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For overseeing culture change, Alvarez deserves Hall induction

Former football head coach and current Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez's induction into the College Football Hall of Fame was considered inevitable by most observers.

The man won three Big Ten titles and three Rose Bowls in a distinguished, 16-year career at Wisconsin and is the winningest coach of all time at the school. His .727 winning percentage in bowl games is the best of anyone who's coached in at least 11 postseason affairs. Alvarez knew how to win the big games in the regular season, too, as he's still the only coach to beat Ohio State boss Jim Tressel in consecutive contests.

Still, there is a small but vocal contingent of detractors who have made their disdain for Alvarez and outrage over his Hall induction very clear on Internet message boards. Because of the anonymous nature of these forums, we will never know if the naysayers are former players who couldn't get back on their feet after failing to make it in the NFL, disgruntled ex-employees of the UW Athletic Department, or legitimate followers of college football expressing real, unbiased beliefs. Heck, all the negative comments could be coming from the same bored but angry individual, for all we know! Such is the nature of the Internet.

It is worth noting that I have not seen one mainstream media member articulate a dissenting opinion to the College Football Hall of Fame's decision to welcome Barry Alvarez. Still, after reading through some of the reader comments and discarding the purposeless, hateful ones, I've concluded that many of Alvarez's opponents raise valid points about him; but the points they raise are largely irrelevant to the discussion of whether he belongs in the Hall.

Some have complained about Barry's personality, arguing that as he inflated Wisconsin's seasonal win totals, he pumped some air into his ego as well. That is true to some degree. When I'm asked to think of ways to describe Alvarez, "personally humble" isn't at the top of the list. Then again, people need to remember that we're dealing with a prideful profession here. Athletes and coaches are, by their nature, proud, confident and stubborn, especially the ones who are successful. If Barry's ego is too big for the Hall, does fellow inductee Desmond Howard - the famous Heisman pose taunter, himself - suit your standards of humility? Come to think of it, is there any line of work in which the most successful people don't develop big egos over time? It's hard to think of many exceptions in my field. For now, Alvarez has earned the right to stand tall, and suggesting he doesn't belong in the College Football Hall of Fame because he's a bit full of himself misses the point of the club itself.

It is also interesting to note that many of the less personal insults that have been hurled at Alvarez have to do with the job he's done as athletic director at Wisconsin. Remember that he was selected for this honor as a football coach, not as an athletic administrator. I, too, take issue with some of the decisions Alvarez has made as athletic director at UW, and I've made no secret of the fact that I don't believe a former football coach is the most qualified candidate to oversee a massive web of 23 varsity sports teams. It seems wrong that the third highest paid athletic director in the country is not someone like Michigan's newly hired David Brandon, a former CEO who's an experienced manager and natural leader, but Alvarez, who's more suited to drawing up an effective third-down blitz than hiring a women's basketball coach. There have been rumblings that highly ranking members of the university community have lost their appreciation for Barry's afterglow, especially now that almost no current undergraduates were at UW when he actually coached the football team. There is a general sentiment that Alvarez clinging to the athletic director position is a way for him to continue to bask in the glory of Wisconsin's achievements and step onto the Camp Randall field and Kohl Center court to standing ovations at halftime, while avoiding the 365-day-a-year grind of coaching.

Again, this is a legitimate argument, but it's one for another day. The question is whether Barry Alvarez's coaching career is worthy of his inclusion in a select pantheon of players and coaches, and the College Football Hall of Fame has answered that question with a resounding yes. Even if one were to look at his credentials in a vacuum, he makes the cut. His .615 winning percentage is impressive, considering he started his career with an 11-22 record in his first three years. Only five other coaches have won three Rose Bowls in the game's long history, and he's the only Big Ten coach to win in Pasadena two years in a row.

Alvarez's career, though, is much more remarkable when taken in context. His impact in transforming the culture of athletics at the University of Wisconsin is the real reason he is deserving of such high honors. Every facet of Wisconsin Athletics, as it exists in 2010, has been touched by Alvarez in some way. Football in Madison was a moribund endeavor in the 1980s, as only about half of an old Camp Randall Stadium would fill to watch other teams blow the Badgers out. The state's top athletes regarded the program as a joke and routinely fled to greener pastures for their college careers. Wisconsin hadn't won a conference title since 1962, well before any high school football players were born. The team had won a total of five Big Ten games in its previous four seasons.

It is well known that Alvarez quickly revived the program and won the school's first Rose Bowl championship after the 1993 season. His success, though, wasn't fleeting; rather, he sustained the good fortune to this day, winning two more Rose Bowl titles five years after his first one, going 10-3 in his final season and hiring a successor who promptly recorded the university's first 12-win season. The odds of this kind of long-term success were squarely against Barry. Even when he made good on his promise to "build a fence" around Wisconsin and retain its best players, he was still recruiting a state that doesn't produce blue-chip recruits with any consistency, woefully overmatched in that department by the likes of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, not to mention the entire south. Furthermore, Alvarez was competing in the most tradition-rich of sports, one which the historical bluebloods dominate like no other. We've seen college football teams get good for a few years at a time, but rarely do they make the foray into the game's elite that Wisconsin made under Alvarez. Even the recent disappointments - records of 9-4 and 7-6 and back-to-back bowl losses in 2007 and 2008 - are really indicative of how far the program has come. The 2010 Badgers are among the top 15 teams in the country in most analysts' preseason rankings, and while folks in Madison are excited, there is also a sense of familiarity with the high expectations. 

For changing the way Wisconsin's football program is perceived by its fans - over 80,000 of whom pack Camp Randall seven Saturdays a year - and the way it's viewed by recruits across the country and the college football world at large, Barry Alvarez deserves praise. Every time we walk into that venue and see a highly competitive team pull out yet another win, we're enjoying the fruits of his labor. Few are more worthy of Hall of Fame honors.

-Jake Harris