Author: Uri Uziel
MADISON—It’s 2002. The price of a Taco Bell bean burrito is 69 cents. Switzerland has joined the United Nations. And in the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, the Grateful Red was rising. The infamous Badger basketball student section from ‘02 to ‘18 was the brainchild of then Basketball Director Saul Phillips and led by University of Wisconsin Hall of Fame Head Coach Bo Ryan. Under the watchful eye of the Red, the Badgers lost a total of 10 times at home between 2002 and 2016 in conference play.
When Under Armour signed Wisconsin Athletics to a 10 year/$96 million apparel contract in 2016, they also gained naming rights to the hallowed student section. Within two years, The Grateful Red has given way to a significantly less fun name: Area Red.
While very much in incubation, Area Red may be sent to the sword early as Under Armour tries to save as much equity as possible. This past week, the athletic wear company announced that it would be attempting to cancel deals with UCLA (15 years/$280 million) and Cal-Berkeley(10 years/$86 million) on the basis of lost marketing opportunities. With the Cal contract looking almost identical to its UW counterpart, there is a possibility that Under Armour looks in Madison’s direction when axing another apparel deal.
Now there are a myriad of economic problems with Under Armour simply deciding to take the bag elsewhere, but if UA were to come knocking on the doors of the Kohl Center with the intention of taking their business elsewhere, and if the athletic department where in a position to field offers from other apparel companies (a Wisco/New Balance collab would be hard), the Grateful Red must be among the first institutions to return.
The numbers aren’t close. More wins than any 14 year period in Badger history, more conference championships, more conference tournament championships, more Big Dance appearances, and more Final Fours is the tip of the iceberg for the dominance of the Grateful Red era.
Before the Red, Wisconsin players garnered minimal respect neither on a national stage nor within the conference. Fast forward to the Under Armour takeover in 2016, Madison had become home to three Big Ten Players of the Year and five All-Americans. But the best individual statistic has to come from the Kenpom Player of the Year ratings.
Kenpom is a statistical database largely composed by Ken Pomeroy and widely considered the authority on statistical analysis in college basketball. In 2011, Pomeroy created a player ranking system that measured a player’s per possession importance to a team and no player has ever had as valuable a season to a team than Wisconsin talisman Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky in 2015. Only four players have ever finished with a kPOY rating above 2.000–Louisville’s Russ Smith and Michigan’s Trey Burke did in 2013; Kaminsky smashed through the mark in 2015; Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver was the last to reach the mark in 2019. Kaminsky finished the 2015 season with the highest kPOY rating of all time at 2.794. That Kaminsky had a more dominant season than Jimmer Fredette, Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, or any Doug McDermott year is something that will astonish and confuse statisticians for generations to come. For Madisonians, it just feels right.
Stats alone can’t measure just how important the Red were to the culture of Madison, basketball or else wise. That the namesake is based off arguably the most famous psychedelic rock band of all time embodies Madison’s hippyisms in a way that a corporate plug-in could never. There has never been a way of capturing the impact that the fans have on a game, a player, or a town. But in Wisconsin there is only one objective method of proving you’ve really made it. In 2015, Capital Brewery of Middleton, WI gave us a red IPA born from experimental hop No. 07270: The Grateful Red. Having a beer named after your student section in the state that holds 12 of 20 drunkest cities in the country is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence in the case for the greatness of The Grateful Red era of Wisconsin hoops.
I stand firmly in the camp that believes the student section has more all time win shares than just about anybody in sports. In no other version of sport is the crowd more tangibly and spiritually connected to the success of their team than in college athletics. The Red Heads not only realized the gravity of having a strong Badger basketball team, but capitalized on having the best name and town in all the land. Opponents were greeted by a wave of 2,100 belligerent college fans clad in that infamous red tie dye, all willing to bleed cardinal red to see their Badgers succeed. After two hours of great fundamentals and teamwork, more than a few “Coach, get off the court!”’s, a demand for old people to get up, and a riveting rendition of our alma mater, everyone who called themselves a Badger in the Kohl Center could go home knowing they did everything they could to win.
Head Coach Greg Gard had the team looking as good as any in the nation over the last twelve games of the season, and the student section once again rose to the occasion game in game out. The stars are once again aligning. Great coaching, impressive player retention, an engaged student body, and Under Armour’s fiscal shakiness garners, at the very least, a renaming of the hallowed student section. Something that can compete with The Barnyard (that school in Minneapolis), Kryzewskiville, or Arizona State’s Curtain of Distraction. And while my insistence on the return of the Grateful Red may not be shared with the next apparel company that commits to Wisconsin, at the very least let this act as one final goodbye to the greatest student section that ever was or will be.