EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (blugolds.com) - The 1956, 1981 and 2001 UW-Eau Claire conference championship football teams will be recognized at the Blugold football game vs. La Crosse on October 22 at Carson Park.
Invitations have been sent to players and coaches of those three squads which are celebrating their 60th, 35th and 15th anniversaries. The team members will have a chance to get together and share memories at socials Friday night before the game and Saturday afternoon after the game which has an 11:30 a.m. start and will be televised live by WQOW TV 18, Eau Claire and WXOW TV 19, La Crosse.
Those three teams represent a third of the nine conference championships won or shared by the Blugolds in the 100-year history of the institution. The Blugolds also claimed titles in 1922, 1948, 1963, 1964, 1983 and 1998.
While a playoff system did not exist for the 1956 title team, both the 1981 and 2001 teams were edged out for a playoff berth in the final week of the season. The 1981 team dropped from the No. 8 position to the No. 9 spot in the final NAIA national poll and the top eight teams advanced to the playoffs. The irony was that after the first week of the playoffs, one of the teams was disqualified from further play for use of an ineligible player.
The 2001 team lost only two games all season, both of them in double overtime including the season finale to UW-Stevens Point. The Point loss resulted in the two teams tying for the conference title and the WIAC's automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs was awarded to the Pointers based on head-to-head competition. The NCAA did not take the Blugolds as an at-large team.
The 1956 and 1981 teams, playing a quarter century apart, displayed similar characteristics. Neither team was expected to contend for a conference title. Both teams lost their season opener to a non-conference opponent, then ran the table the remainder of the season. The 1956 team won its final seven games and the 1981 squad its final nine.
The 1956 team was directed by Hall of Fame coach Ade Olson and included Hall of Fame players Jim Bollinger, Don Pierce, Don Gudmanson, Bob Hessler, Jerry Berseth, Rog Hedrington and Bill Perkins.
Hall of Fame coach Link Walker led the 1981 squad that included Hall of Fame players Roger Vann, Jeff Wilson, Mike March, Tom Saskowski and John Furrer.
Todd Hoffner, currently the head coach at Minnesota State-Mankato, was the head man for the 2001 team whose players are just becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame. The team included All-Conference first team selections Brad Newton, Bob Schmidt, Darrell Souhrada, Chad Crutchley, Austin Crow, Brad Gawronski and Jay Hoyord plus second team picks Mike Bestul, Brian Rasmussen and Jeremy Bergeron.
It is interesting to note that the 2001 season was interrupted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While most major college teams took a hiatus from competition for fear of further terrorist attacks on large stadiums, the Blugolds received some national attention when they played their game at Valparaiso University on Sept. 15.
As often happens in championship seasons, big plays that allow teams to win close games were prevalent throughout the three championship campaigns. In addition, injuries that often derail championship chases, led to the next-man-up performing like his fallen comrade so that the team did not miss a beat, especially for the 1981 squad. Another common denominator is that the three title teams beat rival La Crosse in all three seasons and Whitewater the two times they faced that perennial power.