Camp Randall 100: Billy Marek

Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Billy Marek
Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Billy Marek

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.


“I honestly didn’t realize how poor their record was before we got there and I was just amazed how the stadium was full week after week after week. Everybody was having so much fun regardless of the game.”

— Billy Marek on committing to Wisconsin
as part of the Badgers’ 1972 recruiting class


BY MIKE LUCAS | UWBadgers.com Senior Writer

Photo of Wisconsin football player Billy Marek (#26) kneeling on one leg and holding a football without his helmet on inside Camp Randall Stadium.
Billy Marek

Billy Marek’s father wanted him to go to Notre Dame. Instead, he listened to the advice of his Chicago St. Rita High School coach Pat Cronin, who encouraged Marek to take the emotion out of it and make a choice based on what was in his best interests, namely the best fit.

“As we were taking our recruiting visits,” Marek recalled, “he (Cronin) wanted us to find out what type of offense they ran because he said, ‘You’re not a setback, you’re a tailback and you need to come out of the I-formation.’ He was really good at making sure we were looking at the right things.

“Wisconsin was the perfect fit. It ran the same offense that we had (at St. Rita).”

Other factors influenced his decision. There was not much tailback depth behind Rufus Ferguson, who was going to be a senior. And it was a plus that UW coach John Jardine came out of Chicago and the Catholic League. Assistants Bob Spoo (a St. Rita grad) and Chuck McBride were also Chicagoans.

In addition, there were a couple of St. Rita alums on the roster in Dan Schroeder and Bob Mietz making it seem even more like a home away from home. “We had played with them (Schroeder and Mietz) when we were younger,” Marek said. “And then myself, Dennis and Joe came together.”

Along with Marek, offensive tackle Dennis Lick and center Joe Norwick made up the St. Rita connection in the 1972 recruiting class. “We really decided independently,” Marek said of their decisions to play for the Badgers. “We didn’t have a clue where Dennis was going to go.”

Lick was a heavily recruited player — a prep All-American — and the last to commit.

“The amazing thing to me,” Marek said, “is when we got there, I honestly didn’t realize how poor their record was before we got there and I was just amazed how the stadium was full week after week after week. Everybody was having so much fun regardless of the game.”


“Up and down the line, there have been some better talents — O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson. But as far as productivity, I would have to say Marek was as good as anybody.”

— Wisconsin offensive lineman Mike Webster


Offensive tackle Dennis Lick was a man-child. As an 18-year-old, he made his first start in “Death Valley” — LSU’s Tiger Stadium, one of the most hostile venues in college football. The 6-foot-4, 241-pound Lick started nine games in 1972 on an O-Line that was anchored by 6-1, 219-pound Mike Webster.

Size was relative to the era.

In the backfield, Rufus Ferguson was the workhorse with 215 carries, 178 more than the next tailback.

As a true freshman, Billy Marek was the leading rusher on the varsity reserves. That’s where he bided most of his time. His only touch in the Big Ten came in the second to last game of the season.

He gained six yards against Illinois — and fumbled. “And they put me back on the bench,” he said.

In the half-full category, he did have the highest yards-per-carry average (6.0) among UW’s running backs. Then, again, he only had that one carry for the season, a humble beginning, to say the least. Especially since Marek would have 718 rushes for 3,704 yards and 44 touchdowns over the next three seasons.

“Next to Archie Griffin,” said Iowa coach Bob Commings, “he’s the best runner in the Big Ten.”

High praise. Griffin won back-to-back Heismans at Ohio State in 1974 and 1975 and nobody has duplicated that accomplishment since then.

Webster was in the same camp with Commings.

“Up and down the line, there have been some better talents — O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson,” Webster said. “But as far as productivity, I would have to say Marek was as good as anybody.”

High praise. Simpson won the Heisman in 1968 and Dickerson finished third on the 1982 ballot behind Herschel Walker and John Elway.

Not that Marek cared about individual accolades. He was too team-oriented for such things. And no one appreciated his humility and savvy, and his bob and weave style, more than his offensive line.

“He was a great back to block for,” said Webster, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. “If you got him just a crack, he would squirt past. He made quick reads which allowed him to get into the hole quickly.”

Webster was the offensive captain during the 1973 season when Marek escaped the shadows of Ferguson and rushed 241 times for 1,207 yards and 13 touchdowns. He set the school’s single-game record with 226 yards on 29 carries against Wyoming. He later had 203 yards against Iowa.

“Your freshman year is kind of a blur and you’re just trying to find your place,” Marek said. “Your sophomore year comes around and you’ve got a little bit more responsibility. The thing I enjoyed most about being a sophomore was that I felt like I ran more freely.

“As the years progress, you think too much about so many other things — the play-calling and whether everybody is in the right formation — instead of just going with the flow, reading your keys and running. I always felt my sophomore year was probably my most fluid year. I enjoyed running the most.”


“It’s a running back’s dream, to have your offensive line clicking to the point where you can pick and choose what hole you’re going through because it just wasn’t one of them, there were a bunch of holes. Collectively, these guys did just an incredible job and it made my job easy.”

