Recently in Mike Lucas Category
-- Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor knows that someone is "watching.'' But that doesn't mean he's losing sleep over showing up on the preseason watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Lombardi Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
He's not tossing and turning, either, over his name somehow being left off the Butkus Award list, which is 51 deep and includes Badgers teammate Chris Borland.
"Some people made a big deal out of it, but I don't think it's a big deal at all; it has nothing to do with football at all,'' said Taylor, the pragmatic senior from Ashwaubenon, Wis., and the leading tackler in the Big Ten last season. "All I can control is what I do on the field and helping the team win.''
Only two players in college football had more tackles than Taylor in 2011: Boston College's Luke Kuechly, a first-round NFL draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, had 191; and Tulsa's Curnelius Arnick had 159. Taylor had 150, seven more than Borland. Moreover, Ohio State's Etienne Sabino started only five games last year, two in the Big Ten, and finished with 62 tackles, yet Sabino is on the 2012 Butkus list.
Go figure. Taylor isn't about to try.
Overall, the Badgers have eight different players on preseason watch lists, ranging from wide receiver Jared Abbrederis on the Biletnikoff Award list to tailback James White on the Doak Walker Award list. Center Travis Frederick is on three lists, while left tackle Ricky Wagner is on the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award lists.
Abbrederis and Wagner are both former walk-ons from Wisconsin high schools.
"It's an honor to be on some of those watch lists,'' said Wagner, a 6-foot-6, 322-pound senior from West Allis (Nathan Hale). "But I really can't be focusing on that during the year. If I start thinking like I have to win the Outland, I don't think I'll have a good year.''
You can understand why Wagner might think that way since his UW predecessors at left tackle -- Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi -- each won the Outland Trophy. "They're great resources to have, obviously,'' Wagner said. "You can go to the tape room at any time and watch these great players.''
Wagner wasn't limiting his "great players'' reference to just Thomas and Carimi -- citing the positive influences of Kevin Zeitler, Peter Konz, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy, among others. A couple of years ago, when NFL players were locked out of training camp, Thomas did much of his training in Madison and left quite an impression on Wagner. "It was great talking to a legend like Joe,'' he said.
It went beyond hero worship, though, because Wagner listened and learned from Thomas. "I really respect Joe's workmanlike mentality,'' he said. "You have to think about what you're doing as a job -- even in college -- and you've got to go to work every day, take care of business and go home.''
Carimi impacted Wagner in a different way. And it wasn't so much about the way he trained during the off-season as much as it was about the way he gained an edge on opponents on the playing field.
"I like Gabe's physical aspect,'' Wagner said. "He had an attitude on the field; he got really mean. That was something I really respected about Gabe. And I've got to improve on that.''
Wagner is among the most soft-spoken players on the team. That's his demeanor. This is not to suggest that he never loses his temper; never shows a mean streak. But he is understated compared to more demonstrative teammates. "I've not been a very vocal guy; I lead more by example,'' he said.
The Badgers took three players to Big Ten Media Days and Wagner was one of them, joining Taylor and tailback Montee Ball. While conceding "it takes awhile for me to get comfortable'' speaking to outsiders, Wagner also said the Chicago exposure "was kind of a unique experience.''
Regarding shouldering more responsibilities as a team leader, Wagner said, "I try to work hard on the field and show the younger guys how to practice. I never take practice for granted because that's where games are won.
"If something needs to be said, I'll step up and say something.''
That has been Taylor's approach. "I want to be a leader and I see myself as a leader,'' Taylor said. "Just because maybe I don't talk as much as I should -- or talk as much as people think I should -- it doesn't mean that I don't lead by example. When I do say something, it comes from the heart.''
Taylor would rather talk with his pads, an old school cliché that's still true today.
"I've played sports my whole life and I was never really a big talker,'' said Taylor. "But my teammates would see the way I conducted myself and they would follow. You don't have to talk to get other people motivated. You can be a leader by just doing things the right way.''
Apparently that's not good enough for the Butkus watch list. Nine players from the Big Ten made the cut, but Taylor, the league's defensive player of the week three times last season, is snubbed.
Guess he will just have to play his way on to the list, which would be his preference anyway.
- Badgers in the Olympics
Despite her All-America status and championship pedigree -- a couple of Intercollegiate Rowing Association national titles as a member of the Wisconsin lightweight women's varsity eight boat -- Kristin Hedstrom wasn't sure if the Olympics would ever be in her immediate or distant future. "It wasn't something that was always on my radar,'' she confided.
Four years ago, the UW grad went looking for answers.
"I trained really hard that first year just to see where I stacked up against everyone else in the country because I really didn't have a good idea,'' said Hedstrom, who had previously been on a couple of under-23 teams. "After that year, I ended up making the senior team and that's when it started becoming a reality for me. It was like, 'OK, maybe this is a possible, maybe I can do this.'''
Armed with that conviction, Hedstrom began taking all the necessary steps to become an Olympian. Along with her partner in the lightweight double sculls, Julie Nichols, there was an undeniable urgency in late May when they arrived at the World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland. The reward for finishing among the top four was a trip to London and the 2012 Summer Games.
"When we crossed the finish line, we didn't actually know what place we had gotten because it was such a close race,'' Hedstrom said. "So we had to wait two or three minutes -- it felt like an eternity -- for the results to come up on this big Jumbotron. When they did finally come up, and we saw that we had gotten fourth by .09 seconds, there was a lot of excitement and a little disbelief.
"We had to keep saying to ourselves, 'Oh, my gosh, we're going to the Olympics, we're going to the Olympics.' We had to remind each other that this was actually happening. It just didn't seem real.''
In becoming the 13th women's rower from Wisconsin to compete in the Olympics -- the first in a lightweight event -- the 26-year-old Hedstrom, who lives and trains out of Oakland, Calif., has heard from a number of former UW athletes. Not only have they offered encouragement to Hedstrom, but they have shared some of their competitive experiences at various levels of rowing.
