Wisconsin has a lot of love for its football teams. Year-round, you see folks decked out in green and gold to show their "Packer pride," or hear fans dissecting the upcoming Wisconsin Badgers season. But football fans -- including one Bubbler Talk question-asker -- might be interested to know: Why doesn’t Milwaukee have a college football team?
The short answer: It did. And technically, it still does.
At one time, both UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University boasted varsity football teams – and winning ones, at that.
Panther football started in 1899, running through the mid-1970s. They played at various different levels, including NCAA Division II and NAIA.
“In the '40s and '50s they were pretty successful, won a lot of conference championships,” says Ben Barbera, curator at the Milwaukee County Historical Society. “Marquette also had a very successful football program – they started playing in 1892, and in the '20s they were one of the best teams in the country.”
Barbera revisited the city’s college football scene for the society's latest exhibit, Back Yards to Big Leages: Milwaukee’s Sports and Recreation History. The exhibit runs through April 28.
Both UWM and Marquette sent players into the pros – guys like John “Big Train” Sisk and LaVern Dilweg, who went on to play in the NFL - for the Packers and the Bears. But despite their successes, both programs only lasted through the late '60s/early '70s. School leaders voted to disband the teams.
Why? Barbera attributes it to a combination of university funding issues and low attendance.
“Milwaukee wasn’t a big college football town in this period, so the teams weren’t drawing particularly well,” he explains. “Athletic department budgets weren’t what they are today. The most expensive sport by far in any athletic program is football – because of the equipment, the number of players, the number of coaches. And both of these schools, when they were looking at their budgets, they knew that the biggest, easiest savings was going to be to cut the football program.”
That allowed UWM to save other sports, like basketball, soccer, baseball, volleyball.
But football hasn’t been entirely wiped out on campus: UWM has had a growing club football program since 2003.
The team practices on- and off-campus, hosting home games on Shorewood High School's football field.
“I think the general consensus is that, ‘Oh, we don’t have a team,’ so then that’s kind of the end of it,” says UWM junior and team president Dean Sopcic. “But people wouldn’t know to go and look further for a club team that we have on campus.”
Just like an NCAA-sanctioned team, Panther Club Football travels to play other schools. They compete within a conference - organized by the National Club Football Association - facing off against club teams at schools as wide-ranging as Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Ohio State. Their season ends in playoffs and, if they win, a national championship.
But unlike a varsity program, this club squad requires less of a time commitment – two practices per week, and about 8 games per season. And students run the show – managing budgets, coordinating schedules, fundraising. Some club teams rely on the players themselves to act as their own coaches.
Panther Football runs with the help of six volunteer coaches, including head coach Shawn McKenzie. He played for the club team back when he was a student at UWM.
“I think a lot of people associate club sports in general at kind of a lower level, like intramural sports - for us, it’s not,” McKenzie explains. “People just don’t really think we’re an actual football team when we are - we put on pads, we hit people, we play pretty high-level football.”
Lack of spotlight is an obvious drawback to playing for a club team. Junior Dean Sopcic says, at times, it can seem like the UWM community lacks school spirit because there isn’t “real” football here.
But he thinks his team can build morale back up.
“I don’t expect us to get to a [UW-]Madison level, but if we can get people to our games, we can supply that demand people are asking for,” he says.
The Panther football club plans to expand its 30-man roster to 50 players next season. The team finished with a 3-2 record last season – something they’ll work to improve next fall, hopefully with more fans in tow.