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Wisconsin’s bowl game presence revives Las Vegas connection

Tom Wiesner would have loved Thursday’s Las Vegas Bowl pitting Wisconsin against Arizona State at Allegiant Stadium.

It will be the Badgers’ sixth appearance in Las Vegas. But it would have been the first, had he lived to see it, that the captain of Wisconsin’s 1960 Rose Bowl team and former Las Vegas politician and businessman wouldn’t have had to carefully choose sides.

Wiesner, who died in 2002 after a bout with leukemia, orchestrated a popular football series between his Big Ten alma mater and the middling Rebels of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, Big West, Western Athletic Conference, Mountain West, et al.

Over a 26-year period beginning in 1985, UNLV and Wisconsin played 10 times — five in Las Vegas and five in Madison.

Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, who has guided the Badgers to a 64-23 record, trips to the Cotton, Orange and Rose Bowls and has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year twice during his seven seasons, said Wiesner’s presence still was being felt as the Badgers continued preparations for Thursday’s meeting of 8-4 teams.

Ties that bind

“Obviously, Tom Wiesner was a large part of Wisconsin history,” said Chryst, whose father, George, ended his Wisconsin football career at roughly the same time that Wiesner, a fullback/linebacker, was beginning his.

“Every year we have a golf function out here (the Badger Desert Golf Classic, also founded by Wiesner), and we’ve been able to come out and play UNLV. I’ve been fortunate to have been part of a number of those. It’s been pretty neat.”

Chryst, a backup quarterback and tight end during his Wisconsin playing career, was part of the series’ first game at Sam Boyd Stadium. The Rebels won 17-7. Although it was considered an upset, UNLV’s victory predated Wisconsin’s rise to power under former coach Barry Alvarez.

“I don’t know all the history, but Al Toon was on that (Wisconsin) team — remember him?” said Steve Stallworth, UNLV’s quarterback that night, about the New York Jets’ All-Pro wide receiver and 1986 AFC Player of the Year.

Beating Wisconsin was such a big deal that Wayne Nunnely was promoted from Rebels’ interim head coach to the full-time position afterward. Chryst would later coach with Nunnely as San Diego Chargers assistants, just one of many connections that came to fruition as a result of the Wisconsin-UNLV series.

“I also want to say that Russell’s first start for us was against UNLV,” Chryst said of the Seattle Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson, who ran for a touchdown and passed for two in Wisconsin’s 51-17 victory in 2011.

Loyal legions

Chryst, Stallworth and Wilson aren’t the only former quarterbacks who have fond memories of the series Wiesner helped put together. Bob Stockham, UNLV’s quarterback in 1992 and ‘93, never threw a pass against the Badgers but has an even deeper tie to Wiesner and Wisconsin — Stockham’s wife is the former Kari Wiesner, Tom’s daughter.

Over the years Stockham has interacted with many of his father-in-law’s inner Wisconsin circle such as Alvarez and Pat Richter, the former Badgers tight end and athletic director who teamed to transform Wisconsin into a national power.

But Stockham said what probably stands out most about Wisconsin is the character, loyalty and volume of its fan base.

“It’s a unique base of people back there, just the quality of the people, and when you’re part of it, it’s a cool thing,” the former UNLV quarterback said.

The current COVID threat is expected to reduce the number of Wisconsin fans who will travel to Thursday’s game. But Chryst said if Allegiant Stadium doesn’t become a sea of red as in past games at Sam Boyd Stadium, he still expects plenty of jumping around, per Wisconsin tradition, at the start of the fourth quarter.

“Las Vegas has always been a neat place for our fans to come and there’s a game being played here,” said the Badgers’ coach. “So it’s a great excuse for them to come out here, right?”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.