This is the story of a small city, a larger than life coach, a new book and a game for the ages.
It starts with the coach, John “Weenie” Wilson, and not just because of his memorable nickname. Wilson was such a presence, it has to start with him.
“He ruled Dodgeville,” Rick Birk said this week by phone from Arizona.
Birk is the author of “Dodgeville: Capturing Hearts,” which arrives just in time for the 50th anniversary of the high school basketball season it celebrates.
In 1963-64, a decade or so before Wisconsin high school boys basketball went to a multiple-class tournament — meaning small schools would no longer compete against the big boys — Dodgeville High School put its perfect, no-loss season on the line in the state championship game against heavily favored Milwaukee North.
The scene was the University of Wisconsin Field House, and it was a scene, even in warmups. Nearly every Milwaukee North player could stuff the basketball. Their layup line became a dunk fest, with the crowd’s chants keeping track of the number as each slam was registered.
At the other end of the floor, the Dodgeville players dared not look. It wasn’t that they might get intimidated, though there was that. They knew that if Wilson caught them gazing at their opponents, they’d be benched. He wanted them focused. This was a coach who forbid his players to talk to girls in the hall at school.
Needless to say, it was another era, which is one of the charms of Birk’s book, and in a sense the reason he came to write it.
Birk grew up in Delafield, a small city itself, and recalled how everyone seemed to be near a television set to watch Dodgeville’s improbable run in the state tournament in March 1964.
“In our little town,” Birk said, “everyone was infatuated with Dodgeville.”
Birk himself was 11 that season. He went on to play varsity basketball in high school and on scholarship at UW-Milwaukee. He later coached high school basketball in Brookfield and Brown Deer, before moving to Arizona in 1989. He wrote his first book, a basketball novel titled “Go-5,” in 2008, and started a publishing company with the same name.
Birk wrote a few more books in the next several years, and then, in 2011, found himself empty of ideas, except for one, long-festering.
“In the back of my mind,” Birk said, “I always thought Dodgeville would make a great story.”
It dawned on him that the 50th anniversary of that magical season was approaching. A phone call to the school indicated that as far as anyone knew, no one was already working on a book.
Birk decided to include the 1962-63 season as well, when Dodgeville made it to the championship game but lost to Manitowoc. He began contacting the players by telephone, and mailed packets to them with dozens of questions. In June of this year, Birk visited Dodgeville, where he was shown around by Bob Rock, who lives in Madison and was one of the five starters on the 1964 tournament team that played Milwaukee North in the final.
For Birk — whose book can be purchased through his website, www.go5books.com — what emerged was how special everyone felt those teams were, especially the 1963-64 squad, which started five seniors who epitomized team play and had a love-hate relationship with their unyielding head coach.
“He was a taskmaster, but he always had a good heart,” Rock told me, speaking this week of Wilson. Rock went on, “We had our own little Bobby Knight, right there in Dodgeville.”
Wilson grew up in Richland Center playing all sports, and he played football at UW-Madison in the 1930s, where, according to Birk, head football coach Clarence “Doc” Spears gave Wilson his nickname. It had first been “Wheatie,” after the breakfast cereal Wilson ate every morning. Spears misunderstood and called Wilson “Weenie,” which stuck.
Wilson insisted on a 6 p.m. weekday curfew for his players, and you didn’t want to show up the first day of practice with long hair, which is to say, anything more than a crew cut. If Wilson could grab it in his hand, you were sent to the barber.
But he could coach, getting his players to believe in themselves and in the value of teamwork. The 1963-64 Dodgers went through the regular season undefeated and dispatched first Merrill and then Waukesha in their first two games in the Field House.
Milwaukee North stood between Dodgeville and the state championship. It was a moment right out of the movie “Hoosiers.” The big city school, with its fast-breaking offense (North scored 94 points in its semifinal win over Waterloo) and pressing defense, against the small-town team which favored a deliberate style.
Dodgeville’s five starters — Rock, Rick Brown, Corky Evans, Pat Flynn and Bruce Harrison — played the entire game. They trailed at halftime. But in the second half, North began to miss, and, maybe, to panic a bit. Dodgeville pulled away, winning comfortably, 59-45.
A police escort brought the team and its fans back to Dodgeville, where a crowd of 3,000 waited. They were already saying they would remember it always, and they were right. Fifty years on, they still do.