Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wake Up and Cheer

The University of Wisconsin basketball squad was one of the last teams selected for this year’s “March Madness,” the NCAA tournament. That was a bit of a comedown from the past few tourney designations, although in a way it was a break for my alma mater because the team did not have a banner year.

When I was a student at UW, getting into an NCAA tournament by any means possible would have touched off a tremendous celebration in Madison. The Badger hoopsters were awful. Coach Bud Foster was in the twilight of his lengthy career, still playing the slow-motion basketball that brought him success in the 1940s. The trouble was, it was the l950s.

The old Fieldhouse, which came to be known as The Barn, had plenty of vacant seats when the Badger basketballers were being overwhelmed by an opponent. This was in complete contrast to the situation nowadays in the new Kohl Center, where the fans, dubbed “The Grateful Red,” occupy every available seat and raise the roof with cheering that sometimes helps befuddle visiting teams.

In the 1950s, you could have gone to sleep at a game in the Fieldhouse. I did. Because my student athletic ticket book was prepaid, I went to see two games. For the second, a slaughter administered by Indiana, I brought along a very thick history book. After reading it for awhile, I put it beneath my head as a surrogate pillow as I stretched out across a vacant row of seats. I slept through most of the second half. So did the Badgers.

There was no sleeping in the Fieldhouse when the Badger boxers performed in the 50s. The place always was packed to the rafters with 15,000 fans. I never missed a night at the fights, especially because three fraternity brothers—Bob Morgan, Terry Tynan, and Bob Meath—were among the Wisconsin pugilists. Morgan and Meath both won NCAA championships. The team never lost to a visiting group during my years on campus. The “Grateful Red” would have been proud and loud.

The competition was fierce. Michigan State, Idaho, Louisiana State, and Syracuse had good teams. None was better than the Badgers, however. Fighters wearing cardinal and white so dominated college boxing for 20 years that a writer titled his book describing the era as Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team.

The tragedy happened in 1960, three years after I graduated, and it happened in the Fieldhouse. Charlie Mohr, a talented Badger boxer who was an Olympic team prospect, died of injuries sustained in the ring when the NCAA tournament was held at Madison. That horrible event signaled the end of college boxing. It was to be the last NCAA boxing tournament.

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