The team's nickname originates in the early history of Wisconsin. In the 1820s and 1830s, prospectors came to the state looking for minerals, primarily lead. Without shelter in the winter, the miners had to "live like badgers" in tunnels burrowed into hillsides.
The first Badger football team took the field in 1889, losing the only two games it played that season. In 1890, Wisconsin earned its first victory with a 106–0 drubbing of Whitewater Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater), still the most lopsided win in school history. However, the very next week the Badgers suffered what remains their most lopsided defeat, a humiliating 63–0 loss at the hands of the University of Minnesota. Since then, the Badgers and Gophers have met 122 times, making Wisconsin vs Minnesota the most-played rivalry in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Upon the formation of the Big Ten conference in 1896, Wisconsin became the first-ever conference champion with a 7–1–1 record. Over the next ten years, the Badgers won or shared the conference title three more times (1897, 1901, and 1906), and recorded their first undefeated season, going 9–0–0 (1901). With the exception of their second undefeated season in 1912, in which they won their fifth Big Ten title.
1942 was an important year for Wisconsin football. On October 24, the #6 ranked Badgers defeated the #1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at Camp Randall, catapulting Wisconsin to the #2 spot in the AP poll. Unfortunately for the Badgers, their national championship hopes were dashed in a 6–0 defeat by the Iowa Hawkeyes the following week. Nevertheless, Wisconsin won the remainder of its games, finishing the season 8–1–1 and #3 in the AP, while garnering the Helms Athletic Foundation vote for National Champion. Afterwards, the Badgers struggled to regain their momentum, with their efforts hampered by many of their star players leaving as a result of World War II. In the late 1940's, fans began insisting that head coach Harry Stuhldreher resign, many times chanting "Goodbye Harry", especially during 1948, where the Badgers finished 2-7. Stuhldreher stepped down as head coach, while keeping his duties as athletic director. Stuhldreher then named Ivy Williamson as head coach
The Badgers experienced great success during the 1950s under Williamson, finishing in the AP Top 25 eight times that decade. In one stretch, from 1950-1954, the Badgers went 26-8-3. The Badgers' success during those seasons was defined by a stout defense, dubbed "The Hard Rocks", which usually finished in the top 5 of the nation in overall defense, including leading the nation in 1951. In 1952, the team received its first #1 ranking by the Associated Press. That season, the Badgers again claimed the Big Ten title and earned their first trip to the Rose Bowl. There they were defeated 7–0 by the Southern California, and would finish the season ranked #11 in the AP. In 1954 after a 7-2 season, Wisconsin's Alan Ameche became the first Badger to win the Heisman Trophy. Ivy Williamson stepped down as head coach in 1955 to become athletic director, and was replaced by his former assistant coach, Milt Bruhn. Bruhn would continue Wisconsin's success, after an initial setback with a 1-5-3 record in 1956. Wisconsin returned to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten Champions in 1959, but fell to the Washington Huskies, 44-8.
In 1962, the Badgers had another landmark season, spearheaded by the passing combination of Ron Vander Kelen to All-American Pat Richter. The Badgers standout victory was an upset of #1-ranked Northwestern, who were coached then by the legendary Ara Parseghian. The Badgers finished 8-1, earned their eighth Big Ten title, and faced the top-ranked USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl. Despite a narrow 42–37 defeat, the Badgers still ended the season ranked #2 in both the AP and Coaches polls (post-bowl rankings were not introduced until later in the decade).
Following the successful 1962 campaign, Wisconsin football scuffled, and Milt Bruhn resigned in 1966 after three straight losing seasons. Wisconsin chose former assistant coach John Coatta. The Badgers finished even worse under Coatta, going winless for 23 straight games from 1967-1969, and winning only 3 games overall during Coatta's short reign, each of the wins occurring during the 1969 season. What stung even worse for Badger fans during the three season, was the coach that Wisconsin supposedly turned down for the head coaching role, Bo Schembechler.
In 1970, new athletic director Elroy Hirsch named John Jardine as head coach. While the Badgers weren't a consistent winner under Jardine, the program regained stability, and also brought excitement in running backs Rufus "Roadrunner" Ferguson and Billy Marek. The Badgers went 37-47-3 under Jardine, who stepped down in 1977.
After more subpar seasons from 1978-1980, the team had a string of seven-win seasons from 1981–84 under Dave McClain. During that time the Badgers played in the Garden State Bowl (1981), Independence Bowl (1982), and Hall of Fame Classic Bowl (1984). McClain's death during spring practice in 1986 sent the Badgers into free fall. From 1986 to 1990, the Badgers won a total of nine games.
