If you want to be a Badger …

Sports Illustrated profiles Badger football, beginning with this fact:

Since 2014, only three schools have won more games than Wisconsin: Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. After defeating Indiana 45–17 last Saturday, the Badgers are 9–0, ranked No. 8 and have all but clinched the Big Ten’s West Division. Although they are led by freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, a Heisman candidate from Salem, N.J., and sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook (West Chester, Pa.), exactly half of their players grew up in-state.

That strong in-state presence dates back to 1990, when legendary coach Barry Alvarez took charge of the program. He resolved to “build a wall around this state,” and in the process created a culture that remains today in Madison, where he still serves as the Badgers’ athletic director. Successive coaches—especially Alvarez’s successor, Brett Bielema, and Chryst—have kept that barrier intact, building loyalty, cultivating walk-ons, piling up victories and indoctrinating two generations of natives in the Wisconsin Way.

[Special teams coordinator Chris] Haering is an outlier on a staff chock full of Badgers. Chryst is the son of a revered coach at D-III Wisconsin-Platteville. He went to high school in Platteville and was the Badgers’ backup quarterback from 1986 through ’88. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is a native of Tony (pop. 113) who played safety under Alvarez from 2001 through ’05. And offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, while not a Wisconsin native, was a Badgers O-lineman from 1992 through ’94. No other school that’s been ranked in the Top 25 this season has a trio of alumni as its coach and coordinators.

Rudolph started on the ’93 Badgers’ team that won its first Big Ten title in three decades in Alvarez’s third season. The coach had arrived after two seasons as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator to find a state full of recruits wearing Michigan and Michigan State T-shirts. He told them he was the guy to turn the program around, and many began to believe. Most importantly, Alvarez mined the football talent in the state’s small towns, which was critical given Wisconsin’s geography: Of the states north of the Mason-Dixon Line, only 10 are more rural, and of those just one (Iowa) has a Power Five football program. On this year’s Wisconsin team, 47 players on the roster hail from outside of Milwaukee and Madison, in towns whose populations range from 105,000 (Green Bay) to 375 (Amherst Junction).

“You go down to Florida, and you stop, and you get 15 D-I kids [at one school],” says Leonhard, who played a decade in the NFL. “When you [recruit Wisconsin players], you might have to go 300 miles between them. It’s just kind of a [lack of] bang for your buck, as far as recruiting goes. Most people are not going to go out of their way to recruit the area.”

The Badgers’ success with walk-ons gives recruiters even greater clout: Since 1990, 19 from Wisconsin have reached the NFL. Often, these players didn’t play high-level high school football, but UW coaches spotted their talents at track meets and basketball games. “Sometimes when you turn on the high school tape, you see kids that maybe aren’t as developed in football skills yet,” Haering says. “You have to maybe see through some of those layers and project a little bit.”

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