MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s 1994 football season opener was a largely uneventful 56-0 blowout victory against Eastern Michigan. The Badgers running back duo of Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher combined for 229 yards rushing with 6 touchdowns in a game that was over by halftime.
But another tandem was at work that day, whose names have become as synonymous with Badgers athletics in the minds of fans as any of the players. Up in the Camp Randall Stadium broadcast booth, play-by-play man Matt Lepay and color commentator Mike Lucas were busy calling their first game together for local radio station WIBA. Neither could have known then how their broadcast partnership would blossom.
“We had done some radio shows together, but not a lot,” Lepay said. “I felt like we knew each other pretty well. Working together, it’s never going to be perfectly smooth. But in terms of the chemistry, it seemed like it went reasonably well for our first time around.”
Twenty-three years later, they are still going strong as the voices of Wisconsin football and men’s basketball. Lepay estimates they have combined to call roughly 920 basketball games. They set a milestone last month, when they broadcast their 300th football game together on Sept. 16 during Wisconsin’s game at BYU. The two will call game No. 305 on Saturday when Wisconsin plays at Illinois.
“Neither one of us knew it was 300 games,” Lucas said. “I didn’t have a clue. Someone said, ‘Well what do you think about it?’ I said I was happy to get to Game 2 because that meant they asked me back. That’s the way I looked at it. And then I lost track of the count.”
The partnership was the brainchild of Vince Sweeney, who in 1994 was an associate athletic director at Wisconsin. The school was seeking an exclusive broadcast network and had “five or six bidders,” according to Sweeney. Ultimately, the athletic department chose Learfield Sports on the stipulation that Lepay and Lucas be paired together for both football and men’s basketball.
“The decision to put them together as a broadcast team for Wisconsin athletics ranks among the things I’m most proud of,” Sweeney said.
By then, Lucas and Lepay already had extensive broadcasting experience in the Madison market. Lucas, who attended the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s and wrote for both student newspapers, began his professional sports journalism career in 1971 at the Madison Capital Times, where he worked for the next 39 years. His first broadcast opportunities occurred in 1977 because the same company owned the radio station as well as the newspaper. He served as a color commentator for Badgers hockey games alongside Chuck Kaiton.
In the 1980s, Lucas began broadcasting football and basketball games on tape delay for WHA Wisconsin public television. And in 1988, he was a radio analyst for football games with announcer Paul Braun.
Sweeney had served as Lucas’ sports editor at the Capital Times from 1984-89 and knew how diligent a worker Lucas was as a reporter. Lucas was twice named the Wisconsin State Sports Writer of the Year. Sweeney filed that information away when choosing the Badgers color commentator.
Lepay, meanwhile, arrived in Madison in 1988 and broadcast men’s basketball games for WTSO. From 1989-93, he served as the pregame, halftime and postgame show host for football games as well. He paired with Lucas in ’94 when the rights moved to WIBA for football and basketball, and the rest is history. Lepay has gone on to become an eight-time Wisconsin State Sportscaster of the Year award winner.
“I think what they’ve done as far as delivering the stories of Wisconsin’s athletic success over their 300 broadcasts puts them in an icon status,” Sweeney said. “I really do. There were a lot of exciting times, and they did a remarkable job of sharing that with the Badger audiences over the years. I’m not sure anybody could have done it better than the two of them did.”
What makes the duo such a strong pairing is that they know how to play off each other’s strengths. Lucas said he considers Lepay to be one of the best broadcasters in the country at delivering an important call with just the right touch of flair and professionalism. Lucas, meanwhile, provides depth with his vast knowledge of Badgers athletics. Both men regularly attend practices and interview players and coaches to gain better insight into the programs.
“I always tell people I let Matt swing away and I pretty much stay out of the way,” said Lucas, who has been a senior writer for the school’s athletic website, UWBadgers.com, since 2010. “The last thing I want to do is step on his call. He’s great capturing the moment. I don’t need to be yelling or screaming in the background or butting in. That’s his time.
“I try to bring some knowledge in terms of personnel, some perspective, historical or otherwise. I think I know the game from all the years being around the sports, whether it be basketball or football.”
Their longevity has been a byproduct of hard work and an on-air rapport that took little time to develop, Lepay said. Together, they have captured some of the most memorable moments in school history, including three basketball runs to the Final Four and the last five Rose Bowl appearances.
Both mention the “Ron Dayne game” high on their list of favorite football memories, when Dayne set the NCAA’s all-time career rushing record in the 1999 regular-season finale against Iowa at Camp Randall Stadium. Lucas said Wisconsin’s 1998 and 1999 games against Purdue quarterback Drew Brees stuck out to him. In 1998, Brees set an NCAA record by throwing 83 passes in a game that started Wisconsin’s famed “Jump Around” after the third quarter. He also noted the 2004 Badgers-Purdue Boilermakers matchup of top-10 teams in which Scott Starks returned a Kyle Orton fumble for a touchdown with 2:36 left to seal a win.
Lepay cited Wisconsin’s 31-18 upset victory against No. 1 Ohio State at Camp Randall in 2010 as a particularly magical moment. Lepay delivered one of his signature calls when Badgers return man David Gilreath took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
“Footrace to the house!” Lepay said on the call. “At the 30, at the 20, 10, 5. Touchdown, Wisconsin! And this game is underway with a bang!”
Lepay noted the most exciting game he and Lucas have worked together was the inaugural Big Ten championship in 2011 between Wisconsin and Michigan State. Wisconsin defeated Michigan State 42-39 to reach the Rose Bowl but didn’t take the final lead until 3:45 remained in the fourth quarter.
“Just the emotional swings, the momentum shifts that went on in that game, that was a game that if you didn’t have a dog in the fight, you were going to watch it until the end because the game had everything,” Lepay said.
Neither Lucas nor Lepay has discussed how much longer the pair intends on working together. Lepay, 55, has no imminent retirement plans, although he acknowledges he would like to some day hand over the microphone reins. He said Lucas, 67, loves what he does so much that he may never retire.
“I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people certainly in the broadcasting business to have had the opportunities to do what I’ve done to be front row for so many different sports and so many different highlights over the years,” Lucas said. “It’s been special, and I never will take it for granted. Never have, nor will I ever do it. It’s my passion. I wouldn’t still be doing this if I didn’t enjoy every second of it.”
This season, Wisconsin is undefeated and ranked No. 5 in the country and still harbors visions of a College Football Playoff appearance. It is shaping up to be one of the most significant and enjoyable seasons in program history. Lucas and Lepay will be there in the broadcast booth to document every second of it, as they have for the past 23 years.
There’s no place else they’d rather be.