Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and former football coach Bret Bielema used to famously share Thursday afternoon walks around campus. At one time, the relationship between the two was close in a way few coaches and athletic directors could match.
New Wisconsin football coach Gary Andersen noted during last week’s Big Ten media days that he doesn’t plan on having similar weekly walks with Alvarez. But that doesn’t mean Andersen isn’t willing to listen to any input Alvarez may have about the football program.
“He’s a Hall of Fame coach and I have tremendous respect,” Andersen said Thursday. “I never think by any stretch of the imagination that I have all the answers. And I have great respect for him. I talk to a number of coaches every single year.
“Coach (Ron McBride) is going to come in here. He’s my mentor, and I’ll bounce a lot of things off of him. Every year at Utah State I had a coach come in and evaluate us. I had coach (LaVell) Edwards come in. ‘Watch us for four days, coach, and tell me if you think I’m an idiot. What do you like, what don’t you like?’
“That will be much the same with coach Alvarez. I do get the feeling I’ll have to ask him. He’s not going to walk in my office and say, ‘That’s screwed up.’ That’s not his deal. But if I ask him, I’m sure we’ll communicate about it.”
Alvarez, of course, led Wisconsin football from a laughingstock when he took over in 1990 into a respected Big Ten team when he retired from coaching in 2005. He became the school’s athletic director in 2004 and has held the position since. And he also handpicked Bielema as his successor after Bielema worked two seasons as a defensive coordinator at Wisconsin.
Because of Alvarez’s success, some have held a negative perception of his casting an unusually large shadow across the football program. Former Ohio State athletic director Gordon Gee admitted as much in the days after Bielema left Wisconsin to take over as head coach at Arkansas in December.
Gee made his remarks during a meeting with Ohio State’s Athletic Council on Dec. 5. It wasn’t until May that SI.com posted the entire recording after obtaining the audio through an open records request.
“I don’t know who they’re going to hire, but I would not want to have Barry Alvarez as my athletic director,” Gee said. “I happen to like Barry a lot as a person. But a guy who’s kind of bigger than life and knows how to run a football program better than a football coach, that must be difficult for them up there, right?”
On Thursday, Andersen was asked about dealing with Alvarez’s shadow.
“I don’t deem that as a negative,” Andersen said. “I’m not in this thing to pound my own chest and think I’m king. That’s not me at all. I want to be a coach, which is an educator and a father figure. That’s what I want to be. I don’t have to talk some certain way. I don’t have to present myself some special way. To the kids, they know who I am and what I’m going to be.
“There is a shadow that’s always going to be at Wisconsin for Barry Alvarez. He flipped the program. University of Utah, there’s always going to be a shadow of Ron McBride there. Forever. It’ll never leave. Is that a bad thing? I think it’s a great thing. It’d be pretty cool to be one of those coaches one day where people felt like that about you. I think that’s a special thing. The fact Barry Alvarez was here and he asked me to be the head coach of the football program that he built, that’s pretty special.”
Targeting rule talk: One of the biggest topics of conversation at the Big Ten media days was the NCAA’s new rule regarding targeting players. The rule will allow officials to eject players who target and contact defenseless players above the shoulders. An automatic ejection will be in addition to a 15-yard penalty already in place for those types of hits.
Andersen said he was leery of the new rules based on past experiences as a coach. In 2011, Utah State safety McKade Brady was penalized and then ejected for what officials deemed an illegal hit on BYU receiver Ross Apo in the first quarter of BYU’s 27-24 victory against Utah State. By the following Monday, Brady’s hit was not deemed ejection-worthy.
“I’ve got a picture on my phone that shows it wasn’t head to head,” Andersen said. “It was a bang-bang call. The official threw him out of the game. He’s probably one of the only kids that got thrown out of the game all season long and I saw 60 hits that were different than that. That’s hard for me to swallow. He lost that game. He’ll never be able to play in it. If it was 15 yards, I was OK with it. It’s always going to be that way. There’s going to be gripes.”
Andersen said Wisconsin’s players would watch a video during fall practices of roughly 20 different hits depicting the right and wrong ways to tackle a player. Officials from the Big Ten also will be present to further explain the rules.
“At that point, you’ve got to believe in the process and you’ve got to go with it, and I will,” Andersen said. “I’ll respect it and we’ll move through it. They’ll allow us to educate the kids, and hopefully the kids learned. And they have changed. Kids have changed. In the last three years, the emphasis has changed. Big hits across the middle of the field. You can look at it and see it on film that they’re smarter. In turn, kids are more protected. So that is a good thing.”