The last tie

Mrs. Presteblog and I went to the final UW football game in 1995, a 3-3 tie with Illinois.

Little did we realize (or too cold to appreciate) we were watching history in the making. That was the final tie in college football.

Adam Rittenburg describes the details of a game as dull as the score would lead you to believe:

The sport introduced overtime in the 1995 postseason and for all games in 1996, which meant Illinois-Wisconsin, the regular-season finale, would become the final deadlocked collegiate contest.

Some of college football’s most famous games ended in ties, including the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State clash, billed as the “Game of the Century.” Other notable ties include the 1946 Army-Navy contest and the 1973 Ohio State-Michigan game, which led to a controversial vote about the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl participant.

The Illinois-Wisconsin tie, meanwhile, was in a different category.

“It generated nothing,” Lisheron said. “It was two feckless teams going back and forth. I’ve been at games where Wisconsin has taken it on the chin, but I’ve never been to a worse football game because nothing happened. Neither team moved!”

Those on the field shared the sentiment.

“The game itself it’s probably one of those everybody-wants-to-forget-it games,” Wisconsin offensive lineman Chris McIntosh said. “Did anybody leave that day happy?”

Despite the general dullness, the game featured more subplots than points.

This is the story of The Last Tie.

Bevell’s last stand

Darrell Bevell deserved a better sendoff. He had been the face of Wisconsin’s football renaissance, coming to Madison by way of Northern Arizona University and a two-year Mormon mission in Cleveland. In 1993, he set team records for pass yards (2,390) and pass touchdowns (19) in leading Wisconsin to its first Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance in 31 years.

But Wisconsin was 4-5-1 — yes, the Badgers tied Stanford earlier that season — entering Bevell’s senior day. He didn’t make it to end of the game.

Wisconsin’s uncharacteristically inconsistent run game and young and mediocre offensive line left Bevell exposed to a ferocious Illinois defense, led by Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice, the Nos. 2 and 3 overall selections in the 1996 NFL draft.

“Bevell got knocked all over the stadium,” recalled longtime Wisconsin broadcaster Matt Lepay. “He kept getting up. I was thinking, ‘Dude, get off the field.'”

Illinois didn’t record a sack in the first half but piled up hits on Bevell. One in particular, delivered by Rice and Hardy on a pass, deposited Bevell on his side, leaving him with terrible back pain.

“Darrell would play through anything,” Badgers offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch said.

Bevell pushed forward. It was senior day. His parents were in the stands. His abdomen ached at halftime, but the trainers couldn’t tell him the exact cause.

With three minutes left in the game, the pain had peaked and Bevell couldn’t even bark the cadence. He hobbled off the field and went to the locker room on a golf cart. Before taking X-rays, he used the restroom and urinated blood.

“I still had my cleats on and I was looking at this little X-ray tech,” said Bevell, now the Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator. “I remember saying, ‘I’m going, I’m going.’ I just felt it. I ended up passing out.”

An ambulance transported Bevell to University Hospital, where he entered intensive care. The diagnosis: a lacerated kidney. His abdomen had filled with blood until it “couldn’t bleed anymore,” he said.

Had the blood gone through the lining in Bevell’s abdomen and into his legs, he would have needed surgery.

“I was real fortunate,” he said.

After reaching the hospital, Bevell immediately wanted to know whether Wisconsin had won the game. That’s when he heard about the tie.

“It sucks, it sucks,” he said. “You don’t feel like you win or lost. It’s like, ‘What did we do?’ There’s no credit either way.”

Illini bowled over

A win over would have made Illinois bowl eligible, but it wouldn’t have guaranteed a spot. Athletic director Ron Guenther had spent the days before the game furiously brokering bowl options. He proposed a scenario: if Illinois and Iowa won their last games and Michigan State lost its finale, Iowa would go to the Sun Bowl, Michigan State to the Liberty Bowl and Illinois to the Independence Bowl. Illinois had played East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl the previous year, and organizers didn’t want a rematch.

But MSU coach Nick Saban didn’t want the Liberty Bowl, either, as the school hadn’t enjoyed its experience there two years earlier. If Michigan State had won its last game, it would have gone to the Sun Bowl, and Iowa would have accepted the Liberty Bowl, freeing up the Independence Bowl for Illinois. But a Spartans loss meant they would go to the Independence or Liberty, and they wanted Shreveport.

After a week of talking with bowl officials, television networks and schools, Guenther told the Chicago Tribune that Illinois’ bowl hopes were “on life support” entering the Wisconsin game. Guenther’s big selling point remained the Chicago TV market.

“I remember being in the press box with these guys who had flown in from the Independence Bowl,” Guenther said. “I had one of our donors with us, and we came down to stand on the sideline.”

They stood there in the final minute as Illinois drove to the Wisconsin 36-yard line. The Illini lined up for a 54-yard field-goal attempt that, if successful, would almost surely win the game.

Guenther watched the ball flip toward the goal posts, right on line. It fell a few feet shy of the crossbar.

“In my opinion, it’s worse than a loss,” Guenther said.

