Steven M. Sipple: NU fans may (grudgingly) advise Wisconsin to stick with Alvarez’s formula

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez coached the Badgers from 1990 to 2005 and used many lessons from his days at Nebraska in building UW into a power. 

Things I know, and things I think I know:  

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez speaks with pride about his Nebraska football roots.

He talks of his deep respect for Bob Devaney and the former Nebraska head coach’s rugged style of play. Alvarez played linebacker for Devaney during the mid-1960s. Then, as a high school coach, including a stint as head coach at Lexington High School (1974-75), Alvarez used the sophisticated strength and conditioning program that started at NU under Devaney.

“My foundation is Nebraska,” Alvarez, raised in a coal-mining town near Pittsburgh, once told me. “I grew up in an area that favored blue-collar, hard-nosed football. That’s the way I learned it. I went to Nebraska and it was the same thing.”

Alvarez also speaks with pride about what Wisconsin’s football program has become. He should speak with pride about it. Enormous pride. His blueprint there endures. You know the formula he created as UW’s head coach (1990-2005): Control the ball with a big, punishing offensive line and hard-charging running backs. Win the field-position battle. Be sound fundamentally and don’t cripple yourself with critical errors.

Alvarez, who turned 74 in December, is set to retire following nearly 17 years as Wisconsin’s AD. Multiple reports over the weekend say he has moved up his timeline for an announcement and plans to make it official soon. 

It’s colossal news in the Big Ten. He’s a giant in the conference. A regal presence. An icon.

As Wisconsin’s head coach, Alvarez turned around a wayward program. He went 1-10 in his first year but had the Badgers winning the Rose Bowl by Year Four. It’s always striking to me how much influence on the UW football program he retained long after his coaching days. He told me in 2014 he still watched the game through the lens of a head coach.

Once he’s gone as AD, Wisconsin wouldn’t dare alter its formula, right? It likely won’t happen as long as Paul Chryst is the head coach. But Chryst won’t be the head coach there forever.

Chris McIntosh, UW’s deputy athletic director since July 2017, reportedly has been groomed to succeed Alvarez. A graduate of Pewaukee (Wisconsin) High School and an All-American offensive tackle under Alvarez in 1999, McIntosh joined the UW athletic administration staff in December 2014. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Alvarez’s preference is to see McIntosh promoted to AD.

Safe to say Wisconsin fans are watching this situation closely.

Nebraska football fans would advise them it’s a good idea to pay very close attention.

Vitaly Pisetsky, a kicker at UW from 1997-2000, expressed support for McIntosh in an interview with the Journal Sentinel, recalling how then-athletic director Pat Richter tabbed Alvarez as his replacement in 2004. 

“I think continuity is going to be huge,” Pisetsky said. “I’ve seen too many programs, both football and athletic programs, lose their relevance because the wrong hire was made.”

Yeah, Nebraska fans can relate. Nebraska lost its way as a football program in 2003 when then-AD Steve Pederson blew up a ground-oriented formula that had worked for years. He fired Frank Solich, who was 58-19 at NU (.753). The Huskers were 7-7 in 2002, but Solich restructured his staff and NU went 10-3 in 2003. Pederson, though, had his mind made up. Frank didn’t have much of a chance. The fan base was divided, many agreeing with the move to fire and many opposing it.

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. Since that point, Wisconsin has played in six Rose Bowls. The Badgers are 8-1 against the Huskers since 2011, using an approach Alvarez learned in Lincoln. 

Scott Frost is in the midst of trying to reverse the program’s fortunes with an identity built around an up-tempo spread offense.

“There’s not just one way to get the job done,” Alvarez told the Journal Star in 2018. “But whatever you’re doing, it has to be sound, and everybody has to be on the same page.” 

Alvarez got folks on the same page at Wisconsin. It’s stayed that way for most of 30 years. 

You always know what you’ll get from UW. You always know what it’ll look like.

As Nebraska fans would attest, that’s quite a feat. 

* There was the Alvarez news Saturday, as well as news of Howard Schnellenberger’s death. 

That’s a lot for many Nebraska fans to digest.

Schnellenberger’s last game as the University of Miami’s head coach was the Orange Bowl to cap the 1983 season. Of course, that game produced what many regard as former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne’s defining moment. Osborne went for two and lost a national championship, but the noble nature of his decision is hailed to this day. 

Schnellenberger took over Miami’s program in 1979 and made it into a power. A brash and fast and unapologetic power. Long story short, the Hurricanes’ rise as a program under Schnellenberger and later Jimmy Johnson essentially forced Osborne to build a team that would win three national championships and come within one play of a fourth. The Canes’ speed in all those bowl games forced Osborne to match it. It forced Osborne to find more playmakers. 

What a career for Schnellenberger, by the way. He was offensive coordinator for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. Before that, he recruited Joe Namath to Alabama. 

He was 87. R.I.P. 

* Is Mike Woodson a risky hire by Indiana hoops? Of course it is. He’s 63 and has zero collegiate coaching experience, a career NBA guy. You know who else was a career NBA guy with zero collegiate coaching experience? 

Michigan’s Juwan Howard. That seems to be working out pretty well. 

* Woodson played for Bobby Knight at Indiana. That was a huge factor in this hire, as Nebraska fans surely understand. It’s also a huge factor that Indiana hired Thad Matta in an administrative position, to oversee the hoops program. Another good move might be to hire UCLA assistant Michael Lewis, who was an assistant on Tim Miles’ staff at NU. He’s second all-time in assists at Indiana. 

* Husker players convene Monday for the start of spring football. Typing that sentence felt pretty good.