Return to Glory with Alvarez era (1990–2005)
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In 1990, Barry Alvarez became the head coach of the Badgers and, following three losing seasons (including a 1–10 campaign in his first year), Alvarez led the Badgers to their first Big Ten championship and first Rose Bowl appearance in over 30 years. On January 1, 1994 Wisconsin defeated UCLA 21–16 to claim its first Rose Bowl victory. Over his 16-year tenure as head coach, Alvarez led the Badgers to two more conference championships (one outright, one shared), eleven bowl games (going 8–3), two more Rose Bowl victories (1999 and 2000), and a #4 ranking in the final AP Poll of the '99 season.
Barry Alvarez has served as interim head coach two times. Wisconsin lost the 2013 Rose Bowl to Stanford and defeated Auburn in the 2015 Outback Bowl.
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Following the 2005 season, Alvarez resigned as head coach in order to focus on his duties as athletic director, a position he had assumed in 2004. He named his defensive coordinator, Bret Bielema, as his successor. From 2006 to 2011, Bielema led the Badgers to six consecutive bowl appearances, going 2–4. In 2010, the Badgers won a share of the Big Ten Championship and returned to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000. There they were defeated 21–19 by the #3 ranked TCU. In 2011, the Badgers were once again crowned Big Ten Champs when they defeated Michigan State in the first-ever conference championship game. The victory sent Wisconsin back to the Rose Bowl for a second consecutive year, where they were defeated by the Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks, 45-38.
The 2012 season ended with the Badgers winning a third consecutive Big Ten title. Despite finishing with a 7-5 record and third in the Leaders Division, the Badgers advanced to the Big Ten Championship game by virtue of the fact that Penn State and Ohio State were ineligible for postseason play. A dominating rushing performance led Wisconsin to a 70-31 victory over #12 ranked Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game. Only days later, Brett Bielema resigned to become the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Gary Andersen, formerly coach of Utah State University, was named head coach on December 19, 2012. At the request of the team captains, Barry Alvarez named himself interim coach for the 2013 Rose Bowl, where the Badgers lost, 20-14 to Stanford.
Gary Andersen was hired in December 2012 after Bret Bielema resigned to become the head coach for the University of Arkansas. Andersen was previously the head coach for Utah State where he went 26-23 in his four years at Utah State with his last season being 11-2 and finishing first in the Western Athletic Conference. Andersen's first win as the Badgers coach was a 45-0 win against Massachusetts. His first Big Ten football victory was a 41-10 victory over Purdue. The Badgers ended 2013 with a 9-4 record after losing to #8 South Carolina Gamecocks in the Capital One Bowl.
The Badgers started out the 2014 season ranked #14 in the AP Poll and their season opener was against #13 LSU Tigers in Houston, after leading the Tigers through three quarters the Tigers came back from a 24-7 deficit to defeat the Badgers 28-24. The Badgers recorded their first road shutout since 1998 in a 37-0 victory over the Big Ten newcomers Rutgers Scarlet Knights. On November 15, junior running back Melvin Gordon broke the all-time FBS single-game rushing yards record with 408 yards in a 59-24 victory against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. However that record only lasted a week as Samaje Perine from Oklahoma rushed for 427 yards the very next week. The 2014 regular season ended with the Badgers taking 1st place in the West Division with a 10-2 record. Wisconsin played Ohio State for the conference title in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game where the Badgers lost to Ohio State 59-0. It was the first time since 1997 that the Badgers were shutout and the worst loss since 1979 when Ohio State defeated the Badgers 59–0.
Andersen departed Wisconsin four days later, taking the vacant head coaching position at Oregon State. Andersen cited family as his rationale for taking the Oregon State position; however, it was reported by some media outlets, such as Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated, that Andersen was frustrated with the University's high academic standards for athletes. Those reports turned out to be accurate, and were confirmed by Andersen in January 2015. Andersen had to pay a $3 million buyout for departing within the first two years of his contract, which was set through January 2019.
At the request of the teams' seniors, Barry Alvarez named himself interim coach for the 2015 Outback Bowl vs. Auburn on January 1, 2015. Wisconsin won the game 34–31 in overtime.
After the departure of Gary Andersen former Badgers offensive coordinator (2005-2011) and Pitt head coach (2012-2014), Paul Chryst, was hired as the next head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers. The only assistant coach to remain on the coaching staff after Andersen's departure was defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Chryst brought over six coaching staff from the University of Pittsburgh, Joe Rudolph (OC), John Settle (RB coach), Inoke Breckterfield (D-line), Chris Haering (special teams), Mickey Turner (TE coach) and Ross Kolodziej (strength and conditioning). From 2005 to 2011 Rudolph (TE coach) and Settle (RB coach) were assistant coaches under Chryst (OC). Mickey Turner and Ross Kolodziej are both former Badgers players, Turner was a tight end from 2006-2009 and Kolodziej was a defensive tackle from 1997-2000.