— Billy Marek


Photo of Wisconsin football's Billy Marek (#26) carrying the ball against Iowa in a game at Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin football’s Billy Marek (#26) carries the ball against Iowa in a game at Camp Randall Stadium

 

His junior season wasn’t nearly as enjoyable because of injuries that cost him almost three full games. Going into the ninth game of 1974, Marek wasn’t even leading the Badgers in rushing. Fullback Ken Starch had run for 523 yards and Marek for 475.

Marek needed to average 175 yards over the last three games to reach 1,000 for the season.

“Our whole O-line got together and decided we would help get it for him,” said guard Terry Stieve, the spokesman for “Marek’s Marauders” who opened the holes for Marek. “Our original goal was an 8-3 season. But after Michigan State, we had to set another goal for ourselves.”

The Badgers were coming off a 28-21 loss to the Spartans, saddling them with a 4-4 record. Adding injury to insult was an ankle injury to starting center Joe Norwick and a knee injury to Lick who required surgery and was lost for the remainder of the season.

Art Zeimetz  took over for Norwick. John Reimer replaced Lick. The Badgers lined up with Reimer and Bob Johnson at tackles, Stieve and Rick Koeck at guards and Zeimetz/Norwick.

The tight ends — Jack Novak and Ron Egloff — were also Marauders.

“It’s a running back’s dream,” Marek said, “to have your offensive line clicking to the point where you can pick and choose what hole you’re going through because it just wasn’t one of them, there were a bunch of holes. Collectively, these guys did just an incredible job and it made my job easy.”

Remember the goal was 1,000. Iowa was the first stepping stone. Marek ran for 206 yards and four touchdowns in a 28-15 victory at Kinnick Stadium. He had 34 carries, 22 in the fourth quarter. On the game-clinching drive, Marek got the ball on nine consecutive snaps. He welcomed the workload.

The following Saturday, the Badgers went back on the road and generated 551 rushing yards in a 52-7 blowout of Northwestern. Marek rushed 29 times for 230 yards and four touchdowns.

That assured Wisconsin of its first winning season since 1963.

Last but not least was the regular-season finale, the Border Battle against Minnesota at Camp Randall Stadium. Marek needed just 89 yards to get to 1,000. It didn’t start out well for 55,869 fans who braved a rainy, foggy day only to watch Rick Upchurch return the opening kickoff 100 yards.

It was the first and last hurrah for the Gophers, who were quarterbacked by Tony Dungy.

Wisconsin routed Minnesota, 49-14. Marek had 43 carries for 304 yards and five scores. He also had a 65-yard touchdown run called back because of a clipping penalty. Marek’s three straight games over 200 yards tied the NCAA record set the year before by Penn State’s John Cappelletti.

Over those three games, Marek rushed for 740 yards. “You just felt like you were going to get the blocks and you felt confident that you could hit the hole at full speed,” said Marek, who led the nation in scoring with 114 points (19 TDs). “You don’t have to hesitate, you can just take off.”


“If you just looked at him and saw him in street clothes, he looked like an ordinary guy. You would have never picked him out of a group. We had a lot of running backs that had incredible physiques. But they didn’t have what he had. He was tough and incredibly instinctive. The bigger the moment, the bigger the game, the more responsibility he would take on.”

— Wisconsin quarterback Gregg Bohlig


What was the secret to Marek’s running style? He always credited his offensive linemen, his tight ends and his fullbacks (Starch and Larry Canada) for his success. But there had to be something else, something that set him apart, besides his size at 5-8, 190-pounds. What was the key?

“Just don’t get hit,” said Marek, chuckling. “I watched some of the other backs and they were taking so many hits and I kept thinking, ‘Why aren’t they trying to avoid them?’ I just tried to find a seam and avoid the contact the best that I could while staying within myself.”

UW middle linebacker Dave Crossen used to square off with Marek during practices.

“And he was just like a bowling ball,” Crossen said. “He’d bounce, you’d hit him, and he’d bounce again. It was not that he ran you over. It wasn’t like tackling Walter Payton who wanted to kill you. Billy would hit the hole quick and bounce. You just couldn’t knock him off balance.”

Looks were deceiving with Marek, according to quarterback Gregg Bohlig.

“If you just looked at him and saw him in street clothes, he looked like an ordinary guy,” Bohlig said. “You would have never picked him out of a group. We had a lot of running backs that had incredible physiques. But they didn’t have what he had. He was tough and incredibly instinctive.

“The bigger the moment, the bigger the game, the more responsibility he would take on.”

After Bohlig graduated, the Badgers didn’t have a reliable quarterback and tumbled to a 4-6-1 mark in 1975. Marek closed out his senior year with career highs in yards (1,281) and carries (272). Any mention of Camp Randall’s greatest runs would have to include one of Marek’s entries from that season.

On the first play of the game against Missouri, he took a pitch and scored on an 81-yard touchdown run, sparking a 35-point first half and a convincing 59-20 win over the heavily-favored Tigers.

“That was my favorite run,” said Marek, 62. “I still think about it every now and then.”

Today, it’s hard not to think about No. 26 in any conversation of Wisconsin’s greatest tailbacks.

Thin photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Billy Marek