MADISON, Wis. -- The prevailing message at the University of Wisconsin's 140th commencement earlier this month was not aimed at the fall graduates.
Instead, words from chancellor David Ward and Gov. Tommy Thompson were directed at the Wisconsin Badgers football team, which tomorrow will make its first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 31 years. References to the bowl game, to Pasadena, to miracles, were heard no less than eight times during the two-hour ceremony.
Rose Bowl fever has struck the state. It hit the moment the Badgers (9-1-1) defeated Michigan State in Tokyo, just after 1 a.m. CST Dec. 5, when an estimated 30,000 people poured out of bars and homes and jammed State Street in Madison. Another 3,000 fans converged on a quiet Camp Randall Stadium, danced on the field and rocked the goal posts.
It continued the next night, when approximately 10,000 fans ignored single-digit wind-chill temperatures and welcomed the team home from Japan during a dinner-time rally at the stadium.
The next weekend, students camped out overnight for a chance to purchase tickets for the Rose Bowl. Only 3,000 passes were allotted for students, but lines were long. Because of frigid temperatures, the university opened up Camp Randall so that students could wait in the shelter of the stadium corridors.
Downtown, almost every shop and tavern on State Street has at least one "Rose Bowl" banner in the window.
"I've never had a team in the state to be a part of," said Shelley Wurzberger, a senior from Kohler, Wis. "Suddenly the Badgers have given the state a lot of pride. I think it's great to see."
Even in Washington, Badgers fever is strong. Former UW chancellor Donna Shalala, who left Madison to become secretary of health and human services, remains an avid fan. She had an instrumental role in the hiring of athletic director Pat Richter and football coach Barry Alvarez and plans to watch the Badgers play UCLA in Pasadena.
The Badgers won just one game in 1990 (0-8 in the conference), Alvarez's first as head coach. Wisconsin had won just six games the previous three seasons.
Slowly, however, Alvarez began to bring in high-profile recruits -- most notably adding speed at receiver and in the secondary.
After two five-win seasons, the Badgers entered this year with bowl expectations.
Any bowl berth would've satisfied fans who haven't seen postseason football since 1984.
When the Badgers opened with a 6-0 record, their best start since 1912, people started thinking of New Year's Day roses. Then came a home win against Michigan -- marred by a post-game stampede in which more than 70 students were injured -- and a tie against Ohio State.
"Even after what happened at the Michigan game, you could see that the students rallied behind the football team to erase some of the horrifying memories," said Michelle Kaufman, a senior from Buffalo Grove, Ill. "That, in itself, has made this season memorable to me."