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WHEN THE BOY WAS 12 YEARS old, he spent the summer of 1958 working behind the meat counter of his uncle's market in the little town of Langeloth, Pa. Every morning, as he sliced cuts of beef and pork for the day's business, he would watch out the store's front window as groups of men boarded the buses that would carry them off to work in the steel mills scattered throughout the western foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. And every afternoon, as he helped to prepare the store for closing, he would see the same men coming home at the end of their shift, bone tired and filthy with the grime that belched from the mills' blast furnaces. Barry Alvarez wasn't yet old enough to know much about the world outside Langeloth, but he felt deeply that it had to be able to offer him something better than that.
Few of the men were strangers, and some of them he knew quite well. They were the fathers of his friends. They coached in his Little League and refereed his midget football games. They were the fans and boosters of every team he ever played on or against. In many ways their lives outside the mills revolved around the sports their children played. Alvarez himself was a talented athlete; he starred at linebacker for Union High in nearby Burgettstown and reveled in the passion that went into every Friday-night game. Here was a life that suited him perfectly. Here was a path that led away from the mills. When he earned a football scholarship to Nebraska in 1964, he left town and never looked back.
But that doesn't mean he didn't carry the town with him wherever he went. There is still a lot of Langeloth in Barry Alvarez. It is there in his belief that hard work is the key to success, as well as in his ability to connect with people from all walks of life and get them believing it, too. For Alvarez—the greatest football coach in Wisconsin history, and now the boss of one of the country's most powerful athletics programs—has never traded in his blue collar for a white one. In the words of former university chancellor Donna Shalala, "He could walk with kings and not lose the common touch. Barry is one of these guys who could be successful anywhere he lands."
Luckily for the Badgers, he landed in Madison. The Wisconsin athletic department today is a national powerhouse. Not only is its operating budget of $83 million one of the 10 largest in the country, but its individual programs are also among the most successful. Since Alvarez took over as athletic director in the spring of 2004, the Badgers have won eight national championships and 16 Big Ten titles in sports ranging from men's indoor and outdoor track to women's hockey. Two of the three revenue-producing sports (football and men's basketball) play before sellout crowds, and the third (men's hockey) leads the NCAA in attendance. All three are fixtures in national rankings and postseason play.
Last September, as he stood on the field before the football opener against Washington State, Alvarez surveyed the 81,547 fans who filled Camp Randall Stadium. Turning to former guard Joe Panos, who had been a captain on Alvarez's first Rose Bowl team, in 1993, he asked, "Do you remember what this stadium was like when we got here? Can you believe what we've done?"
IN DECEMBER 1989 Shalala hired Pat Richter to be Wisconsin's athletic director, charging him with the monumental task of turning around a Big Ten program and erasing a $2.1 million budget deficit. The first sport he looked at was football. He knew that if he could get football healthy, it would be easier to put the whole department back in the black and that he might eventually be able to get some of the other sports headed in the right direction. But what was passing for football in Madison wasn't a pretty sight. The Badgers had gone 9-36 over the four previous seasons, and average attendance at Camp Randall had sagged to its lowest level since 1945. (The '89 season's final game drew a crowd of just 29,776.)
On Jan. 1, 1990, Richter hired Alvarez to take over the football operation. At the time Alvarez was the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Notre Dame, which was coming off a national championship in 1988 and a 12-1 season in '89.
So why would he go to a place where he would have to build a program out of nothing? Because that was his dream, what he had spent 22 years as a high school and college coach preparing to do. He had played at Nebraska under Bob Devaney, who in the 1960s had transformed the Cornhuskers from a Midwestern laughingstock into a national power. And Alvarez had already turned around a team of his own at the high school level, leading once-moribund Mason City ( Iowa) to a state championship in 1978. That had been followed by eight years as an assistant for Iowa, at which he helped Hayden Fry rebuild one of the Big Ten's lowliest programs. Alvarez was sure that Wisconsin was a sleeping giant, and he knew he was ready for the challenge. "I really think that confidence came from his childhood," says Cindy Alvarez, who has been married to Barry for 40 years. "So many of the families in Langeloth were first-generation Greek and Spanish and Italian, and everything they did was always for their children. Barry was always taught that he was special."
But there was nothing special about the team he took over. Under coach Don Morton, the Badgers had tried to win with small ball. Morton and his staff ignored the state's best homegrown prospects and instead concentrated their recruiting efforts on slight, speedy athletes from Texas and Arkansas who he felt could run the veer-option offense he had developed at Tulsa. But the Big Ten wasn't the Missouri Valley Conference. Morton's teams won just six games in three years. "The attitude here was a loser attitude," says Panos. "Guys wouldn't even wear their letter jackets."
When Alvarez arrived, he immediately branded the program with his very own gritty, no-nonsense style. He established a walk-on program similar to the one Devaney had run at Nebraska, and he recruited aggressively in state. His practices were so tough that within a year, 58 players had quit the team. At one of the last meetings at training camp before that first season, one of the seniors, in a fit of motivational fury, had stood up and shouted, "I think we should win every goddam game this year. Anybody who doesn't agree with me, I'll kick their ass."