Camp Randall 100: John Coatta

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

John Coatta
John Coatta

The “Hard Rocks” cast a long shadow over everyone, including Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, John Coatta, the first QB in Big Ten history to pass for over 1,000 yards in a season. Even Coatta’s selection on the 1951 all-conference team was overshadowed by the four UW defensive players that were named first-team all-league: Pat O’Donahue, Jerry Smith, Robert Kennedy and Deral Teteak.

If nothing else, Coatta, who also kicked extra points and field goals, was keeping fast company. Joining Coatta, a native of Dearborn, Michigan, in the first-team backfield were Minnesota’s Paul Giel, a two-time All-American; Ohio State’s Vic Janowicz, the 1950 Heisman Trophy winner; and Illinois’ Johnny Karras, who was sixth in the voting for the 1951 Heisman.

Offensively, the Badgers set Big Ten records in four categories: total offense (379.3 yards per game), passing (155.4), first downs (19.3 per game) and completions (11.9). The triggerman was Coatta, a converted running back, who’s still ranked among Wisconsin’s top 10 quarterbacks in single-season completion percentage. In 1950, he completed 60 percent, the eighth-best mark in school history.

After his playing days, Coatta entered private business before catching the coaching bug. From 1959 to 1964, he was an assistant at Florida State. In 1965, he came back to Madison and served as an assistant under Milt Bruhn for two seasons before replacing Bruhn as head coach in 1967.

Much of what followed (3-26-1 record) was out of Coatta’s control as a coach. That was in sharp contrast to his play as a quarterback. Coatta controlled the huddled and called all his plays.

On November 3, 1951, the loyalty of Wisconsin fans and alums was put to the ultimate test when the Homecoming contest between Indiana and the Badgers was played in a blizzard at Camp Randall.

The driving snow kept coming down throughout the four quarters, Charles Johnson observed in the Minneapolis Tribune. It was impossible to see the yard lines most of the day. But all but 1,000 of the 51,000 tickets were used.

So much for the notion of fair-weather fans. The official attendance was 51,118.

That’s quite a tribute to Wisconsin loyalty, Johnson wrote. The weather was so bad that before the game the officials didn’t expect more than half the stadium to be filled.

The temperature was 25 degrees at kickoff with the wind gusting between 25 and 35 miles per hour. Nearly 10 inches of snow had accumulated by the end of the game.

Those who came — and stayed — were treated to some last second heroics by Wisconsin quarterback John Coatta who completed only 3 of 14 passes. But it was just good enough on this day.

“He was this handsome fellow who had played quarterback for Wisconsin and had been successful. He just had so much personality and was easy to talk to.”

– Former UW Tight End Larry Mialik on John Coatta

“I completed two passes right off the bat,” Coatta told the Wisconsin State Journal. “The ball just kept getting heavier and colder and harder and more slippery.”

Indiana didn’t have any passing yards.

“We were a far superior football team,” Coatta said. “We should have beat them by four touchdowns if we played on a dry field. I never played under worse conditions.”

Wisconsin fumbled 10 times and lost five. But the Hoosiers, who had just two turnovers, were no match for the Hard Rocks defense. They crossed midfield just three times, never deeper than the 42.

Indiana lost one of three fumbles and it was costly. UW safety Billy Lane recovered the ball on the Hoosiers 35 yard line with a little over one minute remaining in a scoreless game.

One play later, Coatta completed his third pass of the game, a touchdown strike to Billy Hutchinson with 58 seconds left. And that’s how it ended, 6-0.

Hutchinson was subbing for the injured Rollie Strehlow. It was his first catch of the season.

“I suppose you would call that a shot in the dark,” UW coach Ivy Williamson said of the TD reception. “I thought we played fine ball throughout, considering the conditions.”

The snow limited visibility, making every pitch and catch difficult. Footing was treacherous.

“It was just a fly pattern and he (Hutchinson) was the flanker on the right,” said Coatta. “It was really hard to see. He just ran through the snow and all of a sudden he was in the end zone.

“I know exactly what I told Hutch in the huddle, ‘Go deep.’ He was my first and only choice. That’s where the ball was going. There were no other guys out.”

The Badgers had a huge statistical advantage in rushing (267-91) and passing (64-0). Freshman Alan Ameche started and ran for 57 yards before his fumbling put him on the bench.

But it was all about defense. It was the second straight shutout for the Hard Rocks and this one meant a little bit more than their 41-0 skunking of Northwestern the previous week.

That’s because Indiana head coach Clyde Smith called them out by insinuating Illinois had a better defense.

“Wisconsin may be a better team defensively,” Smith said. “But I doubt it.”

There was no doubting the impact of the Hard Rocks. But Coatta was also very efficient in managing his role and the offense. He guided the Badgers to six straight wins to close out the season.


Wisconsin fans carry quarterback John Coatta off the field in celebration
Wisconsin fans carry quarterback John Coatta off the field in celebration


That was double the wins that Coatta had in three years as Wisconsin’s head coach.

Running his own program was a whole different world.

Especially since the world was so different in the late ’60s.

Wisconsin was last in football but among the national leaders in campus turmoil and anti-war protests, jockeying for position at the top of the polls with Cal-Berkeley and Columbia University.

By the end of 1968, there were 495,000 troops in Vietnam and the death toll had reached 30,000. On Bascom Hill, the National Guard had a daily presence to quell disturbances.

UW Head Coach John Coatta
UW Head Coach John Coatta

Quarterback Neil Graff was a member of Coatta’s freshman class in ’68.

“It was distracting, there’s no doubt about it,” Graff said of the chaos. “You couldn’t go to class without encountering the National Guard or some commotion to do with Vietnam.

“To be successful at that level, the Big Ten level, in any sport, you have to be focused on what you’re doing and putting your all in practicing and playing games.

“During that period, particularly 1969, it was hard to do with everything that was going on. We weren’t winning and the whole program just wasn’t important in the eyes of the students and the Madison public. People had more important things going on with their lives than football.”

Coatta remained upbeat.

“It isn’t optimism, it’s confidence,” he explained to visiting Big Ten sportswriters before the start of the season. “We will win some football games. We will have a chance to win in every game we play. We have more speed and we show promise at quarterback with Neil Graff.”

After going 0-19-1 in his first two seasons, Coatta did squeeze three wins out of the Badgers in 1969 against a formidable schedule that included Oklahoma, UCLA and Syracuse.

But it was not enough to save Coatta, who was fired and replaced by John Jardine.

Coatta resurfaced as a head coach at Mankato State for six seasons. After the school dropped the sport, he spent two years as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Minnesota. He later assisted his son, John, Jr., at Bloomington (Minn.) Kennedy High School.

Coatta lost a battle with cancer in 2000. He was 71.

Former UW tight end Larry Mialik, a New Jersey native, was in that freshman class with Graff and remembered meeting Coatta for the first time.

“He was this handsome fellow who had played quarterback for Wisconsin and had been successful,” he said. “He just had so much personality and was easy to talk to. He wasn’t threatening.”

A lasting snapshot of a good man who was in the right place at the wrong time.