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.
“Camp Randall, even then, was just such a special place. I tell people that 40,000 Wisconsin fans at Camp Randall is louder, more obnoxious and more fun to play in front of than 80,000 fans at just about any other place in the country.”
– Don Davey
BY MIKE LUCAS | UWBadgers.com Senior Writer
By earning straight A’s, Don Davey ranked No. 1 in his graduating class of 400 at Manitowoc’s Lincoln High School. He was also the No. 1 prospect in the state after leading his prep team to back-to-back WIAA Division I championships in 1984 and 1985.
“I could have gone to Notre Dame or Michigan or Michigan State — teams that were battling for the Rose Bowl and national prominence every year,” said Davey, who instead chose a Wisconsin program that was bottoming out. “In four years as a starter, I won seven games in my college career.”
But he never felt sorry for himself during those lean years (1986-90).
“Camp Randall, even then, was just such a special place,” said Davey, a defensive lineman with a non-stop motor. “I tell people that 40,000 Wisconsin fans at Camp Randall is louder, more obnoxious and more fun to play in front of than 80,000 fans at just about any other place in the country.”
Davey got the most out of his UW education, whether it was the School of Hard Knocks (on the field during an ignominious 7-37 stretch) or the Engineering School (the only four-time Academic All-American in NCAA history). In 2010, Davey was inducted into the University of Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame.
Barry Alvarez was also in that HOF class.
“I challenge anyone,” Davey said, “to find a more remarkable turnaround in college football history than what Barry Alvarez has done — from the depths of where we were in 1989 to where the team and program has been not only three or four years after (Alvarez was hired) but 27 years after.
“He not only achieved that level of success but sustained it both as a coach and athletic director. It’s truly phenomenal what he has done. We’re all very lucky that he decided to take on that challenge.”
“I was probably one of the only guys in college football history to have four different head coaches over the course of five years.”
– Don Davey
Don Davey figures that it must be some sort of NCAA record, however dubious.
“I was probably one of the only guys in college football history to have four different head coaches over the course of five years,” said Davey, whose career was punctuated by transition. “Dave McClain recruited me and was a big reason why I went to Wisconsin.”
Davey never played for McClain, who died from cardiac arrest on April 28, 1986. He was 48. McClain’s defensive coordinator, Jim Hilles, was the interim head coach in 1986. But he wasn’t retained. Don Morton coached three seasons before being fired and replaced by Barry Alvarez.
How did the four- and five-year players handle such coaching instability?
“Transition, turmoil, uncertainty — all those adjectives fit what we were going through at the time,” Davey said. “But interestingly, and we talk about it all the time, it’s part of the reason why I’m such good friends with Dan Kissling, Jim Basten, Dan Batsch and Paul Chryst, the guys I played with.
“We all went through this together. And since the coaches were coming and going, and we didn’t have a lot of success on the field, we really kind of bonded together as a team. The student body wasn’t really behind us and we weren’t winning games, so it was kind of ‘Us against the World.’”
There weren’t many highlights during the Morton years, save a 26-24 upset of Ohio State in 1987. The Buckeyes were an 18-point favorite and jumped out to a 24-13 lead. But they were guilty of seven turnovers, six in the second half. Todd Gregoire’s 41-yard field goal spelled the difference.
It still ranks as one Davey’s favorite moments, especially the ending. “Chad Vande Zande tipped a pass and I dove and intercepted it on the last play of the game to secure the win,” he said of his only career pick. “We were not a great team; we were an overmatched team that pulled off a huge upset.”
Everything was downhill after that. The Badgers won only 3 of their next 21 games under Morton. Rock bottom was November 25, 1989. An announced crowd of 29,776 watched Michigan State overwhelm Wisconsin, 31-3, at Camp Randall Stadium, the smallest gathering since the mid-1940s.
“There was probably no more than 20,000 in the stands, if that much,” Davey said.
The Badgers averaged 41,734 in Morton’s final season.
