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Kulcinski looks back at 1960 Rose Bowl

Gerald Kulcinski in his Badgers uniform in the late 1950s.

 Gerald Kulcinski in his Wisconsin Badgers uniform in the late 1950s.

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Among the millions who will be watching the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers take on Texas Christian University in the 2011 Rose Bowl will be the handful of men who know what it’s like to play for the Badgers in the “granddaddy” of bowl games.

One of those football veterans is College of Engineering Associate Dean for Research and Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering Gerald Kulcinski. Kulcinski played in the 1960 Rose Bowl against the University of Washington—Wisconsin’s second appearance ever at the bowl.

Though the final score of 44-8 didn’t go the Badgers’ way, the experience of the game, and the football team in general, is something Kulcinski has always kept with him.

Originally from La Crosse, Wisconsin, Kulcinski was the first in his family to go beyond high school. He had just enough money for part of his freshman year as a chemical engineering student at UW-Madison and received a football scholarship after walking on as a right guard and linebacker.

Kulcinski says there are many differences between today’s football team and the 1960 team. The current team includes almost double the number of players and coaches, and those players are significantly larger than the athletes in Kulcinski’s era. Linemen in 2010 average 110 pounds heavier and five inches taller than linemen in 1960. Players in 1960 held both defensive and offensive positions, meaning many of them played for up to a full hour each game, much longer than today’s players.

The context of college football also was significantly different. The American Football League had just formed in 1959, and while a professional football career was possible, it wasn’t nearly as lucrative as it is now, Kulcinski says.

In terms of excitement and cause for city celebration, the 1959 equivalent to the 2010 Badger game against Ohio State was held on a very cold, snowy Saturday in Minnesota. The players ended up switching to tennis shoes at halftime because the field was so frozen that their long cleats wouldn’t penetrate the ground.

The hard-earned victory meant the team was Rose Bowl-bound. “It was a tough game, and when we flew back to Madison, there were celebrations all over the city,” Kulcinski says. “I know they can’t do this now, but restaurants would give us free steak dinners, that kind of thing.”

1960 Rose Bowl program cover

 The cover of the 1960 Rose Bowl program.

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Once in Pasadena, California, the players spent their time practicing and studying. At the time, finals were held after winter break rather than before. Kulcinski remembers sitting beside a pool between practices studying. More credits were required for an engineering degree then, and Kulcinski balanced football with an average of 18 credits every semester for four years.

The actual game was a blur for Kulcinski. “When you’re in the game, everything is going by so fast. You’re not hearing the crowd. You’re just tuned into your teammates and coach,” Kulcinski says. In those days, players rather than coaches called the plays, meaning the team had to figure out its own tactics and negotiate what to do next in huddles.

The media predicted a Badger victory in 1960, and Kulcinski says the current team, which is also favored, should just ignore the attention. “I know we have a good team that won’t take the opportunity for granted,” he says.

Unlike now, the Rose Bowl wasn’t the last game of the season the 1959-60 Badgers. Every spring, the team would play against a team of Badger alumni, many of whom had gone on to play professionally, such as Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. Non-alumni professional players, like Bart Starr and Jerry Kramer, helped coach the younger players before the game, which was a chance for the veterans to pass on advice to the younger players. Kulcinski remembers getting taken down by a Chicago Bears player, and as they walked off the field, the player told him, “Now sonny, let me tell you what you did there and what you should have done.”

Kulcinski stays in touch with some of his former teammates, and the 1960 team recently celebrated its 50-year reunion. Former players are invited whenever the Badgers qualify for the bowl, and Kulcinski was in Pasadena to watch the first Badger Rose Bowl victory in 1994.

“We all sat together, and we were really into it. The game came down to the wire, and with two minutes to go, the guys said we had it,” he says. “It hit us before it hit anyone else in the stadium. We could just tell.”

This year, Kulcinski will be watching from Wisconsin. Whether the 2011 team is victorious or not, Kulcinski says the memory of the game will last forever.

“This game is probably the most important game in their lifetime,” he says. “That doesn’t diminish anything they may do in games afterward and even post-college, but the Rose Bowl will stick with them for the rest of their lives.”

Sandra Knisely
12/27/2010