EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (blugolds.com) - A championship such as the UW-Eau Claire football team earned in 1981 is the type from which memories are made—the unexpected title where everything falls into place as the season unfolds, the one in which many different people contribute significantly, the one that includes record-setting performances and the one that relies on big plays.
For those outside the Blugold camp, the 1981 championship was a surprise. In preseason analyses, the Blugolds were considered darkhorse contenders at best after finishing 3-8 in 1980. However, those close to the Blugold scene knew that the previous year’s team was much better than that record indicated. It had led the league in total offense and had battled the four co-champions on even terms, beating one of them, losing to another in overtime, having one down by 33 points and losing another when a last-second field goal bounced off the crossbar.
The 1981 Blugolds were expected to field a strong offensive club with the defense being suspect after allowing 26 points and 379 yards per game in 1980. The opening game of the season cast doubts on both areas of play as the Blugolds dropped a 23-7 decision to Concordia College in Moorhead. But the team began to draw some notice when it overwhelmed the University of Evansville, an NCAA Division II school, by a 45-16 margin the second week and then recorded a shutout in its third game of the season.
Even after the Blugolds had won five in a row, there were still skeptics. The team still had to face the bulk of the conference powers after ripping most of the second division clubs. Also, previous Blugold teams had started strong but faded in the latter part of the season as injuries caught up with the team. And yes, there were injuries again to be reckoned with in 1981. The difference between 1981 and other seasons was that in 1981 someone always stepped in to admirably and adequately fill the shoes of a fallen comrade.
There seemed to be a revolving door at two positions on the team in particular…fullback and strong safety.
Bill Schmitz and Grant Bashore, the season-opening starters at those positions, were lost for the season with knee injuries in the Evansville triumph. Mark Barstad stepped in for Bashore but went down himself with a knee injury a few games later. Bill Rocheleau then rotated into the lineup. Freshman Don LeClair was called on to fill the shoes of Bill Schmitz at fullback but he was felled later in the season. This meant that Bob Kurkerewicz had to move in despite the fact that, size-wise, he was better suited to the tailback position. Yet, he took the pressure off Roger Vann against Whitewater with 97 rushing yards as the Warhawks became the only team to hold Vann under 100 yards, yielding just 66. When Kurkerewicz also was injured, starting offensive guard Glenn Nelson was pressed into service in the backfield. Fortunately, Nelson was recruited as a running back and had some experience at the position in addition to possessing the ideal physical specifications. When Nelson had to move to the backfield, Jess Carsello got the call at guard.
Another victim of a knee injury was gargantuan tackle Jeff “Boxcar” Wilson. The chain reaction from his injury was that Craig King moved from guard to tackle and Tim McAllister stepped in at guard.
Even into the final game, the coaches were forced to make adjustments for injuries. Tom Saskowski sparkled at tight end when Tim Leis was hurt early in the confrontation with La Crosse. He eventually caught the winning score with 2:26 left in the game but dislocated his shoulder on the play. The pass was thrown by Kevin Bohlig, who entered the game with a broken bone in his foot. That had happened late in the River Falls game and forced Bohlig out for three complete games. Sophomore Kevin “General” Haag, with almost no varsity experience, became an instant hero in directing the team to victories in the final month of the campaign. No one can underestimate the importance of the TD pass he threw to Jeff Gospodarek in the first quarter of his first start against none other than Whitewater. The confidence it gave him and the entire team was extremely important. He also displayed his leadership when he threw the winning 9-yarder to Tim Leis in the fourth quarter of the same game after Whitewater had gained the momentum and taken a 14-10 lead.
Bohlig’s return to the lineup was necessitated in the season finale when Haag went down three times with injuries that forced him temporarily to the sidelines.
While these were the major ones, they were not all of the disruptive injuries. The coaches were able to adjust and so were the healthy players who were forced into action.
The season will be remembered for a number of record-setting individual performances. The most-publicized of course will be the single game, single season and career rushing records of 239, 1575, and 3076 set by Roger Vann. He also set school, conference and state single season attempt marks; school and conference single game attempt records; and a school single season TD record of 17 as well as a school-tying single game TD mark of five.
Mike March set a school single season interception record with 10 which included a school and conference single game mark of five against Stout.
Jeff Gospodarek cracked the school single season standard for TD pass receptions with seven. He was a steady performer, catching his TD passes in seven different games. His 649 yards in receptions rated as the third best in school history and he did lead the conference and district in average yards per reception at 19.1.
Finally, there were a number of plays that will long be remembered as being instrumental in the Blugolds’ unbeaten conference record. One, undoubtedly, will be the 46-yard run by Roger Vann that broke open a scoreless game with conference runner-up Stout at Menomonie. The play came with less than five minutes left in the first half and opened the door for the Blugolds to score twice more before intermission and all but made the outcome academic.
Who can’t visualize Jeff Kitzman’s interception of a deflected pass on his back in the end zone with just 48 seconds remaining to thwart Whitewater’s final threat in a 17-14 win at Whitewater.
There was the Bohlig-to-Sawkowski pass to pull out the La Crosse victory after the Blugolds had blown a 15-0 lead and fallen behind, 19-15.
Bart Mattson did not see much action this season but became an instant hero in the Platteville game. He intercepted a lateral pass on a kickoff return and returned it seven yards to the 4-yard line where the Blugolds punched in a score two plays later. That play may have been the coup de grace for Platteville. The Pioneers were holding a 7-0 lead when the Blugolds finally tied the game with 3:17 left in the third quarter. Mattson’s interception and the resulting score came 16 seconds later on the playing clock.
The Platteville game was full of big plays. Another was Jeff Gospodarek’s “catch” midway through the final quarter. Actually, it was a takeaway from his Platteville opponent who really had intercepted the pass. But it turned into a 37-yard gainer to the Platteville two.
That wasn’t the first time Gospodarek had wrestled a pass away from a defender. He did the same thing in the end zone against Stout and made three big grabs against Stevens Point.
The Stevens Point game produced another memorable play. It was a 37-yard interception return by Mike March to set up the Bkugolds’ go-ahead touchdown. It was a critical play in swinging the momentum back to the Blugolds. Stevens Point had just increased its halftime lead with a field goal, had forced the Blugolds to punt and were moving toward another score that could have broken the game open in its favor. Instead, March flew for the ball on a deep sideline pattern, circled back and made his long return to the Pointer 33-yard line. Another impressionable March steal came against Stout as he grabbed a Stout aerial in stride and stepped 22 yards untouched for a score.
Then, there were the two goal line stands to maintain a shutout against Oshkosh and an equally impressive defensive effort in the whitewash of Stout. Also, who can forget the sacks of Todd Brigman, Tony Schoch and Steve Eckley?
What it all added up to was the Blugolds’ first Wisconsin State University Conference championship since 1964. The 9-game win streak following the season-opening loss to Concordia bettered the 7-game win streaks of the 1956, 1963 and 1978 teams. With their 8-0 WSUC record, the Blugolds became the first unbeaten, untied conference champion since 1972. They won the league crown by three games in a conference that had co-champions in five of the previous seven years and produced a 14-6 record against non-conference competition in 1981.
The youthfulness of the team (six seniors and seven juniors) gave rise to much optimism for the coming years. (In fact the Blugolds challenged for the league crown in 1982 and won another championship in 1983). But the 1981 title will always be a special one.
This article was written by Sports Information Director Tim Petermann after the 1981 season as a recap of the championship run.