They said it couldn’t be done. Who were they? Those who followed Janesville Senior High School football and the Bluebirds’ frequent struggles in the rugged Big Eight Conference.
Leading up to the fall of 1967 and the city’s impending split into Craig and Parker, many of those people said Janesville had a hard time winning with one school and certainly couldn’t do it with two.
Well, they were wrong. The school split, along with the introduction of the JABS summer fitness program, opened the doors of opportunity for many additional athletes, and they quickly took advantage, setting the tone that still stands today as the Janesville schools prepare for their final season of Big Eight football.
Right out of the gates, Parker High, led by all-state running back Kent Burdick and inspiring coach Don Barnabo, put up a 6-3 record in 1967 and went 7-2 in 1968, with the greatest times for the Vikings to come later.
By 1970, in its third of 19 seasons under coach Bob Suter, Craig High had a share of Janesville’s first Big Eight football championship since 1942.
In 1974, while both city schools had winning seasons in the pre-WIAA playoff era, Suter’s Cougars rolled to 9-0 record, giving Janesville its first unbeaten season and first undisputed Big Eight championship. Craig’s 1979 team shared the conference title with Madison Memorial for the second time, and the Cougars added a fourth championship under Suter in 1983, which led to the school’s first of 14 playoff appearances.
Over the years, there have been many ups and downs, along with many streaks, both good and bad, in what now becomes the 53rd football season of the Craig and Parker era. But, without question, Janesville has long since proven to be a worthy competitor in the only conference to which it has ever belonged—dating back to the formation of the Southern Wisconsin High School Conference with six schools in 1924 (soon to become the Big Eight in 1930).
With today’s 10 members, some critics say the school officials can’t do their math correctly in still calling their conference the Big Eight. But just like the Big Ten collegiate conference (which has 14 members), the name of the high school conference honors its eight original members—Janesville, Beloit, Madison Central, Madison East, Madison West, Kenosha, Racine Horlick and Racine Park.
In abiding by the Big Eight constitution, all public high schools in the original cities automatically became conference members. That led to the addition of Madison La Follette and Kenosha Tremper in 1964, Racine Case in 1966, and Parker and Madison Memorial in 1967, pushing the membership to 13.
Madison Central closed in 1969, and in action initiated by the Madison schools before the WIAA controlled conference alignment, the Racine and Kenosha schools were dropped from the Big Eight in 1970. WIAA statewide realignment placed Sun Prairie in the Big Eight in 1977, and similar mandated action followed with the addition of Middleton in 1993 and Verona in 2008.
Through it all, Janesville and Beloit have maintained the state’s longest unbroken football rivalry, dating back to 1895 and now going into its 115th season. With a couple exceptions during the years of 13 conference members and more-recent scheduling conflicts, Janesville also has played East and West every season since at least 1930. The same with La Follette, Sun Prairie, Madison Memorial, Middleton and Verona since the years they joined the conference.
Now, with the WIAA’s introduction of football-only conferences, which sends Craig and Parker to the Badger Conference in 2020, most of those longtime rivalries will come to an end after this season.
The Craig-Parker series, which the Cougars lead 32-20, still will be intact. Craig also will continue to play Madison Memorial in 2020 and 2021 nonconference games, and Parker will continue the historic Janesville-Beloit rivalry with nonconference games both years.
Craig, which was the original Janesville Senior High, tried to continue the rivalry by offering the Purple Knights a home-and-home nonconference series, but Beloit declined, according to Craig athletic director and former football coach Ben McCormick.
Not everybody, of course, is happy about the upcoming changes that place Craig (1,865 enrollment) and Parker (1,517) in an eight-school conference with Watertown (1,279), Waunakee (1,275), Oregon (1,160), Milton (1,126), Beaver Dam (1,069) and DeForest (1,051). But it is what it is, with the WIAA approving of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) realignment proposal in April.