In Chryst's first season the Badgers went 10–3 and finished 1st nationally in scoring defense (13.7 points per game) and 2nd in total defense (268.5 yards per game). All three losses came to teams that were in the AP top 25 at the end of the season, eventual national champions #1 Alabama, #9 Iowa and #23 Northwestern. Chryst also won the Holiday Bowl against USC, whom the Badgers had a 0-6 record against before the game, with their last meeting being the 1963 Rose Bowl. Two days after their victory over USC it was announced that the Badgers defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, would be taking the same role for the LSU Tigers, whom the Badgers open the 2016 season against at Lambeau Field.
Aranda was replaced with Justin Wilcox, who was previously USC's defensive coordinator from 2014 to 2015, he was fired in early December 2015 after the Trojans finished 50th nationally in scoring defense (25.7 points per game) and 65th in total defense (400.8 yards per game).
The Badgers started 2016 on a high note by upsetting the #5 ranked LSU Tigers 16-14 in their season opener at Lambeau Field, the first ever major college football game in the historical stadium.
The Badgers have appeared in 27 bowl games and have a record of 13 wins and 14 losses (13–14). Their most recent bowl game was in the 2015 Holiday Bowl. The Badgers have participated in a season-ending bowl game 14 consecutive seasons and snapped a four-game bowl losing streak with a 34–31 overtime victory over Auburn in the 2015 Outback Bowl.
This chart includes both the overall record the University of Wisconsin Badgers have with the all-time Big Ten members, as well as the matchups that counted in the Big Ten standings. Wisconsin has been a member of the Big Ten since its creation in 1896. Michigan rejoined the league in 1917 after leaving in 1906. Chicago withdrew after 1939, and then Michigan State (1953), Penn State (1993), and Nebraska (2011), Maryland and Rutgers (2014) joined the Big Ten conference bringing the league total to 14 teams. (As of January 1, 2015)
Badgers celebrating their win by carrying Paul Bunyan's Axe around the stadium after the 2009 game
The UW-U of M series is the nation’s most-played rivalry in Division I football and has been played continuously since 1907. Much prestige was always associated with the game, and the significance was emphasized with its place on the schedule. Between 1933 and 1982, the Wisconsin-Minnesota game was always the final regular-season contest for each school. The series took an added twist in 1948 when more than state bragging rights were on the line. After a 16-0 setback that season, the Wisconsin lettermen's group, the National 'W' Club, presented Minnesota with an axe wielded by Paul Bunyan. He was the mythical giant of Midwestern lumber camps. Each year since, the winner of the annual battle between the Big Ten rivals is presented with the axe, complete with scores inscribed on the handle, for display on its campus. Minnesota leads the series 59-58-8.
Iowa is Wisconsin's other arch rival. Although the rivalry started in 1894, the Heartland Trophy was inaugurated in 2004 and goes each year to the winner. The trophy was designed and crafted by artist and former Iowa football player Frank Strub. The trophy, which is a bull mounted on a walnut base (native to both Wisconsin and Iowa), has been inscribed with the scores of all games in the long-time series. With Big Ten expansion, the Wisconsin and Iowa football teams were placed in separate divisions, thus ending their annual rivalry. However, with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, Iowa and Wisconsin will be placed back in the same division in 2014. Wisconsin leads the series at 44-43-2.
Nebraska is Wisconsin's newest rival. With the inclusion of the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten in 2011 the first three games between the two programs were significant, the third being the 2012 Big Ten Football Championship Game where the unranked Badgers defeated the heavily favored #14 ranked Cornhuskers, 70-31. Prior to their next matchup in 2014, the University of Nebraska and the University of Wisconsin announced that moving forward the two schools would play for the Freedom Trophy. The trophy sits on a wooden base and features a depiction of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium on one side and Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium on the other. The trophy has an inscription honoring the nation's veterans and symbolizes that Memorial Stadium was built in their honor at Nebraska while Camp Randall Stadium in Wisconsin was built on the site of a former Civil War training site. The score of each year's contest will be inscribed on the trophy.
From 1904 to 1960 Wisconsin forged an intense rivalry with the Marquette Golden Avalanche. During this time these two schools were the only two Division I football in the state of Wisconsin (Marquette being located in Milwaukee). These two schools played every year from 1932 to 1960 until Marquette terminated their football program. The Badgers won the series record 32-4. Marquette no longer has a Division I football program.