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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, December 13, 1993
THE ANCIENT JAPANESE study of flower arrangement is called ikebana. While your average college football team wouldn't know ikebana from Ickey Woods, the Wisconsin Badgers are authorities on both flowers and Japan. Look at what they did in a Tokyo hothouse on Sunday afternoon. As tailback Brent Moss put it, "You might say we turned dandelions into roses."
In making mulch of Michigan State 41--20 in the Tokyo Dome, the Badgers became Big Ten champions, bound for the Rose Bowl only three seasons after finishing winless in a conference that includes Northwestern. What's more, "They have done something that 30 years of Wisconsin football teams could not do," said athletic director Pat Richter, an All-America tight end on the Badgers' last Rose Bowl team, in ... 1962. Make that 31 years.
Richter wore a necktie speckled with roses on Sunday. Though the tie looked brand-new, Richter confessed that it was rather old. The Wisconsin program's fallow history is precisely why coach Barry Alvarez agreed two years ago to give up a home game in 1993 and play in Japan: so that his seniors could appear in one bowl game, even if it was something called the 18th annual Coca-Cola Bowl.
Of course, if Alvarez had foreseen all that would be at stake in the Michigan State game, he would have taken a Pasadena on Japan and played before 77,000 cheddarwurst-addled Badgers fans in Madison—instead of the 300 or so who were part of the Japanese crowd of 51,500 after grilling brats and swilling brews at a Wisconsin tailgate party outside the Tokyo Dome. In that very dome Mike Tyson had his Seiko clock cleaned by Buster Douglas in 1990, and a similar upset by the Spartans would have left Wisconsin with little evidence of its finest season since the missiles were removed from Cuba.
Win, and you are Big Ten champions. Lose, and you are third in the conference (behind Ohio State and Penn State). Win, and you play UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Lose, and you play Brigham Young in the Thrifty Car Rental Holiday Bowl. Win, and you play on New Year's Day. Lose, and you play on New Year's Eve eve. "In short," said Badgers offensive tackle Joe Panos, "this game means everything."
How awkward, then, for Michigan State and Wisconsin to have to fly from Chicago to Tokyo together on the same charter—even though Spartans and Badgers were strictly segregated throughout the 15-hour, four-movie affair. Somehow the players were wide-eyed on arrival.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Spartans punter Chris Salani. "I don't think I'll ever get here again."
For the Badgers the trip would be the capstone of a one-credit course they're taking on Japanese culture. Their instructor, Professor Pempel, expected a six-page report from each of his students upon their return, so the players conducted field studies on Thursday night when they dined in the homes of Wisconsin alumni living in Japan. "I learned that if you're full, you wipe your hands off with a towel or they'll keep bringing you food all night," said oversated receiver Lee DeRamus, who still managed five catches for 91 yards and a TD on Sunday. "And when you drink, they keep refilling your cup so you never see the bottom."
Never see the bottom? Wisconsin? In the last three decades Jacques Cousteau has not seen this much bottom: Between their last Rose Bowl appearance and this season, the Badgers suffered a 119-196-9 arid spell. In 1990, Alvarez's first year as coach, Wisconsin's only win was over Ball State, alma mater of David Letterman.