The Wisconsin Badgers will be facing the USC Trojans in the Holiday Bowl this upcoming Wednesday, December 30. Earlier this month, I wrote stories about the bowl history of the Badgers and also their bowl history with USC.
The Badgers have played in 26 bowl games in their history, which includes nine Rose Bowl appearances. But their upcoming appearance in the Holiday Bowl will be the first time the Badgers have played a bowl game in California that wasn’t the Rose Bowl.
The initial Holiday Bowl was played in 1978. I remember it quite well. It was a matchup between the Navy Midshipmen and the BYU Cougars.
The quarterback for Navy was Bob Leszczynski. Bob just happened to be a former classmate and teammate of mine at Messmer High School in Milwaukee.
I was able to chat with Bob earlier this week and get some of his memories from his playing days at Navy.
In his senior year at Messmer, Leszczynski was named Wisconsin High School Football Player of the Year. Bob was in good company, as the previous year the award went to John Anderson of Waukesha South High School, and who later starred at the University of Michigan and later the Green Bay Packers.
In college, Leszczynski decided to go to Navy. As a freshman, he was the quarterback of the B squad which would practice against the defense of Navy, which just happened to be the No. 1 unit in the country. It was excellent training for the young quarterback.
Midway through his sophomore year, Leszczynski got an opportunity to start at quarterback. His second start came against Notre Dame at old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.
Leszczynski had a big game in the 27-21 loss to the Fighting Irish. “I had the game of my life,” Leszczynski said. “I threw for almost 300 yards and we almost beat them. It came down to me throwing a Hail Mary pass from around the 50 which ended up getting picked off.”
After that game, Leszczynski led Navy to three consecutive wins to end the 1976 season. One of those wins came against the biggest rival of the Midshipmen, Army.
In 1977, Leszczynski and Navy finished with a 5-6 record, but better things were definitely ahead for the Midshipmen in 1978.
“We were pretty confidant going into our senior year,” Leszczynski said. “We had guys like [wide receiver] Phil McConkey and a great group of juniors and sophomores on our team. So we thought we could be pretty good.”
The team bolted out to a 7-0 record to open the season and at one point were ranked No. 7 in the country, before losing three straight games. But the Midshipmen bounced back to beat Army once again before their matchup with BYU in the Holiday Bowl.
That appearance in the Holiday Bowl was just the sixth bowl appearance for Navy in their history and their first in 15 years.
Leszczynski got off to a great start when he threw a long touchdown pass which unfortunately was called back due to a holding penalty.
BYU alternated two very good quarterbacks in the game. They were Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon, both of whom were first round draft picks in the NFL.
As the game wore on, BYU had a 16-3 lead midway through the third period. But then Navy stormed back to score the final 20 points of the game.
It started with a 4-yard touchdown run by Kevin Tolbert late in the third period.
In the fourth quarter, kicker Bob Tata of Navy kicked two field goals, but the decisive play of the game was a 65-yard touchdown pass from Leszczynski to McConkey.
Leszczynski talked about the 20- point swing. “We got our offense turned around,” Leszczynski said. “We started moving the ball and we scored late in the third period. Then we got a big turnover at around our 35 fairly early in the fourth quarter. On the very first play after that, Coach [George] Welsh called a bomb to McConkey.
“I just dropped back to pass and threw it up there for McConkey to grab and he jumped up over the defender and made a great catch.”
You can see that great play, along with other highlights of the game in the video below which also talks about the origin of the Holiday Bowl.
The end result was a 23-16 win for Navy in the first ever Holiday Bowl. Leszczynski’s 65-yard touchdown pass to McConkey was a bowl record which stood for 18 years.
Leszczynski had a great career at Navy. He was 17-11 as a starter (including the Holiday Bowl win and two wins versus Army), plus is still second all-time in the Navy record book for career touchdown passes with 26.
Currently, Leszczynski is an agent at Aflac, plus is the quarterbacks coach at Homestead High School in Mequon, Wisconsin, a position he’s held for six years.
Homestead won the Division II state football title in 2015. The Highlanders also won the state title in 2012.
Bottom line, the memories of that first Holiday Bowl will always stay with Leszczynski. He talked about the 30-year reunion his team had seven years ago.
“We dressed around 70 players for the Holiday Bowl,” Leszczynski said. “And at the 30-year reunion, with guys who now lived all over the world and all over the country, we had over 60 players from that game show up to the reunion.
“It was great seeing all the guys that I hadn’t seen in 30 years. The turnout was incredible. And so were the memories.”