LAS VEGAS - The party, which began on a collection of grassy athletic fields outside Sam Boyd Stadium, was a stunning show of support and school spirit. It was an exercise in excess and the kind of event that attendees will talk about for decades.
Under a searing desert sun, a veritable Red Sea of Wisconsin fans paid $40 apiece to munch bratwurst, guzzle Budweiser products, listen to bands (a local rock outfit and the Badgers marching band) and show residents of the nation's biggest party town how they do it in the Midwest.
"It's official," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told the mass of more than 13,000. "This is the biggest tailgate, ever."
Terry Murawski, executive director of the National W Club, pointed out that the stadium across the dusty parking lot has a capacity of roughly 40,000 - "and we've got 25% of that right here."
With temperatures surpassing 100 degrees and shade scarce, the beverage stands were predictably busy, with drinks distributed as quickly as they could be unpacked.
As a Vegas cover band entertained on stage, a shirtless, elderly gentleman danced wildly in the crowd and was joined momentarily by an attractive female partner in a midriff-bearing Badgers jersey. Caught up in the moment, the white-haired gent began to employ some of the bump-and-grind moves that the kids use in clubs. His partner recoiled and the crowd roared with laughter.
"Grandpa is getting frisky," shrieked a female spectator.
Maybe it was a hangover from the previous night's pep rally at a hotel on the strip. Maybe it was a function of the oppressive heat or the kind of organized and orderly chaos that stems from precise planning and years of practice. Maybe it was the fact that most of the attendees were old enough to have children attending the University. Whatever the reason, the crowd gathered under the giant inflatable Bucky Badger was well-behaved and seemed focused on taking the party inside the stadium.
It was there that the party was almost sabotaged.
The UNLV Rebels, 27-point underdogs, rallied behind redshirt freshman quarterback Travis Dixon and gave the fifth-ranked Badgers all they could handle and more. The Badgers dropped passes, missed assignments, botched an extra point, committed penalties and had the look of a team that deserved to be upset.
Although Wisconsin fans seemed to outnumber their hosts in the sellout crowd of more than 38,000, chants of "Over-rated!" drowned out any cries of "Let's Go Red."
With less than 2 minutes remaining in the game, the Rebels leading by a point and Wisconsin on the brink of joining the ranks of heavy favorites to fall in the first two weeks of what could be a thrilling season marked by increased parity, Badgers quarterback Tyler Donovan sprinted 29 yards and dove into the end zone with what proved to be the winning touchdown. The two-point conversion was good. The Rebels were finished.
Wisconsin 20, UNLV 13.
"I think they refused to lose," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema, whose team now holds the nation's longest active winning streak (11 games). "A lot of teams could have packed it in late in the third quarter... things began to unfold, defensively especially. They just find a spirit and something inside of them to take over a game and win it."
Even if it was far more harrowing than expected, the Badgers' victory gave the party a positive ending. When the tailgate kicked off, scalpers were seeking up to $80 for tickets. As kickoff drew closer, the price dropped to around $20.
Just before the 7 p.m. start, the sun dipped in the sky. That provided some welcome relief for spectators, it was offset by a stiff 15-mph breeze that created a blast furnace effect. A few spectators wore sunglasses, some to look cool and others to keep their eyes from drying in the searing heat.
In section 235, in a corner of the end zone near the locker rooms, a group of three young UNLV fans created a ruckus by antagonizing a row of much older Wisconsin fans. In a scene that takes place in stadiums across the country, the students wanted to stand and cheer their team. The Badgers fans complained, sparking a verbal confrontation and a visit from the Metro Police. Peace was restored, but the animosity between the groups was palpable throughout the night.
"We beat you in basketball and we'll do it tonight," one UNLV student said, referring to the Rebels' victory over the Badgers in the NCAA Tournament last March in Chicago.
For much of the night, the UNLV kids enjoyed the proceedings immensely while the Bucky alums sat in somewhat tortured silence. In the end, though, the Badgers -- and their fans -- prevailed.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.