Camp Randall 100: Ivy Williamson

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.

BY MIKE LUCAS | Senior Writer

Ivy Williamson
Ivy Williamson

Ivan B. (Ivy) Williamson, an Ohio native, earned his undergraduate degree and master’s from the University of Michigan, where he lettered twice in basketball and three times in football. Playing on teams that posted a 24-1-2 record and won or shared three Big Ten titles (1930-32), Williamson was an all-conference end and senior captain. His coach Harry Kipke called him, “The smartest player I have ever had or hope to have.” After an eight-year stint as a Yale assistant, where he was joined briefly on the staff by a Michigan teammate, Gerald Ford (38th President of the United States), Williamson ran his own program at Lafayette College for two seasons before replacing Harry Stuhldreher as Wisconsin’s head coach in 1949.

Under Williamson’s deft guidance, the Badgers went 41-19-4 overall, 29-13-4 in the Big Ten over seven years. His ’51 team led the nation in total defense and the unit was dubbed, “The Hard Rocks.” The next year, UW played in its first bowl game ever, the Rose Bowl, losing 7-0 to Washington. In 1955, Williamson relinquished coaching duties to become athletic director. Among his achievements during his 13 years as AD were the expansion of Camp Randall to 77,000, the renovation of the press box, the installation of Tartan Turf and the construction of the natatorium and the Camp Randall Memorial Sports Center. Williamson was a charter member of the UW Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991.

On the same week that Wisconsin moved up to No. 1 in the Associated Press college football poll — the first and only time in school history the Badgers have held the top spot — head coach Ivy Williamson was characterized by an AP writer as a “quiet, friendly student of the game.”

The story appeared on Oct. 8, 1952, and ran in both Madison newspapers.

The big red-haired coach is tremendously popular with his players and is idolized by his staff associates, Jack Burke wrote of Williams, who answered to the nickname, “Red.” (Big Red, if you will.) The harmonious picture is a major factor in the Badgers’ success.

Ivy Williamson and player
Ivy Williamson and player

Williams stresses perfection in fundamentals, Burke continued. His offense operates off his version of the split T, but there is no tendency to hold to any one formula and he’s willing to change, rearrange or introduce anything new that will result in improvement.

Each successive season since he took command has seen the Badgers climb a little higher.

Yet questions were raised in 1949 when Wisconsin hired Williamson, a surprise pick to succeed Harry Stuhldreher, who stayed on as athletic director. Stuhldreher had tremendous name recognition as one of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen” along with Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden.

But his coaching record (45-62-6, .425) didn’t match his Hall of Fame player profile during his 13 seasons on the UW sideline. At the end of his reign, disgruntled students were holding up “Goodbye Harry” signs in Camp Randall. After the Badgers posted a 2-7 mark in 1948, Stuhldreher resigned.

Some blind-eyed loyalists were hoping that Wisconsin could attract someone like Bud Wilkinson, who had just completed his second season at Oklahoma. But that was a pipe dream. Instead, the Badgers hired Williamson, then 38, for a salary of $10,000 per year. He was also a full professor.

One of Williamson’s selling points was his T-formation concepts.

“We’ll use the T with variations,” Williamson explained to the Milwaukee Journal. “I believe the T offers more possibilities in attacking than anything else in football … the short punt or single wing, or box or double wing or any of their variations.”

Speed (flanking halfbacks) and deception (a motion man) were characteristics of the system.

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of ‘Ivan’s Ideas’ is that the plays are flexible, Bob Teague wrote in the Daily Cardinal, the student newspaper. Any given play can be executed at least three different ways according to how the defense lines up.

Teague had rare inside access in that he was not only on the Cardinal’s sport staff but he was a starting halfback for Williamson. In 1949, he was the leading rusher with 96 carries for 521 yards. The Badgers won three of their last four Big Ten games to finish fourth in the conference, a notable upgrade.

(After the University of Chicago withdrew from the league in 1946, it was technically the Big Nine: Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. Michigan State agreed to join in 1950 and began actual competition in 1953.)

After UW’s back-to-back second-places finishes (1950 and 1951), Williamson was winning new converts. Wrote the UPI’s Tom Westerlin: Each year he told fans not to expect a championship team. Each year they got a whiff of roses — just enough to keep them keyed up.

Williamson felt the ’51 team (7-1-1) was his most talented. The only blemishes were a 6-6 tie with Ohio State and a 14-10 loss in the Big Ten opener to Illinois, which went on to win the conference title (9-0-1) and a No. 4 national ranking. A year later, Wisconsin avenged that loss at Camp Randall.

After opening the ’52 season with a 42-19 win over Marquette, the Badgers dominated the Illini in a 20-6 victory that elevated them to No. 1 in the AP poll. But their lofty status was short-lived. That same week, they lost at Ohio State. (Williamson was 0-6-1 against the Buckeyes, a thorn in his side.)

Despite the setback, the Badgers still earned a share of the Big Ten crown with Purdue and won a vote of athletic directors to represent the league in the Rose Bowl. Sophomore quarterback Jim Haluska directed an attack that revolved around the running of Alan Ameche and Harland Carl.

Haluska, a Michigan transfer, and Ameche were from Kenosha. Carl was from Greenwood (44 miles outside of Eau Claire). Williamson emphasized recruiting close to home and most of the players on that ’52 team were from Wisconsin (26) and Illinois (12).


Ivy Williamson coaching Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium
Ivy Williamson coaching Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium


After losing 7-0 to USC in Pasadena, the Badgers never got back under Williamson, though they contended for Big Ten titles in ’53 and ’54. With the death of UW athletic director Guy Sundt in 1955, Williamson moved into the AD’s office and turned over the head coaching reins to an assistant, Milt Bruhn.

Williamson brought Bruhn with him from Lafayette.

Together, Ivan Williamson and Milton Bruhn have been a part of Wisconsin — and of some of its greatest football glories — for 20 years, Wisconsin State Journal sports editor Glen Miller opined on Jan. 11, 1969 after Williamson was dismissed as athletic director and Bruhn took over on an interim basis.

For 18 of those years, one or the other was football coach, added Miller, noting Bruhn had also been asked to step down as coach and was replaced by John Coatta. They were glory years — and the defeat and the financial problems of the last five years ought not to cloud that glory.

Of all the decisions that Williamson made as AD, one will forever stand out. After hockey was resurrected as a sport at Wisconsin under his watch, he announced the hiring of a 35-year-old Colorado College coach whose three-year record (29-51-3) was certainly not that impressive. But his drive was.

April 1, 1966 was a great day for hockey. Bob Johnson took over the UW program.

By sharp contrast, Feb. 20, 1969 was a sad day for Badgers fans. One month and three days after his dismissal in the wake of two winless football seasons (0-19-1) and mounting athletic department debt, Williamson died from a head injury after falling down the basement steps of his home. He was 58.

On that same night, only hours earlier, one of the leading candidates to succeed Williamson on a permanent basis as athletic director flew into Madison. Elroy Hirsch was scheduled to interview with the screening committee the next day. He got the job and “Operation Turnaround” was under way.

But first there was a mourning period for the loss of Williamson.

UW Chancellor Edwin Young said, “He was an athlete, a teacher and an athletic leader and Wisconsin will long remember and sorely miss his contributions.”

Charles Gelatt, the president of the Board of Regents, commended Williamson for his coaching success but stressed, “More importantly, he gave us outstanding young men. They are his memorial.”