LOS ANGELES — You could say Wisconsin’s football team has been here before, amid sunshine and Hollywood stars, and you wouldn’t be wrong. This is, after all, the third straight season in which the Badgers have played in the Rose Bowl.
You could also say Wisconsin’s football team has never been here before, and you wouldn’t be wrong. This is, after all, the first season of those three in which the Badgers have played for the most iconic coach in program history.
There are similarities to be found for sure. On game day, Wisconsin’s style of play will look much the same as it always has. But what it took for the Badgers to reach that point won’t be the same. And the biggest difference comes straight from the top, in the way interim coach Barry Alvarez has guided the team since taking over for former coach Bret Bielema.
To begin with, Alvarez garnered a level of respect from players and instant credibility despite all the turmoil swirling around the team. That has made following his marching orders even easier. During 16 seasons as Wisconsin’s coach from 1990-2005, Alvarez, now the athletic director, went 8-3 in bowl games and 3-0 in the Rose Bowl. Bielema was 0-2 in Rose Bowls during his seven seasons.
Alvarez came out of retirement for Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl game against Stanford at the urging of the team’s captains after Bielema left for Arkansas Dec. 4.
“We call him ‘The Godfather,'” Badgers defensive end Brendan Kelly said.
“Not to his face,” running back James White added. “But yeah, we do. He walks into a room and everybody gets quiet.”
Since announcing he would take over as interim coach on Dec. 6, Alvarez has changed the way Wisconsin was preparing for the Rose Bowl. He shortened practices by 30 or 45 minutes each day to create a crisp flow and send players home before they became too tired.
It raised eyebrows among Badgers players — in a good way.
“Coach B liked a lot of quantity over quality,” Kelly said. “He liked the quality, but he wanted quantity. Long practices, long practices before practice. He found ways to just do that.
“Coach Alvarez does a great job of getting that quality over quantity. He does a great job of keeping our legs fresh. The morale of the team definitely goes up. You’re excited to get out there.”
Alvarez said he shortened practices because that’s how he learned the game as a coach. He noted that many coaches keep players longer than necessary “for their own ego. It just makes them feel better.”
“I really felt that we could get much more efficient in our practices,” Alvarez said. “I’ve always respected players’ times. I don’t want to keep them out there just to keep them out there, so I eliminated all the breaks within practice. I started practice quicker. I eliminated a lot of the flexibility things that I thought was wasted time.”
Alvarez also changed the team’s preparation once at the Rose Bowl. During Thursday’s practice, for example, Wisconsin spent 10 minutes competing in a full-contact scrimmage. It was a staple of Alvarez’s past Rose Bowl teams but a concept Bielema shied away from.
“That was something that we had never done before in any of the bowl preps,” Badgers defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. “But I really enjoyed it because we hadn’t tackled anyone for a couple weeks. It was an opportunity to play some real football, get ourselves back in that mindset, like this is a tackle game, not a thud up game.”
In addition to Alvarez’s tweaked practice plans, he also has been hands-off with the team’s assistant coaches, allowing them to game plan in the way they see fit. Part of that decision stems from not being the head coach all season, but it must be met by assistants with considerable relief.
On Saturday, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that offensive coordinator Matt Canada had to plead with Bielema to run the offense his way before the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska. Canada reportedly had some of his play calls vetoed by Bielema in the middle of games. Bielema reportedly relented, and Wisconsin went on to crush Nebraska 70-31.
That type of absolute rule hasn’t been present with Alvarez at the helm. And those close to the program have taken notice.
“Maybe it’s because of the circumstances of him coming in after the team is established, but he’s really letting the coordinators and the coaches do their job,” linebacker Chris Borland said. “Not to say that’s something coach Bielema didn’t do, but with the position coach Alvarez is in — coming in late like this — he’s done a good job of stepping in when he needs to and then allowing everyone to do their job.
“I think the coaches appreciate that freedom and the players can feel that, too.”
Whether Alvarez’s tactics translate into a Rose Bowl victory on Tuesday remains to be seen. At the very least, players and coaches are refreshed and ready to provide their best effort.
“This is a great change bringing in coach Alvarez,” Kelly said. “We have a pep in our step.”