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From Across the Field, My Hat’s Off to Barry Alvarez

Last week former Wisconsin football coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez retired after a long and successful career. Along the way in one’s coaching career you learn from the people you coached with and the players you coached. 

There are also people you coach against who make an impression on you. They force you to compete to your fullest capacity. They make you understand things about your own philosophy, and you become a better coach. Barry Alvarez was one of those coaches.

The first time we ever played Wisconsin in the Big Ten was in 1995, I learned something.

That night Barry Alvarez had a plan. The Badgers would stay on schedule, run the game clock, get makeable third downs and hold the ball. They converted an ungodly 80+% on third down that night. 

All the while, our offense was standing idly on the sideline watching the seconds turn to minutes. When we were on the field, we faced a defense content to make us play at their pace. We lost that night. 

Joe Paterno spent a lot of time talking to us about that game, and it never left my mind. Style points and stats are for the guys who lose. The win is the thing, no matter how ugly it may appear.

In 20-plus years of coaching, Barry Alvarez and George Welsh at Virginia were two of the best I ever saw at identifying raw talent. Then they coached the fundamentals to get those players performing at a level beyond what recruiting services and other schools could see. I could list a bunch of players passed up by “bigger schools” who became pros at Wisconsin.

When you played Wisconsin in the Barry Alvarez era, you knew a couple of things. First, expect a physical game. They knew who they were; they knew what made them good. Even when you beat them you were going to have sore players the next day. Despite winning two of our first three Big Ten games against them, all three years we lost the next week’s game.

After the 1998 Wisconsin game, we changed course. As we got ready for Michigan State, we made an adjustment after playing the Badgers. We did not practice in full pads the whole week, we cut practice time way down and then beat MSU. 

Second, you knew that Wisconsin would try to make you win “left-handed.” In 2005, Barry decided that the best way to handle our offense was to see if Michael Robinson could win the game throwing the ball. Michael was good enough that day, but they hit him every chance they could.

He was also a no-nonsense athletic director. His department built up financial reserves that were the envy of schools with far bigger annual revenues. Even in times of runaway football expenses, he kept fiscal discipline and maintained the Badgers as a force each year in the Big Ten.

In the decade and a half after he became AD, the Badgers won three Big Ten titles and averaged 9.5 wins per year through three different head coaches. And twice, when needed, Alvarez came out of the AD role to be the interim bowl coach, finishing his career with an all-time bowl record of 9-4. 

And he has been generous with his time as a leader for others. After becoming a Penn State Trustee, I’ve called him to get his perspective on national college athletics issues. 

But aside from what Barry Alvarez did as a coach for so many players, his reach extended across the state. He instilled a pride in the “W” that became a rallying point.

When my kids were young, Wisconsin-based Jones Dairy Farm Sausage had a promotion that anyone sending in two box tops would get a free reusable grocery bag. They wanted to send in for one. About a week or two later a large envelope came back. Inside was the reusable bag but also a bright red hat with a big Wisconsin “W” logo on it.

Last week at his retirement ceremony Barry shared a story of the mutual respect that he and Joe Paterno shared for one another. In an era when coaches sling social media arrows at rivals, it was a story from a better time.

That respect even filtered down to the fan bases.

In 2009, a few nights before Penn State and Wisconsin were both playing bowl games in Orlando, our family was out to dinner. Two tables away a group of Wisconsin fans sent a waiter over to tell Joe that they wanted to buy him a drink. Joe accepted but insisted that he buy their table a round first.

Later, as the Badger fans were getting ready to leave they serenaded my dad with their fight song “On Wisconsin,” which just made my dad’s night. They came over and the conversation quickly turned to Joe’s admiration for Alvarez and for the school.

As we were leaving, Joe said to me, “That’s what I love about this conference. Even through our competition, it is the comradery and respect that schools like Wisconsin and Penn State can have for one another.”

That kind of respect reflected the leadership at both schools.

As a biased Penn Stater, certainly Beaver Stadium is my favorite stadium. But when it comes to night games on the road, it’s hard to best Mad Town. The spectacular Camp Randall spirit was reborn because of the job Barry Alvarez did for decades.

My most vivid lasting memory of Barry Alvarez came on a late November 2011 afternoon there. Joe Paterno had been wrongfully fired a few weeks previously, and it was known that he had cancer. Barry approached me on the field during pregame warm-ups.

Barry asked how Joe was doing, told me how wrong it all was and how much he’d miss my dad on the field. As he stood, arms folded across his chest looking to the distance, I noticed his eyes water up. I walked away without saying anything else and a tear or two came to my eyes.

So I take that red “W” hat off to Barry Alvarez for a job well done. Through the competition and the things you gave to the game, you too, will be missed.