For the sake of comparison, they averaged 71,613 in McClain’s final season (1985).
“It was tough and I really took it personally,” Davey said of the empty seats. “I was a kid who grew up in Wisconsin and saw the success the Badgers had under Dave McClain and I went to Wisconsin with the idea of building on that legacy and taking the program to a whole other level.”
“He walked into the meeting room and stood in front of us and said, ‘Sit up straight. Take your hats off. If you’ve got an earring, take it out. I’m Barry Alvarez. I’m your head football coach and I’m here to win.’ … In one sentence, he completely changed the trajectory of our program.”
– Don Davey
Enter the irrepressible Notre Dame assistant coach, Alvarez.
From the very first player meeting, there was never any doubt on who was boss.
“He walked into the meeting room,” recalled Davey, delivering a visual through his play-by-play, “and stood in front of us and said, ‘Sit up straight. Take your hats off. If you’ve got an earring, take it out. I’m Barry Alvarez. I’m your head football coach and I’m here to win.’”
How did Alvarez’s statement resonate in the room?
“In one sentence,” Davey said, “he completely changed the trajectory of our program.”
It wasn’t just rhetoric, either.
“He beat the hell out of us during offseason workouts and that was on purpose, that was by design,” Davey said. “We had 20 some guys quit the team because it was too hard and too difficult. In so many words, Barry told us, ‘I don’t want those guys on my team.’”
Alvarez reached out to the seniors and survivors like Davey, Basten, Batsch and Greg Thomas.
“To this day,” Davey said, “I’ve heard him say that the senior class that he inherited wasn’t the most talented group, but these guys had as much to do with the future success as anybody. They did buy in and they did work hard and they did everything that was asked. They set the tempo.”
Alvarez made a promise to the seniors who endured a 1-10 season in ’90. “He was going to give us a bowl watch from the very first bowl game that they went to,” said Davey. “For all we knew then, it would be 10 to 20 years down the road. But three years later, they were in the Rose Bowl.”
Davey still has the 1994 Rose Bowl watch on the desk in his office.
“I’m still proud of it,” he said.
As a senior co-captain, Davey was named MVP and earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition. On a beleaguered defense that had five players with 100 or more tackles, he had 122 with 24 tackles for loss (seven sacks). Only Tom Burke (31) and O’Brien Schofield (24.5) have had more TFLs in a single season.
Davey was a perfect fit for the Alvarez system run by defensive coordinator Dan McCarney.
“When Dan (McCarney) came in, there was a lot of movement, a lot of stunts, a lot of getting into the gaps and shooting up the field and more attacking than reacting to the blocks. Although I had a lot of success my first three years, the last year under Barry and Dan was when I really blossomed.”
Davey was a third-round pick of the Packers and played four seasons in Green Bay before signing a free agent contract with Jacksonville, where he retired and still lives. The 49-year-old Davey, a successful businessman, is still competitive as a triathlete. He has completed eight Ironman events.
“In a certain respect, I was built to play football — I’m tall, I’m big, I’m strong,” said Davey. “But I’m completely a fish out of water when it comes to these things (triathlons). I’m racing against all these cross country runners that we football players used to beat up in high school.”
Laughing, the 220-pound Davey said, “I was lucky enough to play 10 years in the NFL, but crossing that finish line at Kona (last year’s Ironman World Championships in Hawaii), quite honestly, was every bit as thrilling and exciting as any moment I had in the NFL.”
Davey has remained in touch with some of his former UW teammates, including Chryst.
“He was not the most talented player in world,” Davey said. “But he was a hardworking, smart, disciplined guy who always knew not only his position, but what everybody on the offense was supposed to be doing. And he knew what the defense was trying to do to them.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all to see how much success he has had as a head coach. I couldn’t be happier for him. It’s a dream situation for just a wonderful guy who’s coaching his alma mater and doing one helluva job. We’re lucky to have him.”