"There's just so much pride that comes with racing internationally as a Badger,'' said Hedstrom. "You learned how to be tough and how to work hard when you were at the UW and to carry that to the international level is something really special and something that we take a lot of pride in. Knowing that you come from a program like Wisconsin kind of gives you an edge, I want to say.''
After making Team USA, she received an e-mail from a former UW rower who exhorted her "to get your claws out and race like a Badger.'' Others reminded her "to absorb the moment and remember what it's like to take part in the Olympics because it's such a special time.'' Throughout her development as an elite rower, Hedstrom has managed to keep everything in context, including her formative years.
"It takes a lot of perseverance and dedication to make it happen,'' said Hedstrom, a native of Concord, Mass., who spent her freshman year at Georgetown University before transferring to Wisconsin. "I definitely had high expectations when I came here and they were met in every way.''
Reflecting on her first impression of the UW rowing environment, she said, "Everyone worked really hard and they were really smart about how they worked. More than anything else, they were just a really tough team. You kind of need that toughness when you row at Wisconsin.
"There are so many days over the winter when you're training indoors and then in the spring, there are so many days when it's freezing cold outside and you have to get out there and practice, regardless of the weather and how early it is.
"When I arrived here, the girls on the team were ready to do whatever they needed to do to win. That definitely fit in with what I wanted from a team, so it was a great fit from the start.''
At heart, she will be racing as "Badger'' in London accounting for her high expectations. "Our event is so very competitive,'' she said, "but we're right in there with everybody else.''
Medaling is now on her radar.
- Badgers in the Olympics
Perseverance is one of the common threads running through the nearly identical bios of Ross and Grant James, the 24-year-old twins from DeKalb, Ill., who are representing the Wisconsin men's rowing program in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Each has their own definition and application for the persistency that it takes to adhere to a course of action; in this case the course is 2,000 meters.
"Like most sports at this level to get to this point, you really have had to go through your share of training and competitions,'' Grant said. "The guys who persevere over others are the ones who have the commitment and just keep going at it; no matter what happens. All the hard work -- all the ups and downs -- help get a boat together, especially when you have eight guys together.''
Although they row from different sides in an eight-man boat -- Grant from the starboard side and Ross on the port side -- they're generally on the same page in terms of what it takes to be successful, on the water and off. In 2008, they got their first taste of success on a big stage when Wisconsin's varsity eight boat outdueled No. 1 Washington for the national championship.
"Perseverance,'' said Ross, who's about four minutes younger than Grant, "is important with rowing because you have to show up every day and put in the miles. It's a lot of tough work and you often have to put aside gratification for a long time -- for maybe just one race at the end of the year. You could say that you have to persevere to get to the finish line.''
Their steadfast commitment to rowing, not to mention each other, is why they're competing for the U.S. Olympic team today in London; a journey which is the culmination of seven years of training and preparation, dating to their freshman year at the UW when they were introduced to the sport. They both were recruited by Badgers coach Chris Clark out of an orientation line; a time-honored tradition.
"It was the kind of thing where we were interested in trying something new,'' Ross said. "So you show up at the boathouse the first day with the other 130 freshmen who got talked into showing up. We just felt it was something worth trying and we're the kind of people who stick with stuff, so we kept doing it, we kept showing up. It was never easy but we won a few races and it was pretty cool.''
Cool but complicated because time management is of the essence.
"On top of the class work, studying and homework, you're going to two practices a day,'' said Ross. "It's not just the time you put in the boat house. It's the time it takes to get there, and the time it takes to cook the gross amount of food that you have to eat to stay alive. And there's the extra sleep that you try not to lose when studying or rowing because you're wearing yourself out more each day.''
The sacrifices add up. "You give up late nights or going out -- what normal college kids do,'' said Grant. "They can go out and have fun, but you have to go to bed early because you have practice in the morning. All your free time is spent studying and when you graduate, when your other classmates are going off and getting jobs, you keep training, you keep rowing full-time.''
To survive is to persevere. "Guys who make it this far are the ones who really want to be here; they've really got their hearts set on it,'' Grant said. "It's not easy coming out of college with no money and more training. But when you get the chance to go to the world championships, then the Olympics, when you finally make that boat, you say, 'That was worth it.'''
In this vein, Clark has played a valuable role in grooming the Brothers James. "He knows what needs to be done to really pick out those guys who never have rowed a stroke in their life,'' said Grant. "In a couple of years, he puts them in a spot where they can be elite athletes. I give him all the credit for developing us in the early years and getting us started on the road where we are now.''
Addressing what Clark may have initially seen in each of the 6-foot-5, 190-pound twins, Ross said, "He likes that we're tall -- almost gangly -- and our ability to be really long through the water. We're just a lever pulling an oar and the longer you can be, the better. We have a little bit of skill, enough to be able to move a boat pretty well and over the years we've developed the power to back that up.''
Olympics sports are routinely overshadowed on most college campuses. But laboring in the shadows of football and basketball and hockey was never an issue for the twins. "We never looked at it as having to compare ourselves with them,'' Ross said. "We like football. We like going to the games. Of course that has funded all of our adventures, so we couldn't complain too much.''
Rationalizing further, he said, "We always tried to work hard, speak softly and carry a big stick. (Or oar, it was suggested to James, who ignored the play on words). We'd wear our letter jackets and bike around campus. People would perk up to see if we were a football player or not. We didn't mind too much.''
The fact that they have kept the streak alive -- UW rowers have now taken part in 12 consecutive Olympic Games -- is a source of tremendous pride for Ross and Grant James. "That's pretty special,'' Ross said, "especially because it's a program that takes guys like us - who didn't know anything about rowing -- and turns them into elite athletes. That's kind of a neat aspect to Wisconsin rowing.''
