Doc Five: College football’s best Cinderella stories – No. 4, Wisconsin, Northwestern crash Rose Bowl

Dr. Saturday

This offseason we will count down various topics from Monday through Friday, bringing you the top five of the important and definitely some not so important issues in college football. It's the Doc Five, every week until we will thankfully have actual games to discuss.


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The Big Ten was very orderly through the 1970s and 1980s. Michigan and Ohio State would fight it out to go to the Rose Bowl. Once in a while Iowa would go. That was it.

Wisconsin and Northwestern not only weren't in the Rose Bowl conversation, they were never in any Big Ten conversation.

The Badgers didn't have more than seven wins in a season from 1963-1992 and went to three bowl games in that stretch. At the start of the 1993 season it had never won a Rose Bowl. The Wildcats were even worse. From 1972-1994, Northwestern never won more than four games in a season.

For a 25-season period from 1968-1992, Michigan and Ohio State represented the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl 20 times. Add in Iowa, and one those three schools played in the Rose Bowl 23 of 25 times.

Then, in a three-year stretch, previously pitiful Wisconsin and Northwestern turned the Big Ten upside down.

Wisconsin was the first Cinderella story in the Big Ten in the 1990s. The school bottomed out with four wins over three seasons from 1988-1990. The Badgers' success over the last two decades has overshadowed the fact that for much of the 20th century Wisconsin was usually terrible at football.

Then Wisconsin went on a miraculous run under Barry Alvarez in 1993. The Badgers went 9-1-1 to go to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 31 seasons. The program was in such bad shape, it agreed to play its regular season finale against Michigan State in Tokyo, in large part to make sure the players would experience a bowl-like trip. Instead, that game ended up clinching the Big Ten title.

Wisconsin won the Rose Bowl for the first time in school history, beating UCLA 21-16. To to that point, the Badgers' only bowl win was the 1982 Independence Bowl. And amazingly enough, Wisconsin wasn't the biggest Cinderella story in the Big Ten in the mid-1990s.

Just two seasons later, Northwestern became perhaps the most unlikely Big Ten champion ever.

Northwestern was 0-11 in 1989. It "improved" over the next five years to post win totals of 2, 3, 3, 2 and 3. There was no way to predict a Rose Bowl appearance at the end of the 1995 season. The Wildcats were 28-point underdogs in their season opener against Notre Dame. They pulled a shocking upset against the Irish, lost in Week 2 against Miami of Ohio, then ran the table for the rest of the regular season. It beat Michigan for the first time since 1965 and Iowa for the first time since 1973. The season was incredible, as captivating and unexpected as any that has happened in college football. The only bad part was the ending. Northwestern lost to USC in the Rose Bowl.

Still to this day, quarterback Steve Schnur, running back Darnell Autry and linebacker Pat Fitzgerald are synonymous with that Northwestern team. Fitzgerald, of course, is the current head coach of the Wildcats. This January, Fitzgerald led Northwestern to its first bowl win since 1949.

Wisconsin has been to Rose Bowls each of the last three years. Northwestern has been to a bowl game each of the last five seasons. Both have established competitive, consistent programs. But in 1993 and 1995, there was no way to see their Cinderella seasons coming.

Previously on the Doc Five:
No. 5: Utah over Alabama

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