PASADENA, Calif. — Hope arrived at a podium on Dec. 6 in the form of a 65-year-old man who hadn’t coached a football game in seven years. He sat before a crowd of reporters, 13 camera crews, team captains and assistant coaches to announce that, yes, the speculation was true. He would end his retirement to coach in the Rose Bowl.
For one game only, at the behest of team captains, Barry Alvarez was back in charge of Wisconsin’s football program to replicate his glory years. He reminded players that, if he was to coach, they weren’t going to screw around. They would practice to win the game that had eluded the program the past two seasons under former coach Bret Bielema.
Hope left the podium that day and spread through practices, infusing a university and an entire state with visions of grandeur. After all, how could Wisconsin lose with the most iconic coach in program history roaming the sideline?
Tuesday evening, nearly four weeks after Alvarez announced his return, hope evaporated into the San Gabriel mountaintops as Wisconsin lost, 20-14, to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Alvarez, who had been a perfect 3-0 in Rose Bowls at Wisconsin, was fallible in the end.
“Every game we had out here was very competitive,” Alvarez said afterward. “The only thing that’s different than the other teams that I coached was somehow we found a way to win. And we weren’t fortunate enough to get a win today.”
Alvarez spent time complimenting his players for battling through a season unlike any in program history. He credited Stanford’s defense, which snuffed the Badgers on a fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line during the first half. He said Wisconsin, with just nine seniors departing, has a chance to be outstanding next year.
But Alvarez won’t be the coach. He has already hired former Utah State coach Gary Andersen for that task. Alvarez, meanwhile, will return to his position as Wisconsin’s athletic director, a job he has held since 2004.
The question in the aftermath of yet another disappointing Rose Bowl defeat, Wisconsin’s third in three seasons, is this: Will Alvarez be remembered more for losing the Rose Bowl or for offering optimism while providing a bridge between one coaching regime and the next?
Players, of course, sided with the latter, and it likely will be difficult for Wisconsin fans to disagree. Alvarez had 26 days with the team and stepped in only because co-captains Mike Taylor and Curt Phillips called him to plea for his return.
“I think it served as a unifying factor,” Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said. “Not that this team would ever experience any dissension. We’ve got a bunch of character guys. But to have coach Alvarez come back — having our seniors and captains ask and he agree — I think it calmed guys’ nerves. … It brought everybody together and excited everybody.”
Alvarez carried with him a quiet confidence, exuding cool in practices. He watched from afar and let the assistant coaches handle the game plan, essentially making them promise to stay through the Rose Bowl even though six had accepted jobs elsewhere. He instilled belief in a bunch of players who had been left behind by their former coach on Dec. 4 — just three days after Wisconsin crushed Nebraska, 70-31, to win the Big Ten championship.
During 16 seasons at Wisconsin from 1990-2005, Alvarez went 118-73-4, racking up more wins than any other Badgers coach. He won Rose Bowls in 1994, 1999 and 2000 to make him a legend in Madison for eternity. After he stepped down, the university erected a bronze statue of his likeness outside an entrance to the football stadium.
Many assumed Alvarez’s mere presence would lead to a reversal of fortunes from the past two years under Bielema, when Wisconsin lost in the Rose Bowl to TCU and Oregon, respectively. Despite the Alvarez effect, however, Wisconsin looked quite similar to the teams that showed up for its five losses during the season by a total of 19 points — close, but not close enough.
Against Stanford, Wisconsin’s offense simply couldn’t move the ball as efficiently as it wanted, and quarterback Curt Phillips passed for just 83 yards. A game plan that called for 45 running plays and 17 passes didn’t work.
“It stings because we fell short, extremely short when we had the opportunity to win,” said Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who capped his illustrious career with 100 yards rushing and one touchdown. “We had many opportunities to capitalize on big plays and we fell short.”
Wisconsin (8-6) ran eight plays from scrimmage while down 14 points during the first 13 games of the season. The Badgers ran nine plays from scrimmage while trailing by 14 points in the first quarter against Stanford (12-2).
“We just weren’t able to produce what we needed to produce,” Badgers center Travis Frederick said. “As an offensive line, we didn’t play the way we needed to in the second half. You can’t win when we all don’t play as well as we can.”
Even with the poor start, Wisconsin found itself in position to win the game in the final minutes. Phillips had the Badgers’ offense at Stanford’s 49-yard-line but threw an interception with 2:03 remaining in the game.
Wisconsin never saw the ball again.
“You’re at midfield or close to midfield with a chance to win the Rose Bowl,” Alvarez said. “I just felt like maybe we were a team of destiny.”
In the end, all the hope in the world couldn’t change Wisconsin’s fortunes on the field. Alvarez’s teams of destiny remained in his past.