MADISON, Wis. — Travis Frederick grew up as an offensive lineman in Wisconsin, which is to say he knew he wanted to be a Badgers player from a young age. Young enough to have seen Barry Alvarez coach from afar.
When Frederick, a New Sharon, Wis., native, committed to play for Wisconsin, he never thought that commitment would include the opportunity to play for Alvarez, too.
Yet here the two are, preparing together for Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl game against Stanford on Jan. 1 — Frederick as the team’s starting center and Alvarez as the interim coach, seven years after he coached his last game.
“To get a chance to play for a guy like that who is a legend, has a statue out front, you hear stories about him and you hear stories about what he was like as a coach and how tremendous of a coach he was,” Frederick said. “So far, everything that I’ve seen from him is like I’ve heard.”
Frederick isn’t alone when it comes to voicing his approval for Alvarez’s coaching tactics in the few days they’ve spent together. Alvarez, Wisconsin’s athletic director, came out of retirement for one game at the behest of the team’s captains after former coach Bret Bielema left last week for the same position at Arkansas.
“He’s very articulate in everything he says,” Frederick said of Alvarez. “A little bit different. Maybe that’s what we needed. Something different.”
What Alvarez has brought is a tremendous football mind who already has earned players’ respect for his past successes. Alvarez finished 8-3 in bowl games during his 16 seasons in charge of Wisconsin, and he is best known for going 3-0 in the Rose Bowl. Bielema went 2-4 in bowl games, including 0-2 in the Rose Bowl during his tenure.
The varying level of postseason success isn’t the only difference players have noticed.
Team members say Alvarez has allowed position coaches to teach their respective units, speaks only when necessary and doesn’t keep players longer than they need to stay in practice. Judging from the Badgers’ words, Alvarez’s methods are a welcome relief from what they experienced under Bielema.
“Coach Alvarez has been about getting the quality work we need and you’re out,” Wisconsin left guard Ryan Groy said. “Coach B kept us for quite a while. It was something that even if we had a good practice, we stayed for the amount of periods that he had scheduled. So it’ll be good. I think we’ve been feeling pretty fresh.”
Linebacker Mike Taylor, a team co-captain from Ashwaubenon, Wis., called Alvarez last week and left two messages asking for him to coach the Badgers. Taylor said Alvarez hadn’t addressed the entire team often in practice thus far, but players were aware of his presence.
“When he gives speeches, when you listen to him talk, you’re dialed in,” Taylor said. “You’ve got your ears pinned back listening to him. You’re definitely tuned in to hear what he says. He just demands your attention. Just being around him, you can feel the excitement and the energy.”
Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips described the team’s first few practices under Alvarez as “the most upbeat, high-tempo practices that I’ve enjoyed since I’ve been here.” Part of the mood, Phillips noted, was the players’ determination not to let an adverse situation affect the team in a negative way. But part of it is the confidence players already have in Alvarez’s leadership capabilities.
Alvarez exudes the kind of cool and confidence that makes players want to follow his lead. In 1993, he famously convinced the entire team to buy into his wacky ideas in preparation for Wisconsin’s regular-season finale against Michigan State in Tokyo, Japan. Alvarez forced players to wear sunglasses during the day and adjusted their body clocks by changing the schedule two hours every day leading up to the game.
On the airplane ride, which was shared with Michigan State’s players, Alvarez told his team not to sleep until they arrived in Japan. When Badgers players saw the Spartans sleeping, they quietly rejoiced because they believed everything Alvarez had said was right.
Wisconsin went on to beat Michigan State, 41-20, and then stop UCLA, 21-16, for its first of three Rose Bowl victories under Alvarez.
This year’s group of Wisconsin players is willing to follow whatever ideas Alvarez offers. The last thing the Badgers want to do is let down a man who has never lost “The Granddaddy of Them All.”
“I think with this team, there’s definitely a sense of we’ve got a coach now that we really want to play for,” defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. “We want to have a level of success with him now that he’s here. A lot of guys, especially from this state, grew up watching his teams and his coaching. Definitely because of that, this is almost like a dream come true for a lot of guys to be able to play for this man.”