Teaching & Learning

Cane Toss

It’s a longstanding — but legal — ploy to predict the future when soon-to-be lawyers attempt to throw canes over a Camp Randall goalpost and imagine winning their first cases.

Photo: Jeff Miller

Photo: Bryce Richter

One of Homecoming’s biggest spectacles doesn’t involve the marching band or the football team.

It’s three hundred third-year law students with canes charging down the field toward Camp Randall Stadium’s south end zone before kickoff. Some of the future attorneys sprint like running backs going for a touchdown. Others stroll or strut, swinging their canes, to savor the moment and avoid the crush.

When they arrive in the shadow of the Field House, students toss their canes over the goalpost. It’s a decades-long tradition that holds that catching their canes means they’ll win their first cases after graduation. Drop them and they lose.

When the concept of law students carrying canes first appeared at the UW is in question. One report indicates it originated at Harvard University and showed up here in 1910. The tradition is also strongly linked to law professor William Herbert Page, who claimed it started in 1917 when he came to Madison from Ohio State. In 1921, the Capital Times reported that senior law students voted to carry canes on campus. But even then, there seemed to be some confusion as to why.

“Is it to tap on the girls’ windows, or is it to fight the engineers?” the article asked. “There must be some reason for anyone who has to carry those big heavy books to want to carry something else besides.” The writer concludes that the cane is “not meant as an article of exterior adornment, but as a symbol.”

It wasn’t all pomp and circumstance in those early days. Law students would sit outside the Law Building and pound their canes on the stairs “in fulsome appreciation” if an attractive co-ed was walking up Bascom Hill. Today, law students only carry canes on the day of the Homecoming game, walking to Camp Randall en masse for their big moment.

Wardrobe has changed over the years, too, with sweatshirts and jeans replacing ties and overcoats.

If there are any rules, they are unwritten. And some have admitted to knocking down classmates to make the catch — insert lawyer joke here.

Published in the Fall 2010 issue


  • mike roeder October 5, 2010

    another gr8 pic! good eye!

  • Kathryn Bullon October 6, 2010

    Whatever its origins, it’s a wonderful tradition for 3Ls. Thanks for jogging a wonderful memory!

  • JohnC October 6, 2010

    I bounced my cane off the goal post and it almost hit me between the eyes on the way back. But I still won my first trial!

  • Matt Neco UW Law '86 October 6, 2010

    The cane toss and the game was great fun. Great memory. I got my cane over the goal post. I think my first case settled. I can’t imagine nowadays that cat-calls, even if tapped out in morse code by cane, would be readily tolerated by the women law students.

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