Wisconsin's Alvarez back in familiar Rose Bowl territory
LOS ANGELES -- Of all the coaches that have roamed the plush Pasadena sidelines in the Rose Bowl's 99-year history, Barry Alvarez may have made history this week. Wisconsin's athletic director and interim coach for Tuesday's matchup against Stanford may be the first to hire a new volleyball coach the week of the game.
As you may have heard, he conducted another coaching search earlier this month, one that resulted in Utah State's Gary Andersen becoming the Badgers' new football coach. Andersen has been here this week attending practices, but Alvarez -- Wisconsin's former 16-year head coach and three-time Rose Bowl champion -- has been running them.
"You've got to use all 24 hours," the 2010 College Football Hall of Fame inductee said of his dual roles. "I like to keep busy."
As Wisconsin (8-5) prepares to take on the eighth-ranked Cardinal (11-2) on Tuesday, Alvarez is fully immersed in his temporary head-coaching duties. While Bret Bielema's holdover staff (all of whom have stayed for the bowl) does most of the hands-on work, Alvarez is overseeing meetings and practices. He decides the team's daily schedule (they will see the movie Jack Reacher on Monday night). He will don a headset on the sideline Tuesday, and, as he's been doing throughout pre-bowl practices, he will give the team one last locker-room speech.
All of which comes naturally to a man who led the Badgers to victories here in 1994 (over UCLA), '99 (UCLA) and 2000 (Stanford), and, if he can pull the upset Tuesday, will tie Ohio State legend Woody Hayes for the most Rose Bowl wins by a Big Ten coach.
"This has been easy," he said. "Just give me a whistle. That's all I need is a whistle and a bunch of guys to coach, and I feel very comfortable with that."
Alvarez is quick to point out that, "I didn't choose myself [to coach the bowl game]. The players chose me." Bielema initially suggested the idea when he informed his boss Dec. 4 he was taking the Arkansas job, but Alvarez, in New York at the time for National Football Foundation functions, "didn't feel it was proper to name myself the coach." But when Badgers linebacker and co-captain Mike Taylor called on behalf of the players and asked him to coach them, Alvarez didn't take even a moment to think it over.
"I was flattered and I was honored," he said. "But come on, coach one game, the Rose Bowl? That's the most fun game I've ever coached. There's nothing like it. It's like giving me an early Christmas present."
Like most Big Ten coaches, Alvarez holds a special reverence for the Grandaddy, having coached in the game twice as an assistant at Iowa in the 1980s and three times with the Badgers. As athletic director, he accompanied Bielema's teams to Pasadena the past two seasons. Miffed in general by Bielema's defection, you can tell it particularly dumbfounds him that the coach of a Rose Bowl-bound team would bolt for another job.
"No one has ever won the right to go to the Rose Bowl and not coached in it," said Alvarez. "So it never crossed my mind that it would happen." (Technically, that's not true. Michigan's Bo Schembechler suffered a heart attack the day before the 1970 game and spent it in the hospital.)
Alvarez spent the first couple of weeks of December crisscrossing the country to interview coaching candidates (for both football and volleyball) in between practice days on campus. Almost immediately, he felt "invigorated" being back on the practice field, and at one point, still hoping to retain much of Bielema's staff but unable to promise them jobs before hiring a new coach, he seriously contemplated staying on for another year.
"Emotionally, I was really struggling with that," he said. "I went home and told my wife, I said, 'Cindy, I think I should stay on for another year. Besides that, we'll be a good team next year.' And she said, 'Well, you'll be in the same boat a year from now. And you can't do it for one year. You'd have to do it for three.' And I didn't think I could do that. I couldn't do it at the pace that I want to do it.
"So that lasted about 12 hours."
In the meantime, Alvarez's return to the sideline has proven a healing and unifying moment for a program that's gone through unprecedented upheaval over the past 12 months.
Following last January's loss here to Oregon, six of Bielema's nine assistants left for other jobs. One of the replacements, offensive line coach Mike Markuson, was fired after one game, replaced by 27-year-old graduate assistant Bart Miller. It's been reported that Bielema and first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada clashed over the direction of the offense, which unexpectedly struggled early in the year. The Badgers, 32-8 the previous three seasons, finished the regular season just 7-5, including 4-4 in the Big Ten, but returned to the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1 due to Ohio State's and Penn State's ineligibility, where their previously underperforming offense unexpectedly steamrolled 10-2 Nebraska, 70-31, to earn a third straight trip to Pasadena.
And then, three days later, seven-year coach Bielema stunned Alvarez and the entire college football world by leaving for Arkansas.
At most schools, the athletic director would have installed one of the coordinators -- either Canada (who's heading to NC State) or Chris Ash (who will soon join Bielema in Fayetteville) -- to serve as interim coach for the bowl game. But at most schools the athletic director isn't a beloved former coach still closely connected to the sport. Most of Wisconsin players -- some of whom jokingly refer to him as "The Godfather" -- have known Alvarez longer than most of the staff.
"Having an opportunity to play with a Rose Bowl Hall of Fame coach in the Rose Bowl is something we're all excited about," said Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips. "He's brought a lot of confidence and a sense of swagger to the team that I think guys have responded to well and really rallied around."
Several players this week used that word "swagger" to describe Alvarez's demeanor. He speaks and acts like a man who knows full well that he knows what he's doing. He kept binders of notes from his previous Rose Bowl trips and is following much the same blueprint, much of which centers around ensuring the players have fun here. Practices are shorter (by 30 to 45 minutes) and crisper than they were under Bielema, and on Friday, when heavy rain hit L.A., Alvarez shelved practice altogether. However, the Badgers also held a live scrimmage with hitting their second day here, uncommon for bowl teams.
Mostly, he believes the bowl trip should be a reward, not a chore, and he's got a 3-0 record (and 8-3 overall in bowls) to show it works.
"One thing that is different that we enjoy is just the way Coach Alvarez talks to us," said star running back Montee Ball. "his swagger that he brings to practices, before his speeches and during his speeches and all that stuff is something we really enjoy. We all are most definitely looking forward to his pregame speech. We hear he does a great job with that."
We can probably guess a few elements of that speech. First and foremost, Alvarez will likely stress the importance of winning this Rose Bowl after falling short the past two years. He'll emphasize to the players their chance to prove to the nation they're better than their 8-5 record indicates. He'll surely tell them that few give them a chance to beat the higher-ranked Cardinal (though football sabermetrics types would strongly disagree).
But don't be surprised if he also includes a message about appreciating one more opportunity to play in an event he holds so dear. Alvarez for one is cherishing his unexpected encore.
"There's nothing like taking the field at the Rose Bowl," he said. "It's the most beautiful venue in all of sport, I think. I'll be just as thrilled as the first time I took it when I take the field this time."