All season, University of Wisconsin football fans dreamed of watching the team play in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
Sadly, any dreams of making it to the national final were dashed when UW lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten Conference title game. For everyone except Lowell Bakken, that is.
In a roundabout way, UW’s loss is Bakken’s gain as the longtime Madison teacher, coach and referee will be a participant in Monday night’s game between Alabama and Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Had UW — or Ohio State, for that matter — made the four-team CFP field, Bakken wouldn’t be in the press box tonight, running the 40-second, ready-for-play clock in the national title game. But with no Big Ten team in the final four, the conference was asked to supply the officiating crew as well as timing, scoring and replay personnel.
“They needed a neutral crew,” Bakken said. “If Wisconsin had won, this would have never happened. They had to have a neutral crew.”
So the 82-year-old Bakken, a UW fan from birth, was handed the chance of a lifetime. He and his wife, Judie, left for Atlanta on Saturday.
“This has been really nice,” Bakken said. “I feel a little humbled by it, I really do. Actually, I feel a lot humbled by it.”
If nothing else, Bakken will be well-prepared for the important job of re-setting the 40-second clock after every play. He has been a scoreboard operator for UW games at Camp Randall Stadium for 49 seasons, most of them acting as the official timer and, for the past decade or so, as the 40-second clock operator.
Bakken has spent his life in sports. A three-sport athlete at Madison West, from which he graduated in 1953, Bakken earned a degree from UW and taught for 32 years at Madison La Follette, where he was the golf coach and an assistant football coach. For 36 winters, he also officiated high school and small college basketball games.
And if you recognize the last name, it’s because Lowell is the older brother of Jim Bakken, who played at UW and then kicked for the St. Louis Cardinals for 17 seasons. When Jim Bakken retired from the NFL in 1978, he was third on pro football’s all-time scoring list behind Hall of Famers George Blanda and Lou Groza (he’s now 32nd).
Bakken’s path to the championship game started with a recommendation from Todd Nelson, UW’s assistant athletic director for event operations, to Bill Carollo, the director of officiating for the Big Ten. Carollo, a long-ago refereeing colleague of Bakken’s, called him a few days after the Big Ten title game and asked him to handle the 40-second clock in college football’s Super Bowl.
Since Bakken had been preparing for the assignment for almost 50 years, it seemed only natural. He replaced Scott Hake as UW’s main clock operator when Hake died unexpectedly in 1969. A former UW football player, Hake had run the clock for 37 years, so the two of them monopolized the timer position for almost 75 years.
The official timer had always been supplied by the home team, but that changed after a controversial ending to a Michigan-Michigan State game in 2001. With an eye toward impartiality, former on-the-field referees now have the timing duties.
No problem for Bakken. He just slid over one chair to run the 40-second clock. And, knock on wood, in 49 years he’s never been involved in a major controversy.
“Maybe I was just lucky,” he said. “I just kept doing what I was supposed to do. But I enjoyed doing it. And you really keep yourself focused. You can’t let your mind wander or get caught up in some other thoughts. I always had it in my mind that I never wanted to screw up. That was paramount.”
Bakken’s most vivid Camp Randall memory was UW’s 29-28 loss to Illinois in the famous bounce-pass game in 1982. After tight end Jeff Nault scored on a trick-play pass from wide receiver Al Toon to give the Badgers the lead with 52 seconds left, the Illini began to move. On their fifth play, quarterback Tony Eason hit tight end Tim Brewster down the middle for a 23-yard gain and Illinois scrambled to call a timeout, which it got with 3 seconds left.
Mike Bass then kicked the winning field goal.
Back at La Follette on Monday morning, Bakken's colleagues greeted him with some good-natured grief, telling him he should have let the clock run out on the Illini.
“When you did the clock, there is no other way that I would ever do it except the way it was supposed to be done,” Bakken said. “You wouldn’t knock seconds off or something like that. I just didn’t think about that. And being an official in basketball, you just look at a game differently. You don’t look at it as a spectator. You can’t or you’d really get in trouble.”
Bakken expects nothing to change tonight, even though the pressure will be ramped up significantly.
“I’m happy to be able to do this,” he said. “I think I’ve done it long enough that it doesn’t overwhelm me. At least it doesn’t feel like that now. Maybe when I get up there I might feel a little different, but I don’t right now.”
As happy as he is to participate in the national championship game, Bakken would trade places with UW in a heartbeat.
“I really would,” he said. “The Badgers come before me, that’s my feeling.”