Competition fuels the twins. When they were still in their teens, on their way to becoming Eagle Scouts, they got invited to an indoor shooting range and, after firing a few rounds, the instructor asked them back with the promise to teach them how to shoot. Fast learners, they went on to become a part of the Illinois state team and they each won a national championship in high-power rifle marksmanship.
"It's more of a mental, coordination sport; there's not any physical aspect to it,'' Grant said of their endeavors on the range. "But the focus needed to repeat over and over again with your shooting carries over in some ways to the same kind of focus to detail in rowing.''
Right now, Grant is pushing Ross to be the best rower in the Olympic boat.
Right now, Ross is pushing Grant to be the best rower in the Olympic boat.
You get the idea, right now, don't you?
"We're exceptionally competitive,'' Ross said. "We're twins; we have a lot of similar experiences, so basically everything is a competition. Rowing lends us to be competitive. When you're always running with somebody who's very similar physically, whoever wins on that day is usually just the guy who wanted it more. That's something that has always pushed us, which is good.''
While Grant acknowledged the obvious -- "Our whole lives, it has always been like, 'Who's the better twin?'' he said -- the focus is on something else in London. "This is everything we've been training for,'' he said. "Our goal is to get a medal, and I don't think we'll be satisfied if we don't.''
-- Resplendent in a purple shirt, purple vest and purple bow tie, Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball wasn't necessarily trying to make a fashion statement here Thursday at the Big Ten football media assembly; nor was he showing his solidarity for Northwestern with his color selection and coordination.
It just looked that way, much to his dismay.
"No matter which color I picked, it was going to be somebody else's,'' he said.
Originally he was planning on going with a scarlet shirt. But he decided that matching scarlet with his grey suit -- Ohio State colors -- would have constituted more of a wardrobe malfunction. So he went with the purple and the bow tie, a personal first.
"I looked at it (a bow tie) and I said, 'Why not try it?''' he explained.
That might also be the best explanation for his name change.
Ball would prefer to be Mon-TAY instead of Mon-TEE.
"That's the actual pronunciation of my name,'' he pointed out.
Ball revealed his preference prior to last year's Heisman Trophy ceremonies in New York City.
But he backed off it then, and he didn't make a big deal out of it.
As far as he's concerned, it still isn't a big deal.
"I guess some reporters asked how I wanted to be called and I was thinking to myself since that's my actual name, let's go with Mon-TAY,'' he said.
None of his teammates have gotten into the habit yet of calling him Mon-TAY.
"But my girlfriend calls me Mon-TAY and now so do all of her friends,'' Ball said.
What does his mom call him?
"Junior,'' he said.
That eliminates any potential for some household confusion since he was named after his dad, Montee, Sr. That aside, there's no issue with calling him a Heisman finalist since he was one last season. Plus, he also ranks as one of one this season's Heisman frontrunners, since he's the leading returning vote-getter.
ESPN's Desmond Howard, who won the 1991 Heisman at Michigan, fielded some questions on Ball here Thursday. What's the best advice he could give to Ball going into his senior year?
"Take it game by game and don't pay attention to the hype,'' Howard said. "I think the best thing for Montee is that he went through it last year, so he kind of understands what the hype is all about.''
Howard has a high regard for Ball's make-up.
"His mentality is what has made him who he is today -- just the fact that he lost the weight and came back in better shape because he wanted to be the best he could be,'' he said. "That's what starts to separate good and great players, the mentality; not just the physical attributes but where you are mentally.''
During the morning media session, Ball got the chance to do a radio interview with another former Heisman winner, Ohio State's Eddie George, who won the award in 1995. "That was neat, that was shocking,'' Ball said. "Just looking at him and listening to him, I was thinking about all the things that he's done. It was incredible to be around him.''
Ball has tried to keep his own Heisman candidacy in perspective.
"It feels great being one of the leading candidates for the Heisman,'' he said. "But I'm just really looking forward to having another great season with the team because without the team's success I'm not going to be there (in the Heisman running).
"So I just have to make sure we practice hard and play hard and win our games so I can get my own personal goals; but most importantly we can win another Big Ten championship.''
Is there more pressure given the Heisman expectations?
"Actually, no,'' said Ball who paused and admitted, "Yeah to be honest there's a little bit (of pressure). But it's nothing that I'm too worried about because I know what I'm capable of doing if I stay healthy.
"I know I have the right mindset to go out there and practice as hard as I can and play as hard as I can. That's the only things that I can control.''
Ball estimated that about 50 percent of the questions that he received during the television interviews Thursday were about the pronunciation of his first name; the other 50 percent were about his decision to return for his senior year at Wisconsin.
"I was taught to never regret my decisions,'' he said. "I still support the decision that I made and I'm really grateful and happy that I came back because I'm enjoying myself. This is my last year in college football and I'm going to make sure that I have a really great year.''
When the NCAA granted college basketball coaches the opportunity for two hours of structured practice time per week during the two-month summer school window, there was the suspicion that some players might go "Iverson" and react to the news like Allen Iverson might have reacted: "We're sitting here talkin' about practice? Not a game, not a game. We're talking about practice, man?"
Wisconsin senior Jared Berggren grinned at the thought of it all.
"Practice?" he confessed, mimicking Iverson's voice inflexion. "That's exactly what I said."
UW junior Josh Gasser had a similar confession.
"My first reaction," he said, "was, 'What are we going to do?'"
We're gonna practice; we're talkin' about two hours of practice each week.
"The summer," Gasser said, "has always been kind of nice for doing your own thing."
But all of that has changed and Berggren and Gasser really aren't complaining.
On the contrary, they both endorse the new NCAA landscape for men's hoops.
Since the start of summer school, the Badgers have been practicing two hours every Tuesday.
"By having it (practice) once a week I think is perfect," Gasser said. "We play in open gym throughout the week but you get a little higher intensity of play now (with the coaches present); this elevates it up a notch. I think it's going to help us individually and as a team."
