UW-Eau Claire athletic director Dan Schumacher said the newly formed Culver’s Isthmus Bowl evolved from an idea he had a few years back.

“I was trying to really think outside the box,” said Schumacher, one of two WIAC ADs on the Isthmus Bowl committee. “I had some sponsors lined up early in my tenure to do a Thursday night game of the week, WIAC game of the week, on Fox North. There wasn’t as much buy-in as I hoped for, especially at the higher level of the conference, not naming names, but I thought that we had a football product that would be interesting that we could showcase on Thursday night. ... It just never made it to fruition. We talked then about establishing a bowl game, started preliminary discussions about three years ago.”

Now, the WIAC has a different kind of showcase thanks to a partnership with the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. It was announced Monday the top team from each of the two highly respected conferences that doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament will play against the other annually at Verona Area High School, just outside of Madison.

“The matchup probably out-trumps my idea of doing a Thursday night game of the week,” Schumacher said on a Zoom conference call Tuesday. “How do we really take our most successful sport nationally, which would be football and then men’s basketball from a historical standpoint, and then elevate it? This bowl game becomes a perfect fit, and it stays in Wisconsin. That’s good for us.”

The inaugural Isthmus Bowl will be held on November 20, becoming the first bowl game played in the state of Wisconsin. The game will feature two leagues that have succeeded on the national level, with CCIW boasting the most recent DIII football national champion in North Central. The Cardinals defeated UW-Whitewater of the WIAC to claim that crown.

In addition to North Central, the CCIW includes Augustana, Carroll, Carthage, Elmhurst, Illinois Wesleyan, Millikin, North Park, Washington University in St. Louis and Wheaton.

UW-Eau Claire football coach Wesley Beschorner said in a press release Monday that “any additional opportunity to represent our university and the Eau Claire community is an honor and privilege.”

“When it was first presented to Coach Beschorner, it was a no-brainer,” Schumacher said. “From top to bottom, it was a no-brainer to do this.”

Schumacher has familiarity with the formation of bowls, having been at Winona State when the Mineral Water Bowl was resurrected in the early 2000s. Much of the structure for that event is the same despite running at the Division II level: The Mineral Water Bowl also pits teams from two conferences against each other, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. There he saw firsthand what impact an opportunity like this can have.

“It’s another game, another chance to practice an extra week,” Schumacher said. “That makes your football team better. If you do the statistics, the teams that make the Mineral Water Bowl in the Northern Sun and the MIAA, what are the percentages of that team making the NCAA playoffs the next year? It was like 86%. It was crazy. All because of that extra week, the team got stronger, better, had a higher level of competition, knew what they needed to get to, what level.”

Schumacher said work is being done behind the scenes on a potential TV deal for the Isthmus Bowl. That could affect game time as those involved look to avoid a conflict with Wisconsin football’s game against Nebraska.

Both WIAC and CCIW football is set to return this fall after a one-year coronavirus-related hiatus. UW-Eau Claire will play its first game since 2019 on Saturday, Sept. 4 when the Blugolds host Loras, while UW-Stout opens on the road that same day against Presentation College.

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to have fans in the stands, we’re going to have that marching band going,” Schumacher said. “These kids haven’t played a football game in a year and a half. That means their bodies are pretty fresh. They’re not beat up, they had a chance to heal, take a year off, still work out and get their body right. So I look for us to be bigger, stronger, faster and more developed than the team that we left out there that beat St. Thomas right before COVID.”

NIL in Division III

Schumacher said he has no doubt that the NCAA’s recent allowance of student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness will have an effect at the Division III level in addition to Division I, which has gotten most of the headlines since the policy change was put in place earlier this month. That could play to UW-Eau Claire’s advantage.

“I say to every recruit I meet, ‘This may be a Division III school but you have a Division I media setting,’” Schumacher said. “I was at Division I Chicago State and I was fighting with five pro teams and four other Division I schools like me trying to get my score on the TV. When the Blugolds are on, we may be the lead-in to the news, we may be the cover of the sports section. That’s a different experience than say, you’re a student-athlete at Platteville. The size of community, the size of the media market and the exposure, we may be at a more advantageous point than a Platteville, that our student-athletes can take advantage of that legislation.”

He said he expects the WIAC to add some of its own additional legislation to ease fears of inequity between schools in large and small markets. He and associate athletic director Robin Baker plan on putting together a master list of do’s and don’ts for student-athletes once the WIAC finalizes its plans. He said many current Blugolds have already started asking questions to the school’s compliance office.

“It’s not supposed to be about competitive advantage, as the legislation says, but how isn’t it?” Schumacher said. “If I can get a booster club member to sponsor an athlete through their business and that may be the persuading factor of them coming to Eau Claire instead of going to Whitewater or going to Oshkosh, this is real stuff.”

Next new sport

The final sport in UW-Eau Claire’s recent expansion of its athletic department, men’s soccer, is set to kick off play this fall. The team follows baseball and women’s lacrosse, which both started up competition in the spring.

The Blugolds soccer team, led by coach Casey Holm, opens on the road at Hamline on Sept. 1. Its first home game comes on Sept. 14 against Northland.

“Casey Holm has done a great job with recruitment,” Schumacher said. “We did receive a few transfers, but we’re going to be a very young team, no different than lacrosse or baseball. But I think we’re going to have better numbers roster size-wise. I think we’ll be at 23, 25. We’d like to be at 28 individuals for men’s soccer.”

The team will play at Simpson Field, a facility Schumacher said he’s working to add bleachers to in order to host track meets as well for the first time in a quarter century.