MADISON, Wis. — Some day, Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema may rekindle the bond they shared for nine years at Wisconsin on and off the football field. But that day isn’t today, and it likely isn’t coming anytime soon.
Alvarez, the Badgers’ athletic director and now interim coach, admitted after Saturday’s practice that it would take some time before he could again have a close relationship with Bielema, who left Wisconsin to take the head coaching position at Arkansas earlier this month.
“Right now, we’re too close,” Alvarez said. “Spent too much time together. We had a father-son relationship. We talked every day. So I wouldn’t just throw that out, but right now is not the time.”
Bielema came to Wisconsin as a defensive coordinator in 2004 when Alvarez was still the team’s head coach. Alvarez announced that Bielema would succeed him as coach when he retired following the 2005 season and took Bielema under his wing.
As Alvarez stepped into the background after 16 seasons as coach and served strictly as Wisconsin’s athletic director, he maintained a watchful eye on the football program. In addition to daily conversations with Bielema, the two also shared walks together around campus.
In seven seasons, Bielema finished with a 68-24 record, culminating with Wisconsin’s 70-31 drubbing of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship on Dec. 1. But just three days later, Bielema was headed to Arkansas. Bielema informed Alvarez of his decision to leave in a New York City hotel room when both were attending Alvarez’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Alvarez, 65, announced later that week that he would take over as Wisconsin’s coach solely for the team’s Rose Bowl game against Stanford at the behest of the team’s captains. They requested him, in part, because of his iconic status with the program, which included winning three Rose Bowls as coach.
Alvarez hired former Utah State coach Gary Andersen two weeks after Bielema’s departure. Andersen, who was officially named the Badgers’ coach Thursday, will take over on a full-time basis following the Rose Bowl.
On Saturday, Alvarez said he didn’t have any lingering regret about Bielema’s exit, even if Alvarez would have done things differently.
“You know what, life goes on,” he said. “I have no animosity towards Bret. Bret did a good job for us here. Some things I disagree with in how they were handled, but everybody handles things their own way.
“I’m way past that right now. I’m focusing on the football game. I’m focusing on helping Gary finalize his staff, and however I can help him in recruiting and that type of thing. That’s what I’m worrying about. I don’t sit there and hold a grudge on what happened — whether I agree with it or not.”
Poaching players: Alvarez met with the Badgers’ assistant coaches Saturday to reiterate his desire for committed recruits to stay at Wisconsin. Because of Bielema’s departure, six assistants already have accepted jobs at other schools — offensive coordinator Matt Canada (North Carolina State), defensive coordinator Chris Ash (Arkansas), co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge (Arkansas), wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni (Tennessee), tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner (North Carolina State) and linebackers coach Andy Buh (California).
All six coaches are remaining at Wisconsin through the Rose Bowl.
“I told them I appreciated all the effort they’ve given us,” Alvarez said. “I think they’ve been very professional. When it’s time to practice and meet for the Rose Bowl, they’ve given us their full attention.
“In your free time, you want to work for the other school that you’re going to, that’s fine. I just asked them don’t recruit the guys that are committed. The other guys that aren’t committed that you’ve been recruiting is open season. But the ones that have committed, I just asked for their professionalism.”
Alvarez indicated Tennessee was among the schools attempting to lure a committed player away from Wisconsin — presumably defensive back Marcus Ball of Westerville, Ohio — and Azzanni alerted Alvarez of the action, saying he had not been involved.
Alvarez said Andersen and his assistant coaches received clearance from the NCAA on Saturday to begin calling recruits Sunday. Andersen is expected to retain defensive secondary coach Ben Strickland and offensive line coach Bart Miller in some capacity.
“We’ll be back on track,” Alvarez said. “Now we’ve got a leader. You’ve got a head coach, and we’ll turn it over to them. We’ll pass the baton to those guys, plus the two that he’s holding over here.”
Holding up fine: Alvarez hadn’t coached a football team in seven years until being lured out of retirement this month, but he said he is doing well from a physical standpoint. He has undergone a total replacement of one knee and a partial replacement of the other knee in years past.
“I’ve been wearing a sleeve, and that’s really helped me with my knees,” Alvarez said. “Other than that, I feel fine.”
Alvarez said his most significant issue since returning to coaching has been his inability to sleep. Often, Alvarez said, he wakes up at 4 a.m. and can’t fall back to sleep because he has so many things running through his mind.
The actual coaching of players, however, never gets old.
“It’s a blast for me,” he said. “I’m having fun. I’m starting to get to know the players much better. It’s been very busy. I don’t have any down time, as you can imagine. I’ve really enjoyed it. This has been a pleasure for me.”
And what is Alvarez most looking forward to in California?
“The game,” Alvarez said. “Disney Land doesn’t blow up my skirt anymore.”