No time for flowery introductions, let’s just talk about Barry Alvarez and his legacy in Madison.
What is your favorite game that Barry Alvarez coached?
Belz: There are a lot that come to mind, but I would have to say the “Dayne Game.” As a teenager in the stands for that game, it was absolutely awesome to see the towels waving and the record breaking performance. That game felt like a huge tipping point in terms of the rise of Wisconsin football under Alvarez, and Dayne immediately cemented himself and the program in the history books. The football program has earned a great deal of prestige and notoriety from churning out talented offensive lineman and running backs. Dayne was not the first back to pave the way, but he is likely the most impactful. Alvarez stuck his neck out to get Dayne to Madison, and that game was such a momentous moment for the program in my eyes. Not only because of the record (damn you NCAA), but also because it sent the Badgers to the Rose Bowl for a second consecutive season.
Rock: Limiting to only ones I know I saw live, 2003 Ohio State, 1994 Rose Bowl, 2004 Purdue, 2005 Minnesota, 2005 Michigan, 2015 Outback are all jumping to mind. When I look at that list, each one has some iconic play that is burned into my mind. But I want to pick the ‘05 Michigan game, the “Wheels” Stocco QB draw to beat #14 Michigan for one of the few times in Barry’s career. Looking back, I’m surprised I remember that moment in the other end zone so vividly from my spot in the student section because I had been drinking grain alcohol for about 10 hours. I remember drinking 99 Bananas on a pulled out car seat in the front yard of my friend’s place on Regent, screaming “FLY, FLYERS FLY” at Hamm. That environment doesn’t happen without Barry’s continued dedication to giving 80,000 fans a reason to come to Camp Randall on those select blessed fall Saturdays.
Neal: There are really so many to choose from, but coaching the 1999 Axe Game from Rochester Mayo hospital room prepping/recovering from knee surgery is about a boss move as it gets. I cannot even imagine any major college coach having the chutzpah to pull off coaching a game offsite. Even in the current environment where seemingly anything and everything can be handled remotely, that is a feat we will likely never see again.
Ryan: I have to go with the 1993 Rose Bowl. In just his fourth season, Alvarez led Wisconsin to a 10-1-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory after three-straight seasons with losing records, including a 1-10 1990 season. The Rose Bowl victory was really the catalyst for the program’s continued success.
Which Alvarez-era player is your favorite? Not the best, per se, but the one you remember most fondly.
Belz: This is another tough question, but I am biased to the Rose Bowl teams of the late 1990s. I will hedge and give two names. First off I will go with Jamar Fletcher. He was such a dynamic and impactful player on the field, and he contributed so many memorable moments in big-time situations. He embodied that swagger that Alvarez brought to Wisconsin in my eyes. The other player is Donnell Thompson. A Madison native that was one of myriad walk-ons to carve out a niche under Alvarez, Thompson went from selling programs and sodas in the stadium to winning back-to-back Rose Bowls with the Badgers. Thompson was a team captain and an All-American example of what has made Wisconsin tick since Alvarez arrived.
Rock: Joe Thomas, easily. First off, if you’re thinking Barry Alvarez it’s gotta be a running back or lineman, and you can’t go for the glory picks here. Wisconsin football was built in the trenches. Secondly, he won the Outland Trophy, perhaps the most actually difficult individual award to win in college football. Think about it - five offensive lineman and three or four defensive lineman per team start, and he was the best out of any his senior year. (Yes, not Barry’s time but I count emotional continuation.) Finally, he very politely did not use his NFL-caliber road grading talents to rearrange my very drunk friend Bonesaw’s body when he was unnecessarily shittalking an incredibly nice 6-foot-8 man at Wando’s.
Neal: When he arrived at Wisconsin, Alvarez was vocal on wanting to emulate the walk-on program at Nebraska where he played. Under Alvarez, the Badgers had (and continue to have) a long line of walk-on success stories (shout out Jake Kocorowski and Walk On This Way). So it is no surprise that Jim Leonard is the player I will remember most. From walk-on to All-American to NFL to coaching at Wisconsin, Leonard’s story is one that encompases the Barry Alvarez era.
Ryan: It’s so hard to narrow it down to one person, so I think I will go with two. First and foremost, as Neal mentioned, Jim Leonhard. He was an undersized walk-on safety that went on to be an All-American and played in the NFL for 10 years and worked his way up to being one of the top defensive coordinators. Secondly, I have to say Cecil Martin. He was a great fullback for Wisconsin and continued that during an NFL career. He was also a great guy and went out of his way to have the team sign a shirt for me, which I still have hanging up in my house.
Who is the best hire that Alvarez made as athletic director?
Belz: I’m with Neal, I think it is Kelly Sheffield. I think an argument can be made for Yvette Healey for revitalizing the softball program, and for her valuable voice in the athletic department, Sheffield has the volleyball program at a different level right now.
