Ask Marquette University basketball fans what they think about the University of Wisconsin and you’ll get passionate responses. Pose the same question to Badgers fans about the Golden Eagles and you’ll get more of a mixed bag.
“There are Badger fans who come to our website who say Marquette-Wisconsin is Marquette’s Super Bowl,” said John Dodds, a Marquette alum who has covered the team since 1978 and runs the fan site MarquetteHoops.com. “I disagree and say it’s five times more important than a Super Bowl.”
Said Andy Schaff, a 2005 Wisconsin grad, “You have people who don’t consider them a rival and then you have people who hate them.”
So, is this a rivalry or not?
For fans of the two programs entering their 101st year and 125th meeting Saturday, it’s a more complicated question because of history, geography and unrequited feelings.
Hotbed for hostility
The embers of a rivalry burn as hot as ever for those closest to the teams in Milwaukee and Madison.
Larry Kuhagen, who grew up in Milwaukee and is a 1982 Marquette graduate school alum, said not much has changed for him over the decades.
“It’s always been the same,” he said, “a heavy rivalry since the mid-’70s to date.”
Matt List is almost half Kuhagen’s age of 64, but the Sun Prairie native said he feels Marquette-Wisconsin is on par with other great rivalries like North Carolina vs. Duke.
“Personally, it is, but I don’t know if the rest of the country considers it to be,” List said. “If you have friends who are fans of each school, it puts faces and names to the rivalry.”
But the farther you get away from the two cities, and the 78-mile drive along I-94 separating the two schools, the less heated the emotions.
Schaff said that until you experience the rivalry firsthand, it’s hard to grasp.
“I grew up in western Wisconsin never really thinking about Marquette,” Schaff said. “Then I went to my first game and saw the vocal minority and thought this was cool.”
David Carlson, 33, grew up in the north-central Wisconsin village of Wittenberg, and said there were few Marquette fans in that part of the state.
“Growing up where I did, you didn’t see them,” Carlson said. “You were a Wisconsin fan, you didn’t even think of them.”
This is a point Dodds is willing to concede.
“There’s always a bias in a state for the state school,” he said. “If you’re from a small town up north, you’ll root for Wisconsin.
“(Wisconsin is) definitely bigger in the southwest corner of the state.”
Focus on basketball
Jon Beidelschies has a unique perspective and point of view.
Beidelschies graduated from Marquette for his undergrad and then from UW law school. He’s also the assistant editor for the Wisconsin fan website Buckys5thquarter.com.
According to him, the Golden Eagles take things a bit more seriously than the Badgers.
“It means a lot more to Marquette than Wisconsin, not that it doesn’t matter to Wisconsin,” Beidelschies said. “Marquette fans don’t like Wisconsin, there’s a strong antipathy towards Wisconsin that Wisconsin doesn’t share back.”
Marquette alum Phil Bush, who is one half the Marquette fan podcast Scrambled Eggs, said fans of the university tend to feel put down by their Wisconsin counterparts.
“Marquette always feels like the little brother, at least that’s how Wisconsin sees it,” Bush said.
He’s not wrong, according to List.
“I hate to say it, but it is a little-brother complex,” List said. “It must be an inferiority complex because Wisconsin gets more of the headlines. It’s Wisconsin, everyone knows them.”
Dodds thinks because Marquette no longer has a football team, it amplifies the feelings surrounding the basketball team.
“Wisconsin people have football, hockey, basketball, but Marquette focuses on basketball,” Dodds said. “(Marquette fans) love the school and (Milwaukee) and the basketball team is the way to show it.”
Current Marquette junior John Steppe, executive sports editor of the student media organization Marquette Wire, said it just makes sense for Marquette to have an intense rivalry with Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin is the most natural rival for Marquette,” Steppe said. “Basketball is Marquette’s football. There’s a strong tradition in basketball, so that’s what the campus gravitates towards.”
The same can’t be said for Wisconsin, which has a variety of other major sports to focus on, Beidelschies said.
“It’s unclear to me if Wisconsin has a true basketball rival like Duke and North Carolina or Kentucky and Louisville,” Beidelschies said.
Jake Kocorowski, who also writes for Buckys5thquarter.com, said an informal poll of writers for the site revealed they don’t worry about Marquette beyond game day.