Without directly mentioning freshmen Sam Dekker and Zak Showalter, he added, "For the younger guys, they'll get to learn more quickly. Coming in the fall, it won't be as big of a shock to them when we start practice. They'll have a better idea of what's going on."
As a true freshman, Gasser started 30 games without the benefit of organized summer practices. In retrospect, he said, "It would have been nice to have from the standpoint of mentally getting used to the rules defensively and to the kinds of sets that we run offensively (at Wisconsin)."
The additional coaching structure is also bound to help a redshirt freshman like George Marshall, who'll be competing for minutes at the point guard position vacated by Jordan Taylor. Last season, Marshall worked exclusively on the scout team; manning up daily against Taylor in practice.
What are the benefits to the two hours of weekly instruction in June and July?
"I think the cohesiveness of the team comes together a little bit sooner," Marshall said. "You get a better feel for the coaches and the coaches get a better feel for you. If there's anything that needs fixing or you need to work on, you know earlier as opposed to waiting until the fall or the season."
Berggren recalled getting a "heads-up" on the changes from the basketball team's strength coach Scott Hettenbach who had to redesign his summer conditioning program since the two hours of practice time are coming out of the eight hours that were previously budgeted for training.
As a result, Hettenbach has put an even greater emphasis on quality over quantity. "With two less hours in the weight room," Gasser said, "we get in and we get out. It's more high-quality work - fast and intense - and we still get the same amount of stuff done as we had in the past."
During those two hours on the court, Berggren said, "We knew that it was going to be different but we didn't know what to expect coming into it. In talking to the assistants, there was the thought that we would kind of do what we do in the spring and fall and that's more individual work.
"But we've done mostly team stuff - four-on-four; five-on-five - which is good. It's more game-like because you have coaches instructing you. Sometimes you can get into bad habits in open gym. This keeps everyone playing hard and we get to see who's coming along in the summer.
"For the freshmen, they can start getting doses of coaching in their ear; learning what they've got to do without being overwhelmed when we start going six days a week with our real practices. It gives them a taste early-on so they know what to expect and it will definitely speed along the process."
Along with the Tuesday practice, the open gym scrimmages are still critical to player development. "But Wednesdays are completely open now and that's kind of nice," Berggren said. "It's good to get in the gym on your own and get shots up and work on some individual skill stuff."
In this context, each player has his own needs.
"For me, it's the same thing every off-season," said Berggren. "I try to get stronger, quicker, more athletic. I try to get in better shape and I try to put on some muscle and lose some body fat."
Marshall is working "on my leadership and making the right reads" while continuing "to take my game to the next level" by making plays during the practices "and making my teammates better."
Being more of a leader is also on Gasser's radar. "I've played more minutes of game time than anyone on the team," he said, "so even though I'm a junior, I have to show some leadership out there."
As seniors, Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans will be expected to carry more of the burden in terms of their own accountability and leadership, especially with Taylor gone.
"We know that we have to be a little more vocal and take on a bigger leadership role," Berggren said. "We've all done that in our own ways this past spring and throughout the summer.
"It is different because it is our last chance. I've talked to Ryan about it - how this is kind of why we took the redshirt (as freshman). This is what it's all for now. We both recognize that."
There's something that Marshall has recognized, too. "Having leaders who are already established," he said of the UW's upperclassmen, "makes my transition a little easier."
Marshall hasn't forgotten some of the things that Taylor taught him. "He just said always play hard and always listen," he recounted. "My role is to do whatever it takes to help the team win."
Regarding that transition, Berggren observed, "George just needs game experience and these practices are the closest you can really get in the summer. It's better than just playing pick-up games."
The weekly two-hour practices not only keep an open line of communication between the coaches and the players during the summer, but it's another step in the team-building process.
"You can kind of see who's going to fit in where and who's competing for what minutes," Berggren said. "It's good to see guys battling like that already and it's only July."
Is there any chance for burnout with the extra practices? "No, not at all," Gasser said. "If we weren't doing this we'd be in here anyway working on our own game or playing in open gym."
Given the UW's returning personnel, and team strengths, the NCAA changes to the summer calendar couldn't have been more timely. "Guys need to find their roles," Gasser said. "And we've got a lot of guys who can play. We're probably deeper this year than we have been in the past."
Berggren was on the same page. "I think the sky is the limit for this team," he said. "We have four out of five starters coming back and a lot of guys off the bench who are all fighting for playing time. Everyone is hungry and looking to prove something. We have very high goals for ourselves."
Mike Eaves used two words - "emotional energizer'' to punctuate his
thoughts on the topic. Was the UW men's hockey coach addressing A) the
13-year, $98 million contracts that Ryan Suter and Zach Parise signed
with the Minnesota Wild; B) the Hockey City Classic pitting the
Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Gophers at Chicago's historic Soldier
Field in February; C) his anticipation level for the 2012-2013 season;
the school's final one in the WCHA; or D) the completion of the La Bahn
In spirit alone, Eaves was speaking to "all of the above''
upon returning to his Kohl Center office Monday following his annual
summer pilgrimage to Montana. While he was vacationing, two of his
former pupils - Parise and Suter - scored huge NHL free agent contracts.
Eaves coached Parise and Suter, who skated one season at Wisconsin
before turning pro with the Nashville Predators, to gold medals in the
World Under-18 Championships in 2002 and the World Junior Championship
"I guess that I was a little surprised that they both
went to the same team,'' said Eaves, a member of the Minnesota North
Stars during his NHL playing days in the early '80s. "There was a little
bit of a rumor about that (happening) but there were a lot of teams
that had their foot in the door and really wanted them. I think it's
great for Minnesota. They (the Wild) are now starting to put some
fundamental pieces together and getting closer to being a championship
Reflecting on Suter's growth, Eaves cited his comfort
level on the ice and said "It was like, 'This is what he was meant to
do.' It's like when you watch someone and right away you're drawn to him
because they have this special presence. It's their control, their
skill, their ability. It's like watching Celine Dion on stage. They talk
about having a stage presence. Ryan Suter has this ice presence, if you
The special players share many of the same defining
characteristics, Eaves added. That would include another notable free
agent defenseman with an "ice presence'' - Justin Schultz, who skipped
his final year of eligibility at Wisconsin and recently signed with the
Edmonton Oilers. "It's a young team and he can grow up with them,''
Eaves said. "He's going to have a chance to play right away.''
has been a busy and profitable off-season free agent market for former
UW players. Adam Burish has been reunited with his old teammate and
roommate, Joe Pavelski, with the San Jose Sharks. Burish signed a
four-year, $7.2 million deal. "He's a piece of the puzzle that people
recognize they need to have,'' Eaves said. "He's a winner. You need that
type of person to accept his role and excel in it.''