Rock: I see the Kelly Sheffield mentions and I respect them, but I want to say Paula “I Recruited Rose Lavelle” Wilkins. In the last six years, Wilkins has won three Big 10 titles and made five NCAA tournaments with two Sweet Sixteens. In the last six years of her prior job, she won eight Big Ten titles and made six NCAA tournaments with two Final Four appearances. That’s a hell of a steal.
Neal: Kelly Sheffield. The Badger volleyball team has been an absolute juggernaut since Sheffield arrived in 2013.
Ryan: Mark Johnson. The women’s hockey team has won six National Championships with him as coach. He started the program and has had nothing but sustained success in his time as head coach.
What do you think Alvarez could have done better as athletic director?
Belz: I think Alvarez kicks himself routinely for not just hiring Paul Chryst after Bret Bielema left. Barry has and will likely always stick to his values, which is part of why he had so much success at Wisconsin in the first place, but not wanting to ruffle a fellow ADs feathers after sticking up for Chryst to get the Pitt job a year prior has to haunt him. Gary Andersen is/was not a fit for Wisconsin, and luckily Alvarez was able to pull the plug early enough in the tenure.
Rock: McClimon is an awful Big 10 facility. I know that section of campus is hemmed in, but its metal bleachers, a high school concession stand, and “locker” rooms needed to be replaced a decade ago. Hell, even Breese Stevens where the Flamingos play is probably a better option. That should have been dealt with.
Neal: The decision to hire Gary Andersen was a questionable one at the time, but Alvarez had such an incredible reputation that everyone figured it would work out. Remember this was the infamous “I don’t use search committees, search committees use me” comment, so his football acumen was really unassailable. History was not kind to the Andersen hire, but Alvarez did respond by hiring Paul Chryst which seems to have rectified his biggest hiring mistake.
Ryan: I have to agree with Neal and say the hiring of Gary Andersen. At the time of the hire, it was a perplexing hire, given Andersen’s background and over time it was clear that he was not the right fit at the program, leading him to ultimately exit prior to the Outback Bowl.
What will Alvarez’s legacy be in Madison?
Belz: I agree with Ryan that his ability to back up the words from his introductory will forever be ingrained in my memory of him, but overall he completely shifted Wisconsin athletics and revolutionized it to his image. The complexion of the entire athletic department has undergone massive success the past 32 years, and Barry is the first, second, and third reason in my eyes. Not only did Barry put Wisconsin football on the map, but his efforts had ripple effects to the entire university and the state overall.
Rock: I think about the culture in Wisconsin and of Wisconsin. A guy from Elroy that used to tend bar on State Street would say “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from Wisconsin.” And dammit, we effortlessly do what so many other regions wish they could. Our diet is cheese, beer, and whatever’s on the grill. The alcoholic burdens others will try once on a trip here and swear off forever we call “Tuesday.” We so perfected the idea of the third space that we’ll build a bar downstairs just to make it easier to play euchre after dinner and yes this is something I think about when I look at houses.
But our sports passion was unrewarded for some pretty bleak years. There was a stretch of non-Giannis time where the Moncrief-led Bucks were the best team in Wisconsin.
Now, they’re all in varying levels of actual, legit, sustainable success. But even before Favre ran around with his helmet in his outstretched hand in New Orleans, Barry Alvarez was trying to find someone to hug in amazement in Pasadena. From that moment on, we had reasons to come together to drink and grill and dance polkas and sing the same songs as our parents and their parents have. One special thing about college sports is the knowledge that we carry century-old traditions forward, and when we come together to celebrate we can relive and revitalize them. With the Wisconsin Badgers as a reason to celebrate, we form more connections from the old to the new. I mean, name one other stadium this can happen in:
Randy Moss talking the Lambeau moon. I can’t say enough what a great man he is. Thank you Randy for the special afternoon. pic.twitter.com/oBFiYPQbjb— Tommy Kramer (@Kramer9Tommy) March 21, 2021
Essentially, Barry Alvarez made me miss you all over the last year.
Neal: Aside from Jake Ferguson? In all seriousness, Wisconsin athletics would not be where it is today without Alvarez. That is not to say Badger’s sports teams were unsuccessful before him, but since he took over the collection of Big Ten and NCAA trophies Wisconsin has amassed has been staggering. He took Wisconsin athletics from an afterthought to one of the most successful in the country.
Ryan: I think his legacy is fully embodied in his introductory press conference, when he took over the football team. He said “they better get season tickets now, because before long they probably won’t be able to.” Just with that statement, he brought a swagger and cockiness to the program that it had been lacking and he couldn’t have been more correct, as it can be difficult to acquire season tickets for Badger athletics. Secondly, the success the school has had since he came to town. The UW posted a photo of Barry standing in front of all of the trophies Wisconsin has won under his watch and looking at that photo is really shocking. You know Wisconsin has been successful during his tenure, but when you see all of the various trophies from the various sports, it’s really mind boggling.