“We’re alums and we think the rivalry is there when the game is played,” Kocorowski said. “Wisconsin fans want to beat them on that day, not as big of a rivalry on that side. There’s a greater concentration and intensity on the Marquette side.”
Beidelschies and Carlson said they don’t understand Marquette fans who also dislike other Wisconsin sports.
“A lot of the rabid Marquette fans hate Wisconsin football, and I find it kind of funny,” Beidelschies said.
Said Carlson, “I get the tribal mentality, but it’s a bit shocking.”
Born in the 1950s, Ben Reagan’s earliest memory of the rivalry was domination by Marquette, which won 15 straight games over Wisconsin starting in 1969.
The 1975 Wisconsin grad said that despite the frequent losses, the rivalry meant more to Badgers fans back then than it does today.
“I still pay attention to the game, but it doesn’t mean as much to me as it used to,” Reagan said. “It leveled off because neither team was (anything) special.”
The history of the two programs has been mostly divergent. Marquette was a national powerhouse in the 1960s and ’70s. Wisconsin’s best run of success since winning the 1941 national title started in the mid ’90s.
Marquette has reached the Sweet 16 just six times — including one Final Four and one Elite Eight — since winning the NCAA national championship in 1977, while Wisconsin didn’t make the NCAA tournament at all from 1947-94.
The Badgers have made three trips to the Final Four since 2000 and at least the Sweet 16 an additional seven times.
John Casper Jr., a Marquette alum and the editor for the Winona Daily News in Minnesota, said he thinks the Badgers’ recent success has only added fuel to the Golden Eagles’ fire.
“A lot of it is a respect factor,” Casper Jr. said. “A lot of Wisconsin’s success has been recent, so people don’t realize how tradition-rich Marquette is.”
“That’s one of the factors because you have the fair-weather (Wisconsin) fans who think basketball began in 1998,” Bush said.
Wisconsin’s run of success since the turn of the century means an entire generation of state basketball fans know little of Marquette beyond 2003’s Final Four team led by NBA star Dwyane Wade.
“They do play second fiddle a lot, they came on the map a bit in 2003 with Dwyane Wade,” Carlson said. “It wasn’t on our mind until then. You’re following Badger football and all that.”
Beidelschies said he thinks Marquette fans are too focused on the distant past as opposed to the present.
“If you got folks who were there in the ’70s for the glory years, they didn’t have another strong run until 2003,” Beidelschies said. “Marquette hasn’t been meaningful in the tournament for a few years.”
Kocorowski said, as a result, Wisconsin fans have a much bigger rivalry with Minnesota, which pushes Marquette to the back burner.
“Minnesota is more of a rival because there’s football, basketball, volleyball, hockey and everything else,” Kocorowski said. “This generation doesn’t view it as much of a big rival compared to Minnesota.”
“I think to Wisconsin fans, beating Minnesota is more important than Marquette,” Reagan said. “I just don’t know many Badger fans who really want Marquette to lose.”
Kocorowski drew a comparison regarding the Wisconsin football team.
“Like in football, where Wisconsin considers Ohio State a rival but Ohio State doesn’t feel the same way,” he said.
Bush, though, said he doesn’t feel that the quality of the teams has any bearing on the rivalry from the Marquette perspective.
“Wisconsin basketball was terrible for a long time,” Bush said. “The teams haven’t always been good, but it’s a game you can look forward to.”
The intensity of the rivalry might be up for debate, but both sides agree the rivalry exists.
“The rivalry is there, the tipping scales on one side just outweigh the other,” Kocorowski said. “Wisconsin fans might not have that fire Marquette fans have.”
Said Reagan, “It’s still a rivalry, but the vitriol is on the Marquette side.”
Added Steppe, “It might not be life or death, but people care, neither team wants to lose.”
Kuhagen has seen the passion himself, on both sides.
“A lot of times, my friends don’t like to go to the games because there’s so much smack talk,” he said. “When I see (Badgers fans) at the games wearing their red, they don’t like Marquette at all and are vocal.”
For fans like Casper Jr., if Wisconsin doesn’t care that much about Marquette, that’s just fine.
“To me, the rivalry is important, and I couldn’t care what a majority of Badger fans think,” Casper Jr. said. “Anytime Marquette beats Wisconsin is a good year.”