So what has been Wisconsin's role in grooming so many NHL-ready players?
ask about that, 'What are you doing (right) there?''' Eaves said.
"First of all, we've gotten top-notch young men and they have a lot of
things that we don't teach. Secondly, the coaches we've had here are
good teachers and played at that (pro) level and can give them insight.
And we have a total program with the things we do off-ice with the
strength coaches that we've had like Jim Snider.
"There are some
real good things here that are being combined with their natural
abilities. There are about four or five programs that have quite a few
of their former players in the NHL. And we're one of them, so it does
get noticed ... our formula or ideal to win at this level is about
excellence. The Navy Seals have a great saying, 'The way you do anything
is the way you do everything.'''
That quest for excellence
extends to all corners of a successful hockey program and beyond. That
quest drives Eaves, too, particularly coming off a season in which the
Badgers failed to make the NCAA tournament. "We didn't get in, because
we ran out of games,'' he said. "At the end of the year, we could beat
anybody and nobody wanted to play us because we were coming into our
Youth was served. Growing pains were plentiful. But Eaves
is confident that the returning core of players learned their lessons
and benefited from the orientation, however rude at times. "We knew that
we were going to be young,'' Eaves said. "Then you get on the ice and
you go, 'Whoa.' That's when reality hits ... (but) we started something
at the end of the year and morphed into a team that believed.
"We're moving in the right direction.''
of the highlights of the upcoming season will be Wisconsin's appearance
in the Hockey City Classic that will be staged Feb. 17 at Chicago's
Soldier Field. The Badgers will play Minnesota in one half of the
doubleheader with Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) matching up in the other
"It's an emotional energizer,'' Eaves said Monday.
Especially for two of his players who are Chicago-area products.
Frankie Simonelli is from Bensenville and Michael Mersch is from Park Ridge.
"I'm sure they're already talking to their teammates about getting extra tickets,'' Eaves said.
This will mark the third time that the Badgers have taken part in an outdoor game.
ask me all the time, 'Why are you doing that?''' Eaves said. "We have
one of the longest seasons in college athletics. At that time of year -
kind of the dog days of February - we get to do something that is unique
and special to bring the energy back into the season.''
energy manifests itself whenever Eaves looks out his office window at
the adjacent La Bahn Arena, which will house a practice facility for the
men's program and serve as home ice for the Badger women. The project
has many other amenities, like new locker rooms.
"There's nothing like it in the country,'' he said proudly.
Jumping out of his chair, Eaves all but pressed his nose against the glass.
the very first day (of the construction), we've found ourselves doing
this in the morning; just watching like a little kid might,'' he said.
"Wait 'til you walk into that arena. You'll go, 'Wow. Are you kidding
me? Are you kidding me?' This is the final jewel in the crown that we
call this hockey program.''
Camp Randall Stadium's new FieldTurf surface is more aesthetically pleasing to the eyes and physically forgiving to the legs than the old rug, which was first installed nine years ago. But on a blazing hot day -- when the temperature is soaring above 100 degrees -- it can still radiate heat like a griddle.
Not that UW football strength coach Ben Herbert minds.
"I think the heat is a great thing,'' he said Thursday with a mischievous grin.
The summer conditioning phase of Wisconsin's out-of-season program began on June 4 in what turned out to be an unseasonably hot and dry month. July has brought more of the same -- more heat and more humidity (and little or no rain). Madison has registered nine straight days in which the temperature has reached 90 or above, including the last two days, which have topped 100.
"Your radar is obviously on high alert to make sure you're really dialed in,'' Herbert said. "We're always like that, but you just want to make sure because of the heat. Our Sports Medicine staffers, Mike (Moll) and Patrick (Whitley), do a great job of watching the guys and seeing where they're at. At any point, if they need to step aside and take a breather, they fully understand that's what they need to do.''
Herbert likes to talk about athletes "being comfortable when you're uncomfortable'' during training. But there are limits, and his approach reflects that on a daily basis. "There are always times where you have to give some external motivation to really bring the best out of them,'' he said. "But if a guy is having trouble tolerating something, we don't approach it as, 'You're soft, you're mentally weak.'''
Herbert believes in building up players.
"Our guys have a clear understanding,'' he said, "that if there's something they're exposed to, and it makes them feel a certain way -- just something is not right -- they need to take the needed steps to get right mentally and physically. Be smart with how you feel and understand where you're at.''
The Badgers have been in a very good spot -- to Herbert's thinking -- since early June.
"Our guys came back ready to work from Day One and they're excited,'' Herbert said.
Last weekend marked the halfway point of the eight-week summer phase.
Reflecting on the results, Herbert said, "We really did hit the ground running.''
The Fourth of July, in this context, was significant to Herbert for only one reason.
"We treated it as a normal training day,'' he said.
That meant four different groups trained at 6:30 a.m. and 12:30, 2:30 and 4:30 p.m.
"For being as hot as it was, they tolerated it extremely well,'' Herbert said.
Besides a weight room session, there was over an hour of sprint work on the new turf.
"The guys love it,'' Herbert said. "It looks great and it feels good to their body and legs.''
An impish grin reappeared on his face.
