Hard as it is to imagine now, there was a time not too long ago where Wisconsin – today one of the most consistent winners in college football – was among the very worst programs in America. The Badgers had no money, no history, no players, no momentum, no enthusiasm and no pride. The Badgers were 3-19 in 1988 and 1989 and drew somewhere south of 20,000 people per game.
Then they hired Barry Alvarez.
A 43-year-old Midwesterner, Alvarez had never been a head coach before, but the Badgers’ brass was impressed by his winning pedigree as a player at Nebraska and later as an assistant on Hayden Fry’s powerhouse staff at Iowa and as Lou Holtz’s defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. “It was obvious he would be a head coach,” said Holtz. “It was just a question of when.”
Alvarez learned the game under Hall of Fame coaches in Nebraska’s Bob Devaney, Fry and Holtz, but the attribute that best served Alvarez in turning around Wisconsin was his outsized confidence. To hear those who knew him, the man had a presence, an air, an aura of confidence in himself. Seriously, look at the picture above and tell me that is not the most secure man on Earth at that very moment.
Gleaned from Fox Sports Wisconsin’s excellent oral history on the early years of the Alvarez era, here are a few nuggets on how Alvarez changed the culture of Wisconsin by being a one-man battering ram of confidence.
How about the time he introduced an assistant coach before he’d officially accepted the job?Or the time he guaranteed victory over Ohio State in front of Columbus TV cameras:There was the time he pulled the old, “We’ll win with you or without you,” in front of a recruit’s dad.
That’s not to say he was all bluster and testosterone:
After a 1-10 debut and two 5-6 campaigns in the years that followed, Alvarez and the Badgers won the Rose Bowl in 1993, the program’s first Pasadena trip since 1963, and finished the season ranked fifth in the coaches’ poll. From there, Wisconsin became the program we know it as today. The Badgers went 107-51-4 from 1993 through his retirement in 2005, winning games by controlling the line of scrimmage and turning Camp Randall Stadium into one of the game’s best home-field advantages. He joined his mentors Devaney, Fry and Holtz in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Alvarez The AD has drawn criticism for his hands-on management style (including from this site), but Alvarez The Program Builder’s results are inarguable. And every coach going through a rebuild would be wise to borrow a bit of Alvarez’s gusto.