The AD went to the locker room afterward, as he always does. But he had no idea what to say. The bowl reps? They just left.

“We knew 6-5 was going to put us in [a bowl],” Hardy said. “There’s a bit of emptiness. You didn’t win, you didn’t lose, but the game is over. You’re looking at the scoreboard and you’re like, ‘3-3, that’s ridiculous.’ This is our last game playing for Illinois. It’s like, ‘What’s going on now?’ I do remember being in the locker room and some guys were wondering, ‘Do we still have a chance?’

“We didn’t have a losing season, but we didn’t have a winning season, either.”

‘Maybe a foot short’

The plaque still hangs on Bret Scheuplein’s wall at his home in Florida.

It reads:

AT&T Long Distance Award
Brett (sic) Scheuplein, Illinois
Longest Field Goal
November 25, 1995

Perhaps the ultimate irony of The Last Tie is that it featured the longest made field goal in college football that week, a 51-yarder Scheuplein converted midway through the fourth quarter. The kick turned out to be Scheuplein’s career long and earned him a national honor.

It was a cool day, 40 degrees at kickoff, but not overly windy or frigid for Wisconsin in late November. Scheuplein kept a hunting boot over his right foot to keep it warm and nearly forgot to remove it before kicking the 51-yarder.

But it was his second attempt, the 54-yarder in the final minute, which lingers.

“It was actually a very good kick,” Illinois punter Brett Larsen recalled. “He hit it well. I don’t remember what that wind was doing, but as soon as he hit it, I think he thought it was good. If I remember right, he kind of put his hands in the air, like, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ And then it just fell short. It was like a yard short or a half-yard short, right in front of the crossbar.”

Scheuplein thought he had it, until he didn’t.

“No one was hard on me,” he said. “It wasn’t like I missed a 25-yarder. They knew it was a long shot. But it’s the ones you miss, those are the ones that stick with you, especially when they’re that close.

“As a kicker, you can’t beat yourself up too much. But that one stung.”

Swan song for a man in stripes

Wisconsin-Illinois was college football’s last tie game, but for the Big Ten officiating crew at Camp Randall Stadium, it also marked the final game for J.W. Sanders, the field judge that day. Sanders had started officiating Big Ten games in 1975 before moving to the NFL for most of the 1980s. He returned to the college game for his final few seasons on the field.

Referee Dick Honig gathered his crew for dinner in downtown Madison the day before the Wisconsin-Illinois game. The crew then returned to the InnTowner Madison, a few blocks west of the stadium, for their pregame meeting.

That night, line judge John Kouris read a passage he had written for Sanders to the crew.

An excerpt:

When we step unto a torrid stadium floor in late August or stand tall in the November snow, wind and rain amidst the catcalls and epithets, we are not officiating a college football game. We are instead standing at the edge of time and looking into eternity. And for those precious moments when we are sprinting down the sidelines with wide receivers less than half our age or jumping into skirmishes with young men twice our size, we are quenching our collective thirst with short sips from the fountain of youth.

We are the September winds sweeping across Midwestern towns — Coal City, Cloverdale, Newton, Delphi — and hosts upon hosts of silo-filled, steeple-attended villages. We are the parched breath of autumn and the harbinger of summer’s death.

Kouris said officials often got on one another for “showing a sensitive side,” but Sanders appreciated the tribute.

“J.W. was a very well-respected official,” Kouris recalled. “He was always leading clinics and helping those of us wanting to get to the Big Ten. He was a prince of a guy.”

The officials had reviewed overtime rules during their clinic before the 1995 season. After the game, Kouris approached Honig.

“If this game was next year, we’d still be playing,” he said. “We’d be freezing our ass off a lot longer.”

Hollow in history

When the game ended, those involved didn’t give much thought to their involvement in a small piece of college football history.

Even as they reflect on the game more than two decades later, the feelings aren’t overly fond.

Wisconsin offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch: We just did all this work, blood, sweat and tears, people broke bones and no one got anything. It feels like a loss because you didn’t win. The result is so deflating, actually.

Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy: It’s not one of those situations we could have done anything different. There wasn’t that, ‘Oh no, it can’t end like this!’ But in hindsight, we would have liked to be able to decide it.

Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez: It was just blah. You feel like nothing was accomplished. So the game’s over, you don’t win, you don’t lose, you can’t celebrate. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a fan in that stadium.

Illinois punter Brett Larsen: There’s something to be said for history. That does make it intriguing, especially Notre Dame-Michigan State [in 1966], some of those games. But I’m definitely in favor of overtime rules and giving somebody a chance to win.

Wisconsin linebacker Tarek Saleh: Many years later, it’s OK to talk about. I wouldn’t want to advertise it, especially when I was 22 years old. Now it’s hey, we were part of something. You would rather have won the game and moved on, but it’s fine to be mentioned, somebody remembers you for something. So it’s not the worst thing in the world.

Well, neither are ties, but having witnessed and announced several, they’re just unsatisfying. It’s as if the game was never played at all. I refer overtime, even if my team loses in overtime.

 

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