might lead to their downfall.
“But I would never take (the Packers) out of town. And I know what that means to Madison to lose a Wisconsin (home) game, absolutely.”
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It’s not so much the rarity as it is the dignity. Since 1936, the Badgers are 4-5 in regular-season neutral site contests, dropping three of their last five — including a 34-0 flogging at the hands of Syracuse at the 1997 Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J.
A Wisconsin college football team has never lost at Lambeau; Badgers coach Paul Chryst, a native son, cheese to the last, damn well doesn’t want to be in the cockpit of the first.
To that end, Chryst did something very savvy in April, moving a spring practice from campus to the Packers’ indoor facility, the Don Hutson Center, and giving his kids a chance to grasp a feel for the place, to let their hair down, to soak up the history, and to get their Lambeau Leaps and sillies out of the way.
Of the 116 players currently listed on the Badgers’ roster, 54 of them — 46.6 percent, roughly half the squad — are Wisconsin natives. Lambeau is hallowed ground.
“Yeah, I think that pressure kind of settled down when we actually made our trip to Green Bay in the offseason,” Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel said. “We were able to stay in the same hotel we (will) on game day. We were able to stay and practice in the same locker room that we will on game day. We were able to check out the facilities, we were able to check out Lambeau Field.
“So for us, the jitters and the nerves kind of calmed down. There was a sense of peace at that time. But as we get closer to game day, our emotions will start ramping back up.”
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It’s not so much the dignity as it is the sanctity. Pat Richter has walked more than a few miles on both sides of the fence, serving as the athletic director at Wisconsin from 1989 to 2004 and as a member of the Packers’ board of directors since 1996.
“Quite frankly, it was never talked about as far as having a ‘marquee matchup,’ so to speak — whether somebody was willing to give up a game and you could play somebody that comes with enough television (interest) and that big of a fan interest,” Ricther recalled. “I think, over time, that changed a great deal.
“I think a lot of teams realized, in order to get into (the College Football Playoff), you have to play a tougher schedule, and they’re willing to go to a neutral site and play an Alabama and an LSU and the things like that that happen now.”
The Badgers have ventured into the exotic before. Then-football-coach Barry Alvarez and Richter arranged to move the final 1993 conference game against Michigan State — “The Coca-Cola Classic” — to Tokyo. Designed as a destination event for a program that hadn’t seen a bowl berth since 1984, it was instead where the Badgers clinched their first Big Ten title since 1962, stomping the Spartans 41-20.
“The Japan game was scheduled because we really didn’t think we were going to be in a bowl game and I think (Barry) felt he could recruit with it,” Richter said of that season, which ended with the Badgers topping UCLA in the Rose Bowl 21-16. “And it turned out when we were over there, we gave up a home game, (but) it turned out that it was a special environment, winning there and coming back to the stadium, the (campus), the people — it was really terrific in that regard.
“But with Lambeau, it’s always been kind of a sacred thing.”
Sacred. Consecrated. Cherished.
“Yeah, it really is,” offered linebacker Jack Cichy, a native of Somerset, Wis. “I’ve been to two or three games there, and obviously, it’s yellow and green when it’s there.
“It’s going to be neat to walk out of that tunnel to just a sea of red. I think the natives from Wisconsin, myself included, are going to be excited to get after it and be able to just experience that there.”
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It’s not so much the sanctity as it is the party. Lambeau game days often resemble an oversized Texas or Ohio high school stadium on a Friday, with all the smells and joys and pride that come bundled in the package. Grills trail almost every vehicle, dotting parking space after parking space the way a circle dots the letter ‘i.’
“It’s the closest thing in the NFL to a college football atmosphere,” Harlan said. “Once a year, we have the Wisconsin marching band up to entertain both before and at halftime and do the Fifth Quarter after the game and the whole stadium seems like it has a different atmosphere because of that college band. It’s unbelievable how it changes the atmosphere. There’s just something about it. This is very close to a college atmosphere and we’ve always sold that.”
Door to door. Face to face. Kielbasa to kielbasa. Soul to soul. Alvarez, now Wisconsin’s athletic director, has said he’s discussed with the Packers the notion of hosting another Badgers contest down the road, while the football club continues to angle for more events at Lambeau — pitching for the Big Ten Championship Game and bidding to host the NFL Draft in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
“I think it could happen in the future,” Harlan said. “I don’t know how difficult it is with college schedules, with conference obligations and everything. I think, first of all, the city is going to demand that, if this is a huge success and it brings the kind of revenue (expected), the city is going to want to have a repeat of this kind of game again. There’s not any doubt about that. And I think the fact that ESPN Gameday is coming out here says something about the site, and I know the city and the fans are going to say, ‘Let’s do this again.’”
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler