Losing the big game — priceless
MADISON, Wis. — The small group of fans wearing the light blue colors of The Citadel were hardly noticeable amid the throng of 80,000 Wisconsin faithful dressed in their bright red sweatshirts Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall stadium.
To Badgers fans, Saturday's game against the small military college from South Carolina was just another "preseason" matchup before their team begins its rugged Big Ten Conference schedule this weekend against Iowa.
Indeed, most people here had never heard of The Citadel and might have trouble finding Charleston on a map. Until, of course, the Bulldogs did what they did.
What they did was play well. Very well, actually, by sticking with the bigger, badder Badgers to a 21-21 tie at the half, causing an uncomfortable feeling to ruffle through the home crowd.
But more importantly, that shocking halftime score was broadcast around the world, crawling across television screens on ESPN, blathered about by sports talk show hosts everywhere, causing people in sports bars and billiard parlors to harken back to Appalachian State's win over Michigan two weeks ago and wonder if another big upset was in the making.
The buzz only lasted for about an hour. Eventually, the Bulldogs lost the game, 45-31. But in the grand scheme of things, The Citadel got what it came for.
These early-season mismatches that dominate the college football schedule this time of year are debatable when it comes to the purity of the game and whether or not they are fair or unfair.
But for small schools like The Citadel (Football Championship Subdivision, aka Division I-AA), they are invaluable opportunities to earn a pretty good paycheck ($425,000) and spread the word.
And they are not shy about taking advantage of that opportunity.
Although the Bulldogs did not arrive here until Friday night before Saturday's late morning kickoff, The Citadel sent a strike force in ahead of the football team.
"We came up a couple of days early to Chicago and did some fund-raising," said Citadel president Lt. Gen. John Rosa, who was joined by his wife, Donna. "We had dinner, breakfast and lunch with some folks who have been good to The Citadel. It's all about making ends meet."
While that big paycheck for playing a game like this sounds like a lot, it's simply a drop in a big bucket that must be filled every year with funds to supply the 63 football scholarships that make the Bulldogs a contender.
"It's all part of The Citadel name, The Citadel brand and what we stand for," said Rosa, who played quarterback for the Bulldogs in the early 1970s. "These are men of character. They played with class. They conducted themselves like gentlemen. For them to stand toe-to-toe with the seventh-ranked team in the nation is a great accomplishment.
"It's hard to say what it's worth. But I was up in the box (at halftime) and it was all over ESPN. People were just shaking their heads and saying, 'wow, you guys can play some football.'"
Granted, they still lost the football game. But in the end, even a coach as competitive as Kevin Higgins has to admit that it's a win-lose-win for The Citadel.
"It's so hard to evaluate how much playing in this kind of environment can actually do for getting Player A to leave this environment to come to The Citadel," Higgins said after the game that was televised on the Big Ten Network. "But certainly, when we recruit players, the name value will have risen because guys will have heard more about us.
"So, can it help us in recruiting? Yes, I think it can. We don't actively recruit the Midwest because time management-wise it's difficult to do that. But maybe we'll get some contacts now in the Midwest because of this."
And maybe, just maybe, two years down the road some corn-fed kid from this part of the world will find The Citadel rather than The Citadel finding him.
And that, as they say, is priceless.