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B1G 2021: Wisconsin’s rise under Alvarez

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Was this the last of its kind? Should it be?

Wisconsin legends Barry Alvarez and Pat Richter

Apologies for going meta and a bit “think piece” when you all rightly expect to get your OTE-ing on, but, well, the comments will be what they’re gonna be. So, consider yourself warned, and, if you do read the article, much obliged.

Without wanting to make any non-UW fans nauseous, I think we can stipulate that the UW career of Barry Alvarez (HC: 1990-2005; AD: 2004-2021) succeeded beyond what anybody could have imagined. If this were merely a “state of the program” article, I’d declare that the football program is in great shape, and so are sports overall at UW (maybe women’s hoops will turn around someday...), and let you all take aim.

Instead, though, I want to lay out a few observations about how it happened and suggest three things:

  1. Alvarez expertly followed a pretty popular playbook in building the overall program,
  2. It seems less and less likely that this playbook is available at most schools,
  3. Maybe that’s a good thing.

I’ll take each in turn.

Building the program

First off, Alvarez didn’t do it all himself. He walked into a great situation: a school that consistently under-performed on the field (both in football and many other sports), but that really had no excuse as the potential obviously was there. Great job buying low by Barry.

Additionally, his bosses—Chancellor Donna Shalala and AD Pat Richter—were both very new to their jobs and had a lot of room to maneuver. Alvarez had support and he had very skilled people supporting him.

In terms of football product, you all know what Wisconsin’s philosophy is, and you probably understand that Alvarez borrowed from each of the three Hall of Fame coaches he played/coached under: Bob Devaney, Hayden Fry, and Lou Holtz. Iowa, and especially Nebraska, had great walk-on cultures and Alvarez understood the importance of leaving no stone unturned in terms of finding talent (especially in-state). He also realized that in-state talent was mostly going to be about line play and that the skill positions would require a wider search. While at Iowa he saw Fry develop a New Jersey pipeline, and Alvarez replicated that to great success (Ron Dayne, most famously), something that has continued to the present (Jonathan Taylor, Jalen Berger).

Alvarez always had swagger, but he also picked up a fair amount in terms of motivation and player relations from Holtz. Additionally, he always said he learned a lot about bowl preparation from Holtz, as well.* Alvarez went 8-3 in bowls games at UW (okay, 9-4 if you count the two fill-in jobs after Bielema and Andersen left), including 3-0 in the Rose Bowl (3-1, counting the 2013 Rose Bowl), never losing as a favorite and pulling off three sizable upsets (6.5 pt dog in ‘94 Rose Bowl; 9.5 pt dog in ‘99 Rose Bowl; 7 pt dog in ‘02 Alamo Bowl).

*Was this a mild shot at Hayden Fry? Um, maybe.

Lots of football coaches have gone on to become AD, but few had as beloved and as productive of a tenure as Bob Devaney. Alvarez played for Devaney at Nebraska, and Devaney took over as AD in 1967, Alvarez’s senior year. Even when his coaching career ended after the 1972 season, Devaney didn’t just put his feet on the desk and tell war stories. It wasn’t just a gig to keep from getting bored. And he didn’t lurk over Tom Osborne’s shoulder, reminding him of the glory days. Barry was clearly paying attention.

Alvarez was never shy about noting Devaney’s influence, and it was probably never more pronounced than when, in early 2001, he told brand new University of Miami president Donna Shalala “thanks, but no thanks” to the opportunity to coach the Hurricanes. Wisconsin was losing a ton of talent off the 2000 team, and everybody knew the 2001 Hurricanes were loaded. Saying no to that job couldn’t have been easy, and it’s one of the great CFB “what-ifs” in the last couple of decades or so.*

*Does Alvarez win the national title in 2001? Obviously. Does Miami repeat in 2002 behind the only B1G coach to ever win back-to-back Rose Bowls? Probably. You’re welcome Ohio State.

The other administrator he learned a lot from was Pat Richter. Richter had been a Badger legend as a player, but left a corporate position to take the AD job. Richter realized the importance of finances and facilities (and the connection between the two), getting the Kohl Center built largely through private donations and a, um, “premium seating plan” (see here). As AD, Alvarez supported his coaches and was very savvy about the business side (or, perhaps, surrounded himself with folks who were very savvy about the business side, which is also a sign of a pretty good administrator).

Is this replicable?

Of course, in theory. Again, though, the vast majority of coach-to-ADs don’t have the same level of success as AD. And even when they do, it can get complicated (Frank Broyles). Iowa fans who know their history will tell you all about the difference between Forest Evashevski the coach and Forest Evashevski the AD, for example.

Beyond that, though, college sports in general, and college football in particular, is becoming more and more branded/corporate/etc. YES, this is a common, and tired, refrain, but it plays here. It is becoming more and more the case that schools are looking to have a national profile and new presidents have always wanted to leave their own imprint (just like new ADs do).

How many coaches say no to a job like Miami in 2001? How many schools resist the pull of “new blood” in their front office when the AD job opens up? How many ADs are as successful as Alvarez such that hiring the former football coach looks like a good idea?

Wisconsin has a reputation for being especially inclined to “hire from within.” This can be overstated (Gary Andersen), or sloppily defined (Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan coached at D-III UW schools, Ryan’s time as a UW asst was 15 years in the rearview when he was hired, and neither was the top choice at the time), but it is largely true (Gard, Chryst—with three years of apprenticeship at Pitt—Mark Johnson, Tony Granato, multiple football assistants). Heck, Alvarez’s successor, Chris McIntosh, played OL for Alvarez (and had a decade-plus experience in the private sector).

If you’re another school, you almost certainly would take the outcomes of Alvarez’s 30+ years with UW, but how many schools look at that trajectory as “the way things are done” anymore? And maybe they shouldn’t.

Do you want the “living legend” as AD?

Recent years have not been kind to certain program-defining head coaches. The reputations of Joe Paterno and Bo Schembechler have taken sizable hits, for example. And those, as well as numerous other scandals—in and outside of the B1G—only amplify arguments for “new blood” when a change is necessary.

And this isn’t just an argument about the coach—>AD pipeline. Back to Iowa again: ask ten Hawkeye fans about the Ferentz-Barta nexus and it gets complicated quick. Anywhere you have an established and successful football coach, similar discussions will be had. But it is especially the case when the coach is looking to become AD. With the power and prestige that comes from being a college football coach, you often get to largely write your own ticket. When that’s the case, what might get overlooked, under-assessed, or covered up?

Obviously, if a coach is successful enough on the field, he can probably line up the support to become AD at a lot of places. But there are a lot of reasons why that might give a university administration pause, and those reasons seem to be increasing in number.

I don’t think Alvarez will be the last head coach to have wild success as an AD, but I do think that trajectory is less and less available. And I do think it’s probably a good thing. To be clear, as a UW fan, I don’t think there is some MSU/PSU/Michigan/OSU sex scandal waiting to blow open that will damage Alvarez’s legacy. And I don’t think that is just a matter of luck. But I do realize that the longer one person stays in one place holding significant power, the easier it tends to be for oversight to atrophy.

Barry Alvarez is a Badger legend. And it is probably okay that there are unlikely to be too many more like him elsewhere.