MADISON, Wis. – When Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor was a kid, he used to watch the Badgers and dream of playing for Barry Alvarez.
He’s finally getting his wish.
The Badgers are going retro for the Rose Bowl, talking Alvarez – their former football coach-turned athletic director and Langeloth native – into returning to the sidelines on New Year’s Day against Stanford after Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas this week.
“It’s the best thing that could happen,” Taylor said Thursday after Alvarez’s return was announced. “He’s familiar with what we do and he built this program. That’s why kids like me come here.”
But this is a one-night-only gig, Alvarez insisted. He’s already looking for a replacement for Bret Bielema, and plans to begin interviewing candidates next week.
“No one likes change, but you can grow through change and there’s opportunity through change,” Alvarez said. “I want the seniors to go out the right way, and I want the young players to understand that I will put a coach in place that they’ll be pleased with.”
It won’t, however, be Paul Chryst.
The first-year Pitt coach was considered the favorite to replace Bielema, a former Badgers offensive coordinator who is from the area, has many ties here and remains a popular figure at Wisconsin. Alvarez pulled some strings to help get Chryst the Panthers job last year, and said it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for him to hire Chryst back such a short time later.
Chryst says he is committed to the Panthers, who are preparing for the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 5.
“I think he should be committed to Pitt,” Alvarez said. “I wouldn’t think it would be right for him to leave after one year. I wouldn’t feel right, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to hire him back after I asked someone to do me a favor and help him get that job. So Paul’s going to stay at Pitt.”
But there is no shortage of interest in the job, Alvarez said. His phone was “blowing up” as soon as word spread that Bielema was leaving, and Alvarez said he’s already talked to a few potential candidates. He will not use a search firm, joking that “most search committees use me.”
A current head coach is his preference, though Alvarez would not rule out hiring an assistant. Wisconsin ties are not required, but Alvarez said the new coach needs to be familiar with the program and its history.
“I think anyone that’s competitive understands this is a good job,” Alvarez said. “They’re not going to worry about my legacy or what Bret left behind or anything else. They know this is a good job and they can come in here and continue to win. We’ve got new facilities coming. This is a pretty special place.”
And Alvarez is largely to thank for that.
Wisconsin was little more than a Big Ten bottom feeder when Alvarez arrived in 1990. The Badgers had all of six winning seasons from 1964-89, and went 19 years without another bowl appearance after losing to USC in the 1963 Rose Bowl. They were such a sorry bunch that the Wisconsin band’s postgame show was the main attraction at Camp Randall, with students rarely bothering to show up until halftime or later.
But Alvarez came with stingy defense, a power running game and a massive offense line – “those big palookas up front,” he said Thursday – that would soon become the standard in both college and the pros. The Badgers had a Big Ten-record 10 straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher under Alvarez, and Ron Dayne became the school’s second Heisman Trophy winner in 1999.
Four years after taking over, Alvarez led the Badgers to a 10-1-1 record, a No. 4 ranking and the 1994 Rose Bowl. Wisconsin has had only two losing seasons since then.
Alvarez’s 118-73-4 record in 16 seasons includes a 3-0 mark in the Rose Bowl – Wisconsin’s only victories in eight trips to Pasadena. He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009.
“It’s a special place,” Alvarez said. “I love the atmosphere. I love the week leading up to it. There isn’t anything that I enjoy more. With this being our third (straight) appearance and the Hall of Fame, this is my fourth year in a row and I love it. It doesn’t get a bit old to me. I will enjoy every second of it.”
As will the Badgers.
Bielema’s departure was a shock, coming just three days after Wisconsin earned a school-record third straight trip to the Rose Bowl with a 70-31 rout of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship. The coach even told players at a Monday night meeting not to believe rumors he was going somewhere, quarterback Curt Phillips said.
Once Bielema left, there was no question who the Badgers wanted as their interim coach.
“Looking forward to being coached by one of the greatest of all time In my last game as a badger! Let’s go get em!” running back Montee Ball said on Twitter.
Alvarez has been something of a coach emeritus the last seven years. Bielema was his hand-picked successor, and he stuck close to the framework Alvarez had established. Alvarez attended most practices, and often helped to woo recruits.
“When anyone around this program simply says `coach’, you know who they’re talking about,” Chris Borland tweeted.
So for him to step back in for the Rose Bowl will mean very little change for the Badgers. Alvarez said he will oversee practices and manage the game, allowing the coordinators to focus on game planning against the Cardinal.
The assistants have told players they are committed to Wisconsin through the Rose Bowl.
“I think this is probably the best,” Alvarez said. “I felt this was the best way to go about it and give the players the best opportunity” to win.
And, make no mistake, the Badgers intend to keep Alvarez’s perfect Rose Bowl record intact.
More than a few people have said the Badgers have no business being in the Rose Bowl at 8-5. Wisconsin actually finished third in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division, but Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.
But Alvarez said Wisconsin has nothing to apologize for.
“I told (the players) I would be honored to coach them,” Alvarez said. “But I wanted them to understand, if I was going to coach them, we weren’t going to screw around. We were going to go out there to win.”