"Because of the softer surface,'' he said, "the (blocking) sleds are a little heavier (to push).
"They don't slide quite as easily as they did before -- which I don't mind.''
After one more sizzling hot day, the temperature is expected to drop into the 80s this weekend.
"We address it as needed,'' Herbert said, "and we've had no guys with issues.''
If someone is struggling, he stressed, "We put him in the best situation health-wise.''
Speaking to the bottom line, Herbert went on, "We're going to get the work in we need.''
But everybody is going to be smart about it.
"If there are things they can't tolerate,'' he said, "we'll obviously back off accordingly.''
Despite the record-setting heat, the Badgers have continued to make positive gains.
"That,'' he said of July 4th, "was as good of a day as we've had all summer.''
Training under such conditions has its advantages.
"From a preparation standpoint, this is outstanding,'' said Herbert, a former UW defensive player. "I've been in a couple of training camps that were like dreams -- 60 to 70 degrees. But they're few and far apart. Usually it's between 80 and 85. This year has been unique. August is going to be hot and once they put the pads and helmet on they will be better acclimated to tolerate the heat.''
That's when the players will be forced to make some adjustments.
"When you put that helmet on, it changes everything,'' Herbert said. "The majority of heat that escapes from your body is through the top of your head. When you trap that heat with a plastic shell, it changes the dynamic of how your body must tolerate that heat. From a heat acclimation standpoint, it would be outstanding if we could prepare them with their helmets on (in June and July).''
Regarding changes in NCAA legislation, he conceded, "I fully understand and agree why it is the way it is. But maybe at some point down the line they could understand how it would be beneficial.''
Herbert was speaking Thursday from his new office. The weight room has been relocated from the basement of the McClain Facility to its footprint under the stands in the north end of Camp Randall. For now, Herbert is sharing some space with the makeshift training and equipment rooms.
"I wouldn't even say there has been an adjustment,'' he said of the ongoing construction.
That's noteworthy considering the players have been shuffled to a temporary locker room area in the stadium -- space once used by Badger football teams in the '70s and 80s -- while the old room is being remodeled in McClain. "It has been as smooth as it could possibly be,'' Herbert observed.
"It has been as seamless of a transition as I could have ever hoped for. We're excited about the temporary space and some of the things that we've been able to do. And it excites you that much more knowing what it's going to be like when it's done. It will be unbelievable.''
Give the new weight room some time to evolve, he suggested, and it will develop a personality.
"No doubt,'' Herbert said. "That was one of the things that I realized was going to be different because of all the sweat and sacrifice and just the aura that the old space had in McClain. The guys liked to grind in there.
"The new setup has no frills. It's not the prettiest you've ever seen. But it sets up well and it's very conducive to putting in the work that we need to put in. The guys have responded well.
"It's definitely already taken on an identity of its own.''
Given his own personal odyssey in professional basketball, Brian Butch is more than willing to share some of his experiences with another former UW player, Jordan Taylor, who's just embarking on the journey. What would be the first thing he would tell him? "Buckle-up, it's a great roller-coaster,'' he said. "Honestly, he just needs to know that it's a job now.''
The 27-year-old Butch stands to be much more than just a sounding board to Taylor, 22. He's also set to become an NBA Summer League teammate. Butch and Taylor have agreed to play for the Atlanta Hawks' entry in Las Vegas; marking the first intersection of their playing careers. "It will be nice to see a familiar face,'' Taylor said. "But at the end of the day, you have to go out and play ball.''
Both are walking into the unknown from the standpoint of what Atlanta's roster might look like at the end of the summer. The Hawks have reportedly not only traded Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets, but they've unloaded Marvin Williams to Utah for the expiring contract of Devin Harris, the No. 5 selection in the 2004 draft, and another former Badger point guard.
Reports have Atlanta positioning itself for a run at Orlando's Dwight Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in '04. The only certainty is that the Hawks' new general manager, Danny Ferry, is shaking things up. At the start of the week, Atlanta had only six players under contract. That is subject to dramatic change with the pending Johnson and Williams transactions that can't be consummated officially until July 11.
"It's July,'' Taylor said, "and a lot of things could change between now and October.''
Atlanta is offering Taylor and Butch access to a stage where they show what they can do.
"It's an opportunity,'' Butch said. "All you need is a chance.''
Resiliency also helps.
"There are going to be ups and downs,'' Butch acknowledged. "Even in the Summer League, there are going to be days when the coaches think you're great and there are going to be days when the coaches think you're horrible. You have to be ready for everything.''
Speaking directly to what Taylor needs to learn, Butch said, "The biggest thing is that he has to be confident in what he does best -- that's take care of the basketball and create for others. If he does that, he can make his way on to a team. There's no doubt that he can play in the league.
"What's the difference between guys who make it, and don't? It's opportunity, it's staying healthy and it's timing. If he (Jordan) gets into the right situation, there's no reason that he can't be the third point guard or even the second guard for someone (in the NBA).
"Everyone is so good at this level, the separation between what makes a guy stick, and what doesn't, isn't much. It's all about the fit and the timing. Everybody knows what you can and can't do.
"I can shoot the ball, but can I rebound? Jordan can take care of the ball, but can he distribute?''
Taylor is counting on answering some questions in the Summer League; a small window of five games in seven days. Milwaukee and Cleveland each offered a roster slot. Why the Hawks? Taylor didn't even work out for Atlanta prior to the draft. "It's more of an impulse thing,'' he said.
It wasn't like he studied the various rosters and determined that Hawks were the most guard-needy. "At this point, there's going to be competition everywhere you go,'' he said, "so you can't really try to duck and dodge (better players) or hand pick a place where you don't think they have any guards.''
It's more about the playing opportunity than the team affiliation, too. "The nice thing about being undrafted,'' Taylor said, "is that if I play well in the Summer League, maybe I'll have a chance to get invited to a lot of different training camps as opposed to just one (if he had been drafted).''
