MADISON, Wis. — Barry Alvarez’s cell phone buzzed incessantly Tuesday night with calls from colleagues inquiring about his finding the next football coach at Wisconsin. Alvarez, the Wisconsin athletic director, was understandably too busy to answer most calls. He was simply trying to formulate a plan for who would coach the Badgers in the Rose Bowl next month.
At the time, he had no inkling it would be him.
But when Alvarez reached for his phone to check his messages, he saw there were two from a Green Bay area code he did not recognize. They belonged to Badgers senior linebacker Mike Taylor, a co-captain, who had poured his emotions into the phone.
The captains had decided they wanted Alvarez to coach Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, Taylor told him. Alvarez’s prior coaching success and significance to the program made him the perfect man for the job.
“I just thought that would be the right thing to do,” Taylor said. “Kids like me came up in Wisconsin watching him coach on the sideline. That’s just something you always dreamed of, playing for a coach like that. That’s what really was the driving force behind it.”
The messages were poignant enough to lure Alvarez, a College Football Hall of Fame coach, out of retirement for one game only. Although he has not coached a game in seven years, Alvarez had no reservations about returning Taylor’s call and accepting the offer.
“I told him I would be honored to coach them, and I wanted them to understand, if I were going to coach, we weren’t going to screw around,” Alvarez said Thursday during a news conference. “We were going to go out there to win.”
The decision capped a stunning three-day period in which Wisconsin won the Big Ten Championship Game against Nebraska to advance to a third straight Rose Bowl, lost head coach Bret Bielema to the same position at Arkansas and then gained a local icon to lead Wisconsin (8-5) against No. 6 Stanford (11-2) on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.
A spot in the Rose Bowl is nothing new to Alvarez, who compiled a 118-73-4 record in 16 seasons at Wisconsin and helped guide the program from a Big Ten doormat into a perennial contender. During Alvarez’s tenure, the Badgers played in three Rose Bowls and won each time. Wisconsin defeated UCLA in 1994 and 1999 and beat Stanford in 2000.
“It doesn’t get a bit old to me,” Alvarez said. “I will enjoy every second of it.”
Wisconsin lost both of its Rose Bowl appearances under Bielema the past two seasons, falling to TCU and Oregon.
Alvarez, who is 8-3 all-time in bowl games with the Badgers, has a chance to tie Ohio State’s Woody Hayes for the most Rose Bowl victories by a Big Ten coach.
“The respect that he demands by having success in that type of situation is something that we’re all extremely excited about,” said Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips, who also implored Alvarez to coach the team with a phone message Tuesday night.
“Obviously he’s never lost a Rose Bowl, so I’m definitely hoping he can shed some light on that for us. We’ve had some struggles with that the past couple of years. It’s an awesome opportunity.”
Alvarez, 65, insisted Thursday that he wouldn’t have accepted the one-game opportunity if players hadn’t asked. When Bielema informed Alvarez on Tuesday that he was leaving for Arkansas, he suggested Alvarez coach the team for the Rose Bowl.
Alvarez said no.
“But when the players asked — it’s about the players,” Alvarez said. “I don’t want this to be about me. I want it to be about the players. I want to give them as good an opportunity, as good a chance to win the Rose Bowl as we possibly can.”
As for how involved Alvarez will be on a day-to-day basis, he said he would leave much of the game planning up to Wisconsin’s remaining assistant coaches. After all, Alvarez also has to look for the program’s next head coach.
“I’ll manage the game, but I can’t step in there,” Alvarez said. “I will oversee both sides of the ball. … I’ll take that pressure off of them, but I expect them to game plan, and they’ve already started breaking down film.
“I’ll go up and start taking a look at practice and the practice schedules and what we have and implement the things that I believe in. I think we had a pretty good routine that we did, and I want to make sure that we continue to do that. I think we can have an advantage.”
Taylor and Phillips admitted they had no reason to believe Bielema, the hand-picked successor to Alvarez in 2006, was looking to leave. On Monday night, Bielema gathered Wisconsin’s players for a team meeting and assured them he was staying.
The next day, Bielema was gone.
“He kind of ended it by saying his name may be brought up with a couple places but to not make anything of it,” Phillips said. “So when we got the news that we were going to have a team meeting the next morning really early, we assumed that something probably happened.”
Alvarez, meanwhile, is a man who hasn’t left Wisconsin since 1990. He is so revered in Madison that a bronze statue of him resides outside one of the entrances to the football stadium.
Without question, players are hoping his infusion to the team will serve as a cathartic release of sorts and give them the drive to accomplish something they never did under Bielema.
“Obviously, this is something that we didn’t expect, but coach Alvarez stepping in here is something that guys are extremely excited about,” Phillips said. “It gives guys a little bit extra motivation. Whether it’s because they think they might have had somebody bail on them, whatever your personal opinion is, it just provides a little extra motivation to go out there and take care of it.”