Hlas: Barry Alvarez's bright red blueprint still works at Wisconsin
Badgers football based on simple concepts, muscle, work
Twin sons of different bulls?
“It feels like looking in a mirror sometimes when I see Iowa,” said Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez.
“Kirk Ferentz is a solid football guy. You see the emphasis on their offensive line every year, much like our team, and you have that consistency.
“There’s a lot of similarities. You see a solid program with a philosophy being executed. It’s football the way I think it should be played, with good fundamentals, physical teams, and guys playing hard.”
No, Saturday’s Iowa-Wisconsin game in Camp Randall Stadium surely won’t be an Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, an Offenseapalooza with a video game score. The Hawkeyes and Badgers are built to be bulls, teams that try to make a year of training pay off in November fourth quarters when cold weather and fatigue chase finesse into the Midwestern night.
It’s been a tug-of-war of a series. Wisconsin has won four of its last five games against Iowa, and the Hawkeyes have won seven of the last 13 against the Badgers.
Here’s how you know if Iowa truly has a good team: It wins against Wisconsin. The Iowa teams of 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2015 are the six best of the 19 Ferentz has coached. They all beat the Badgers.
On the other side, most of the Wisconsin teams that won against Ferentz’s Hawkeyes were really good. That’s because Alvarez has done what few in college football do. He built a weatherproof powerhouse, one that has allowed no erosion. His blueprint lives on in bright Badger red.
The Paul Chryst-coached team that plays Iowa Saturday is 9-0. Its defense, as usual, is physical and sound. Its offense? The same.
Alvarez coached 16 seasons, winning three Rose Bowls and ringing up a record of 119-74-4 on his way to the College Football Hall of Fame. He became a full-time AD in 2006. He is 70. He is under contract through January 2021. He loves his work.
“I admired my college coach at Nebraska so much,” Alvarez said. “Bob Devaney was head coach for only 11 years, then he took over as AD. I wanted to emulate him. I told (then-Wisconsin AD) Pat Richter in my interview that my future plans were to replace him when he retired. I wanted to build a program, then I wanted to sustain it.”
Sustain, he has. Incredibly, Badgers football not only kept winning after Alvarez stopped coaching after the 2005 season, it did so without two surprising coaching changes.
Bret Bielema was 68-24 in seven years before abruptly leaving for Arkansas, where wins have been a lot more elusive. Gary Andersen was 19-7 in his two years in Madison. Third-year guy Chryst is 30-6.
“The only challenge was with Gary Andersen,” Alvarez said. “He didn’t buy into our plan, and I think he recognized that after his second year and decided to leave. The first thing he told me then was ‘I can’t do it the way you want me to do it.’
“We would have had problems had he stayed. Some older kids would have left and we lost guys in-state. There wasn’t an emphasis on in-state kids.”
When Andersen left after the 2014 season for Oregon State — where he resigned last month — Alvarez immediately replaced him with Chryst despite his pedestrian 19-19 record as the University of Pittsburgh’s coach.
“Paul had been here twice on the staff,” said Alvarez. “He grew up here in Madison in a neighborhood near our stadium. He understands the state, and everybody knows him.”
Chryst and his offensive and defensive coordinators, Joe Rudolph and Jim Leonhard, played football at Wisconsin. So did the Badgers’ inside linebackers coach, tight ends coach, and head strength/conditioning coach.
Alvarez, an assistant coach for Hayden Fry at Iowa from 1979 to 1986, came to Wisconsin from Notre Dame, where he was Lou Holtz’s defensive coordinator.
“Chuck Heater was on our Notre Dame staff,” Alvarez said, “and he had coached here at Wisconsin before that. He knew what all the issues were here. He said they had let in-state recruiting slip.
“So I came in with a pretty good idea of what needed shoring up right away. I got a good staff who recruited. I got Bernie Wyatt and Dan McCarney, friends of mine when we were on the Iowa staff.
“I came in with a plan for a walk-on program. At Nebraska I saw how walk-ons gave us an advantage, and I put an emphasis on that here. To this day, I call them erasers. They make up for scholarship mistakes.”
Did you know J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans defensive end extraordinaire, came to Wisconsin as a walk-on? Current star Badger tight end Troy Fumagalli walked on, too.
There’s the Iowa mirror again. The Hawkeyes have had a walk-on or 50 become erasers, too. Linebacker Bo Bower, safety Jake Gervase and fullback Drake Kulick were all walk-ons, just to name three players you saw in Iowa’s rout of Ohio State last Saturday. So were the three special teams tricksters against the Buckeyes, punter Colten Rastetter, kicker Miguel Recinos and long-snapper Tyler Kluver.
But when people think about these two programs, they think about pedigree blocking bulls. The Heartland Trophy that goes to the winner of Saturday’s game couldn’t feature a more-fitting representative of the two states’ livestock communities.
“We put an emphasis on the offensive line back when we were establishing depth,” Alvarez said. “Our style of play matches the kids we consistently recruit. We’ve created a culture here. Much like Kirk.”