Asked whether Wesley Matthews could be utilized as a model -- Matthews was an undrafted free agent out of Marquette who used the Summer League as a stepping stone to his NBA career -- Taylor said, "It shows that it's not impossible. My goal is still attainable, still reachable. It might be a little tougher, it might be a little harder route this way (as a free agent) but it's not impossible.''
Taking the lead from UW coach Bo Ryan -- a huge fan of the movie "Dum and Dumber'' -- Taylor alluded to the exchange between Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Mary Swanson (Lauren Holley).
Upon inquiring what were the chances that he could wind up with a girl like her, she responded, "Not good.'' He countered, "You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?'' She replied, "I'd say more like one out of a million.'' After a pause, he shot back, "So you're telling me there's a chance?''
Opined Taylor of his Summer League audition and NBA dream, "As long as there's a chance ...''
Butch can relate, especially after the injury setbacks that he has endured and overcome. After keeping his career alive overseas, bouncing from China to Germany to Greece, Butch used the NBA Developmental League as a springboard to a roster spot with the Denver Nuggets.
But in early July of 2010, Butch dislocated his left patellar tendon while playing for the Nuggets in a Summer League game against the Lakers. After months and months of rehab, Butch went to training camp with the New Orleans Hornets and tore his MCL, which put him on the sidelines again. After more rehab, he joined Bakersfield (Calif.) in the D-League and let the team in scoring over the final 21 games.
"I don't know if you're ever left with a good taste playing in the D-League,'' he admitted. "But that was huge -- as far as confidence -- and what I needed to do. I feel good right now. I'm in great shape. I've changed my diet. I've changed my training a little bit. I've done everything I could do for this.
"Do my knees hurt? Yeah, they hurt. But it's about as good as they're going to feel and it's not like a 'bad' hurt. It's just more of, 'You're getting old' type feeling. The frustrating thing is that I have to be in the Summer League again. But I understand that because I've been hurt so many times.
"Hopefully I'll play a lot in the Summer League, and play well, and that leads to a training camp invitation wherever. Hopefully it's Atlanta. But if not, hopefully it will be to a camp somewhere. I've got to play really well so people can see that I'm healthy again.''
The window, he conceded, is beginning to close. So what keeps him going? Maybe it's the realization that former UW teammate Greg Stiemsma kept grinding overseas and at the lower levels of competition until finally catching a break. The Boston Celtics were short on "bigs'' and he filled the void.
"As you can see with Greg,'' said Butch, "it's a matter of what you do with that timing.''
What else is driving Butch?
"I'm just stubborn,'' he said. "I'm going to decide when I'm done on my terms. It's not going to be because my knees don't let me do something. When push comes to shove, I still love the game of basketball. I'll deal with all the BS because I love the game. It's that simple.''
Butch knows that some NBA general managers may do a double-take when they spot his name on Atlanta's roster for the Summer League. "They'll be thinking, 'What is Butch still doing this for?''' he said. "It's just who I am, and what I do. I want to play at the top level and I know that I'm good enough.''
Butch and his wife, Megan, will soon be celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary. The couple purchased a home in Neenah, Wis., to be close to family. "I've told her, 'If I was a little better player or a little worse player, our life would be a lot easier,'' he said. "But I am what I am. We're stuck with it.''
If he doesn't make the NBA in the next two years, Butch said, "I can go overseas and still make a good living.'' But he agreed to play in the Summer League "to try and reach my goals and dreams.''
Not unlike the timetable that Taylor has set for himself. "At this level,'' Taylor said, "you have to take everything in stride and remember it's nothing personal.''
He's a quick study.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema sounded excited to be a part of college football history with the advent of a four-team playoff that will replace the BCS model beginning with the 2014 season.
Doing the simple math, though, he expressed the one obvious concern that is shared by all of his fraternity brothers in the coaching profession. There is a concern, you ask?
"Yeah, if I'm No. 5,'' he said, grinning. "Everybody used to talk about the No. 3 and No. 4 teams that didn't get to play for the championship. Now they're going to be talking about No. 5 and No. 6.
"I think it's probably legit to say that every year you're going to have teams that can play the excuse game on why they should be there.
"But to have four teams that will have a shot to win it all now is really cool.''
The Rose Bowl will not only be part of the six-bowl rotation for the two semifinal games, but it will be locked into a 4 p.m. (CST) kickoff on Jan. 1 through 2026 (Jan. 2 if New Year's Day is a Sunday).
The Tournament of Roses also announced Thursday that the Rose Bowl would continue to honor a Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup in those years that it's not playing host to a national semifinal.
That type of stability and/or continuity is priceless, Bielema pointed out.
"Of course, we're all a little biased,'' he conceded. "I've been there as a player and a coach. I know the Rose Bowl is a sacred, hallowed ground for college football, especially for the Big Ten.''
The new system will render polls virtually meaningless in their current form, thereby eliminating what has always been a healthy source of debate and controversy for fans, players and coaches alike.
The preseason polls, in particular, were problematic; especially from Bielema's viewpoint. The Badgers were off the radar in 2006, his first season; yet fought all the way back to a No. 5 final ranking.
"I was a new head coach with a new team and people had questions,'' he recalled. "But we finished 12-1 and I felt like we were a BCS (bowl) level team (that had to settle for something less).
"I've always been in favor of ranking teams later in the year because you have a chance then to truly find out who has good teams -- and it's not based on just good projections.''
College football is expected to adopt the NCAA's basketball model for a selection committee, which would include a collection of current athletic directors and league commissioners.
That would eliminate the importance of two BCS staples: the USA Today Coaches Poll and the Harris Poll. There have been reports, too, that the tweaked system will rank teams by tiers; another notable departure from the past.
Winning a conference title will carry weight with the committee, especially if teams are comparable in other criteria. Strength of schedule will also become a key component in the equation.
Bielema, for one, has long been an advocate of spacing out the non-conference opponents, as opposed to playing all four games at the front of the schedule in advance of Big Ten competition.
