Get schooled on UW-Madison traditions

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

Students are returning to campus and football fans are returning to bleachers. University of Wisconsin-Madison classes begin Sept. 2 and the first home game is Sept. 12.

If a great university has great traditions, then UW-Madison must be great, indeed. And you’d better know the traditions, whether attending the university or enjoying a Badger game.

After all, “Without an identifiable tradition, a university could become an emberless place, perhaps a soulless battleground,” wrote Robert Gard, the late folklorist and UW historian.

Incidentally, the first home game will be against Miami University, of Oxford, Ohio. Don’t worry, that’s not a tradition. But these are:

Bucky Badger — The tradition most associated with UW-Madison is actually one of its most recent. The Bucky we know today was designed in 1940 by Art Evans, a California commercial artist. Before that, a live badger sometimes served as mascot. Believe it or not, so did Paul Bunyan.

Cheerleaders — Today they build pyramids and catch each other in basket tosses, but cheerleading started as only that — cheering. The first cheerleader, Johnny Campbell, led the first cheer on Nov. 2, 1898, at a University of Minnesota football game. It spread to the UW soon afterward. For decades, only men were allowed. The scales tipped in women’s favor during the 1920s, because so few other athletic activities were open to them. 

Homecoming — No, it hasn’t been around forever. The first UW homecoming was in 1911. It included speeches and, during halftime, an alumni football game. The UW had been playing intercollegiate football for only 22 years. In 1912, and at every homecoming game since, law school seniors have charged the southern goalpost, where they try to throw their canes up and over. Students making the catch, tradition goes, will win their first cases. This year’s homecoming game, Oct. 17, will be played against Purdue.

The Fifth Quarter — If you leave early, you’ll miss what some fans think is the best part of the game. In the 1970s, Madison’s football team wasn’t exactly strong. To boost morale, the marching band added a post-game performance. It built and built, becoming wilder and wilder, with stunts and choreography. By the time the press had dubbed it the Fifth Quarter, it was an institution. 

The Band — The UW School of Music actually hosts several bands, but it’s the marching band fans know best. It was formed during the 1885–86 school year. It performed with the University Military Battalion, at prom and at the “Joint Debate of the University.” In 1894 the band began playing at the newfangled football games sweeping the country. Today Mike Leckrone, director of bands, marches more than 300 students and has become a tradition himself, enjoying iconic status. He joined the UW in 1969, and developed the group’s distinctive pointed-foot marching style, as well as designing its uniforms. As for what the band plays:

“Varsity” — The somber song that brings a lump to alumni throats was originally a hymn written by Charles Gounod (1818–1893), a French composer primarily known for opera. He also wrote the well-known setting for “Ave Maria.” In 1908, UW music instructor Henry Dyke Sleeper wrote new words and a new arrangement for what he named “Varsity Toast.” The arm-wave at its close was added in 1934 by band director Ray Dvorak.

“If You Want to Be a Badger” — Like “Varsity,” it originally had another life. In 1919, UW professor Julian Olson wrote the lyrics for “The Badger Ballad.” Band director Charles Mills composed a peppy melody for the song, which wasn’t intended for students or sports, but for an alumni dinner.

“You’ve Said It All” — Older Milwaukee readers will recall when the city was home not only to Miller but to Schlitz, Pabst and Blatz breweries — and the intense rivalry with Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser, brewed in St. Louis. So it’s the peak of irony that Bud’s 1970 advertising jingle was made into the UW’s favorite brag: “When you’ve said Wi-scon-sin, you’ve said it all!” Steve Karmen wrote the original.

“On, Wisconsin!” — If it doesn’t have the comma and exclamation point, it’s not the song’s actual title. It was written in 1909 by W.T. Purdy and Carl Beck for a University of Minnesota song competition. They gave it to the UW, instead. It’s also our official state song. After singing it at the game, why not head to:

The Union Terrace — The students’ Memorial Union was completed in 1928. Campus supervising architect Arthur Peabody wanted it to resemble “a Venetian pleasure palace,” but he left its most pleasing feature to his daughter, Charlotte. A budding landscape architect, she designed the terrace, “the living room of the university,” on the shores of Lake Mendota.