So, as this becomes a special time for reminiscing, it should be noted that Mark Cullen was the quarterback of Craig’s 1970 co-championship team. His father, J.P. Cullen, was a notable member of the 1942 JHS co-championship team. Mark became a three-year letter winner as a defensive back for the Wisconsin Badgers, and both father and son now are members of the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame.
Craig’s 1970 co-champions also featured all-state lineman Steve Neece, who became a starting tackle for Notre Dame’s 1973 national champions and also a Janesville Sports Hall of Fame member.
Dan Ryczek, another Janesville Sports Hall of Fame member, was the all-state quarterback for Craig’s unbeaten 1974 team. That team, also featuring all-state tackle Fred Jegerlehner, linebacker Matt Eklund, receiver Dave Barry, guard Mitch Benson and nose guard Mike Monk, had four shutouts among its nine victories and was ranked second in the state by The Associated Press and UPI in that pre-playoff era.
Michael Liebenstein Jr. was a two-way first-team all-state end for the 1979 co-champion Cougars, who also featured quarterback Curt McGinness, the conference offensive player of the year. Both became Janesville Sports Hall of Fame selections, representing a team whose only loss was 7-6 to Madison Memorial, which forced the tie for the Big Eight title and kept the Cougars out of the three-year-old playoffs.
Conference scoring champion Phil Fader and versatile quarterback Tracy Marshall led the way for the 1983 Cougars to reach the expanded playoffs as undisputed Big Eight champions.
The golden years for Parker’s green and gold came under coach Joe Dye, whose teams won or shared Big Eight championships in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006. The Vikings had a 29-game Big Eight winning streak during the 2000-2003 stretch and made the playoffs 15 times in 16 years during Dye’s 19 years (1993-2011) as head coach, while producing 12 all-state players.
Two-time all-state running back Cas Prime, a Janesville Sports Hall of Fame member, led Parker to the first three conference championships in school history (2000-02). He also led the state in rushing with 2,196 yards as a senior, scoring 30 touchdowns and finishing with a then-city-record 5,331 career rushing yards and 58 touchdowns.
Nick Nolte was a first-team all-state lineman for Parker’s 2003 and 2004 championship teams. Taylor Edwards was an all-state running back for the 2006 champions, and Harold Lloyd was a two-way all-state lineman for the Vikings in 2007.
As a finishing touch to Dye’s head football coaching career, Adam Vesterfelt of the Vikings broke Prime’s city rushing record with 5,353 yards between 2009 and 2011, topped off by all-state honors as a senior.
While state honors have been numerous for local players, the coaches haven’t been left out. Barnabo, a leader in bringing high school football playoffs to Wisconsin, Suter, Dye and Harold Rebholz (coach of the Bluebirds’ 1937 co-champions) have earned spots in the WFCA Hall of Fame as Janesville has left an indelible mark in the Big Eight.
It should be noted, too, that Janesville’s significant mark in the Big Eight hasn’t been limited to the Craig-Parker era.
Only a few may remember, but a crowd of more than 12,000 engulfed Monterey Stadium for the 1937 season finale to see Rebholz’s team, led by star running back Robert Cone, end a 25-year winless drought against Beloit with a 14-0 victory to clinch a tie for Janesville’s first Big Eight title.
As a senior fullback in 1947, Bill Schleisner of the Bluebirds was a first-team pick in the first-ever all-Big Eight selections and became a two-year letterman for the Wisconsin Badgers, including the renowned “Hard Rocks” 7-1-1 season in 1951.
Arnold Quaerna came off a winning JHS season in 1958 to become a letter-winning quarterback for Wisconsin’s second-ranked 1962-63 Big Ten championship team—-the one that lost 42-37 to top-ranked Southern Cal in one of the most famous Rose Bowl games.
Not surprisingly, all three of those players also are in the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame, adding another footnote to what local athletes have done in this city’s historic soon-to-be 90 years in Big Eight football.