Alabama, for example, will open SEC West play the third week of the season: Sept. 15 against Arkansas. The Tide will then go out of conference for Western Carolina on Nov. 17.
"Playing those (FCS) teams is just a fact of life,'' Bielema said. "But I think a conference's strength of schedule is going to be a big part (of the new formula).''
One of football's greatest strengths, he noted, is still the regular season.
"I hear basketball coaches talking all the time about how they've got to win six games at the end of the year to win a national championship,'' he said. "Well, we've got to win 13, sometimes 14.
"I like that element to our sport -- the importance of the regular season -- which is unprecedented in the world of college sports. I like the hype around our college game day.''
By extending the season with a playoff, some questions have been raised about the physical toll that the extra games might take on those players who are involved, however many are exposed.
It might be the greatest argument, in fact, against the potential for an eight- or 16-team playoff. University presidents have addressed these concerns by locking into a four-team playoff for 12 years.
Bielema, the quintessential player's coach, recognizes the risks.
"I think we're at the limit right now,'' he said of the 15 games that the two finalists would play. "We're maxing them out. If we did anything more, we'd have to change the way we train them.''
Added Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash, "These guys are still 18- to 21-year-old student-athletes and there's already a lot on their plates.''
Even though it will only impact a few teams, Ash was pleased to hear the semifinals will be staged on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day and the championship on the second Monday of January.
"These kids are here all summer and show up for training camp in August,'' Ash said. "They're here all fall. They don't get a Thanksgiving break. They don't get a Christmas break.
"If you were to take away their winter break -- between the first and second semesters (in January) -- it would have been really tough on the student-athlete.''
Ash, like Bielema, is excited to see how the playoff is going to fall into place logistically.
"You knew it was going to come and I'm kind of curious to see how it will all work out once we get to that point,'' Ash said. "Change is good, and it kind of seemed like it was going in that direction.''
Expanding to four teams that will compete for the championship is one thing. "But honestly,'' Ash said, "there are probably only about 20 to 25 teams who have a shot of getting there.''
Wisconsin has definitely put itself in that company. Over the last three years, the Badgers are among the winningest programs in the nation; their overall run includes 10 straight bowl appearances.
UW offensive line coach Mike Markuson believes the playing field nationally is more level than people think, despite the fact that the SEC has won the last six national championships.
Markuson coached at Mississippi and Arkansas, so he has a good frame of reference.
"College football is every changing and a playoff is something that people have been screaming about for awhile,'' Markuson said. "To me, it's going to give somebody a chance that was maybe hovering out there (among the top teams) and thinking, 'Why not us? Why weren't we involved?'''
Given that backdrop, he added, "I'm excited to see what it's all about up here (in the Big Ten).''
As someone who has already personally invested so much in college football -- as a former player, head coach and current athletic director -- Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez is convinced that a four-team playoff will pay off big dividends and ensure the continued success and popularity of the sport.
"I was pleased that the commissioners were able to come to an agreement on the playoff model,'' Alvarez said. "There was a lot of positioning -- and a lot of give-and-take in the end -- and I liked what they came up with. I'm also pleased the presidents approved the changes.''
Alvarez was one of the ADs invited to play a role in the discovery phase of the process. As a result, he has tried to keep an open mind to all potential options or scenarios. One of his points of emphasis -- making sure that nothing compromised the integrity of the regular season.
"I think everyone agrees that we have the best regular season of all sports,'' he said of the competitive element that exists from September through November. "That's why I've always felt it was so important to preserve the regular season, which we have with this four-team playoff.''
Preserving the bowls -- especially the Rose Bowl -- was also at the top of Alvarez's list. With a six-bowl rotation for the two semifinal games, the Rose Bowl will be assured of a traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup two out of every three years (or eight times over the length of the 12-year contract).
The Big Ten has been matched against the Pac-12 in six of the last 11 Rose Bowls since 2002.
"You have to give up a little bit; much like we gave up in the BCS's four-year rotation with the Rose Bowl,'' Alvarez said of the league's negotiating approach. " But this allows us to be in the mix (for a national championship) and still have our relationship with the Rose Bowl.''
When the dialogue began to heat up on the proposed playoff to replace the BCS model, Alvarez supported the concept of a selection committee, not unlike what has been used to determine the field in the NCAA basketball tournament.
"I've been a proponent of a committee all along,'' he said. "And with that comes transparency where all the criteria are known. I've never been a big fan of the computers. There are a lot of people who know football and I trust the human element more than I did the old BCS formula.
"I like the fact a committee will be taking a lot of things into consideration; they'll be giving credit to the league champion and weighing different things, including strength of schedule.''
Does that mean that Wisconsin will attempt to strengthen its schedule?
"Bret (Bielema, the UW football coach) and I have talked about that,'' Alvarez said. "In 2017, we'll add a Pac-12 opponent every year. That will leave us with three non-conference dates to fill.
"If you want to be competitive and in the (final four) mix, you have to be cognizant of your nonconference schedule. I'd like to see us put another BCS opponent on the schedule (circa 2017).
"We can go from there still knowing we have to play at least seven home games each year.''
Would Alvarez be willing to serve on a national selection committee? "I would be interested,'' he said. "With my background, I think I'm knowledgeable enough about the business.''
Alvarez would not have a problem with former head coaches on the committee, either.
Regardless of the selection guidelines, he knows that a healthy debate will likely ensue.
That comes with the turf, new or old.
"A lot of people complained about the BCS, but it was very good for college football; the sport has never been more popular,'' Alvarez emphasized. "People have said all along that it needed to be tweaked. If you go back and read my statements from previous years, I said the same things.''
Alvarez recognizes that the four-team playoff is not a panacea.
"Everybody is not going to be satisfied,'' he conceded.
But it was a positive move, he insisted, that will only enhance the product.
"You now have a chance for a truer national champion,'' he said.