Barry Alvarez’s influence, legacy cemented in Badgers football

UW athletic director Barry Alvarez enjoys a light moment during an event marking his retirement announcement at the Kohl Center on Tuesday.

COLTEN BARTHOLOMEW [email protected]

For what he did for the program, Barry Alvarez’s name will always be linked with University of Wisconsin football.

His work in making the Badgers a winner is partly why he was hired as UW’s athletic director in 2004 and it’s why more than 16 years after he retired from coaching, he’s still called “Coach Alvarez” by people in the department.

Badgers football was made in the image of Alvarez’s personality — tough, willing to put in the work and relentlessly competitive. At his retirement announcement ceremony Tuesday, Alvarez, 74, said the football program’s turnaround led to the success the rest of the department has enjoyed during his 17-plus years as athletic director.

“The fact that we were able to get football in the right place allowed us to do a lot of things,” Alvarez said. “When you fill the stadium, that allows you to do other things facility-wise and give the other 22 sports a budget where they can be competitive. … The rest of it, that we’ve been able to be consistently good over a long period of time, it all started with football. That makes me the most proud.”

From his first day on the job in 1990, Alvarez brought bravado to a football program that had none. It started with a prophetic quip that would define his era as coach and athletic director.

“They better get season tickets right now because, before long, they probably won’t be able to,” Alvarez said that day. The remark has been part of a video package played before each UW home game and remains true. UW football went from afterthought to Big Ten Conference contender under Alvarez, and his influence on the program is still felt in the way it recruits and consistently wins.

Even with Alvarez’s confidence and mentors such as Nebraska’s Bob Devaney, Iowa’s Hayden Fry and Notre Dame’s Lou Holtz, it took time to turn the program around. UW posted a 13-42 record in the five seasons previous to Alvarez’s hire, then went 11-22 in his first three years at the helm, including 1-10 in his first year.

The turnaround season came in 1993, when Alvarez led the Badgers to a 9-1-1 record and their first Big Ten title since 1962. After defeating Michigan State in Tokyo to secure the championship, UW was back in the Rose Bowl. Highlighted by quarterback Darrell Bevell’s touchdown run, a 21-16 win over UCLA marked UW’s first Rose Bowl victory.

Alvarez won the American Football Coaches Association and Bobby Dodd coach of the year awards that season. Powered by Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, Alvarez and the Badgers won back-to-back Big Ten championships in 1998 and 1999 and added two more Rose Bowl triumphs. UW is still the only Big Ten program to win consecutive Rose Bowls.

Speaking in a video played during the ceremony, former UW chancellor Donna Shalala, who hired Alvarez, said: “He was hungry; he was hungry for excellence.”

Enduring influence

Alvarez and longtime recruiting coordinator Bernie Wyatt put a priority on drawing the top in-state prospects to UW, a strategy that continues today with homegrown talent filling out the roster, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.

In the past five seasons, UW has landed 23 of the top 30 in-state recruits, per 247Sports’ composite rankings.

“I absolutely believe in it. Each year, you’ve got to work at that,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “When I was an assistant for coach Alvarez and coming back, you take a look at it, there’s a lot of really good football players from this state. For us to be the best team we can be — I still believe it’s true what Coach said a long time ago — you’ve got to start with getting the best kids in state. … Certainly was a big part of what he believes in and certainly learned that lesson quickly from him.”

After serving as interim coach for bowl games following the 2012 and 2014 seasons, Alvarez has the most wins as a UW coach with a record of 119-74-4. He won Big Ten coach of the year honors in 1993 and 1998, and was enshrined in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.

There were certainly missteps in Alvarez’s career overseeing the football program. From The Shoe Box incident — the program was put on five years’ probation and lost scholarships after the NCAA found the business gave unadvertised discounts to athletes — to the dip in recruiting success under coach Gary Andersen, Alvarez wasn’t a perfect steward of UW football. But even though three head coaches have led the Badgers since Alvarez stepped away in 2005, his influence on the way the program runs is evident.

Perhaps Alvarez’s chief contribution is the people he’s brought into the fold.

Chryst and his top two assistants — associate head coach Joe Rudolph and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard — all came into the program through Alvarez. Rudolph was part of Alvarez’s first four teams, Leonhard played for Alvarez toward the end of his coaching career and Chryst was hired by Alvarez as an assistant first in 2002, again in 2005, and as head coach in 2015.

“You know what, they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished here, and they should be,” Alvarez said Tuesday.

“This is a great place. Every coach that ever has coached here with us and left comes back and says this is the best place that I’ve ever coached. And the players take great pride and know that they contributed to what we’ve accomplished here. So they’re invested. That’s why I love to hire former athletes to come back here, because they’ve invested here, and they’ll pass that message on to the younger athletes and we’ll keep that tradition going.”

Legacy cemented

Asked Tuesday about the decisions he felt best about during his tenure as an athletic director, Alvarez said bringing Chryst back into the program after he’d helped Chryst land the head coaching job at Pittsburgh two years prior was at the top of the list.

That struck a chord with Chryst.

“It’s humbling,” he said. “Every time that I had an opportunity to work for coach Alvarez, you just want to do your part. And for him to say that, it means a lot. It means a lot because of the respect and the admiration that I have for coach Alvarez.

“Today was an interesting day. Certainly so much to be celebrated, and yet I found myself a little bit sad, only (because) every day that I’ve had a chance to work for him, I truly enjoyed it and appreciated it. I know he’ll still be around … and that’s a selfish thing on my part … but he gave me a ton of opportunities. And when someone does that, to me, the best way you can show your appreciation is by putting the work in and trying to do your best. Obviously, we’ll continue to do that, but it certainly means a lot because of what he means to me.”

Alvarez said he’s ready to watch his grandson — UW senior tight end Jake Ferguson — simply as a fan, though he did joke at the end of his speech about being available to come out of retirement and coach a bowl game.

Though his role will be changing, Alvarez’s legacy is firmly entrenched in UW football.

“I wouldn’t be where I am or who I am today without coach Alvarez,” said Ross Kolodziej, a defensive lineman for Alvarez from 1998-2001 who is now the Badgers’ defensive line coach.

“As an adult, he’s been around or a significant influence in my life for the last 25-plus years. So the foundation, really, from which I operate from personally and professionally, learned a ton from him. And then obviously for Wisconsin football and Wisconsin athletics in general, he’s put the ‘W’ on the map.”

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