MADISON, Wis. — When the sun shines just right on the bronze statue of Barry Alvarez erected outside an entrance to Camp Randall Stadium, a long shadow creeps across and envelops the concrete around its base.
The statue itself is a fitting tribute to a coach who resurrected a nearly dead Wisconsin football program and transformed it into a perennial Big Ten contender. As for the shadow, many would argue it doesn’t do justice to the one the real-life Barry Alvarez still casts across the football program.
Alvarez now serves as Wisconsin’s athletic director and hasn’t coached a game for the last seven years, but his hands are omnipresent on Badgers football. Before he stepped down as coach in 2005, he handpicked Bret Bielema as his successor. Last week, he handpicked former Utah State coach Gary Andersen as Bielema’s successor while essentially forming a one-man search committee as the school’s AD.
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In between the transition from Bielema to Andersen, Alvarez agreed to step out of retirement to coach Wisconsin for one game against Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
A man with that much clout in the state — a man with more victories than any Wisconsin football coach (118) and three Rose Bowl wins — is generally viewed as an icon that can do no wrong. But what of the coaches trying to formulate their own style while continuing a winning tradition established by Alvarez? How do they escape Alvarez’s considerable shadow while still under his watchful eye, and how do they please the Badgers’ fan base?
Let’s start with Bielema now that his tenure is over because he learned the hard way that being someone other than Alvarez isn’t easy at Wisconsin.
If we step back and examine Bielema’s Wisconsin coaching career objectively, we’d have a difficult time saying he wasn’t a winner. Bielema won, and he won at a clip rarely matched in college football.
During his seven years, Bielema’s record was 68-24 (.739 winning percentage). Among active FBS coaches with at least five years of head coaching experience, eight men have a better winning percentage than Bielema. Bielema’s winning percentage is one-tenth of a percent better than Alabama coach Nick Saban, who will coach for his third national championship in four seasons on Jan. 7.
Yet Bielema never was fully embraced by Wisconsin’s fan base, partly because he came across at times as arrogant, partly because he didn’t win a Rose Bowl in his first two tries and partly because he simply wasn’t Alvarez. For those reasons and more, Bielema bolted Wisconsin for the same job at Arkansas earlier this month.
This brings us to Andersen, whose task will be to establish his own foothold on the program without drawing comparisons to past Wisconsin coaches.
During his introductory news conference last week, Andersen acknowledged that moving Wisconsin beyond Bielema’s accomplishments would not be easy. The Badgers have won three straight Big Ten championships and gone to three consecutive Rose Bowls under Bielema. They’ve also made a bowl game in each of the past 11 seasons under both Alvarez and Bielema.
“I think the biggest thing is, as you look at a program rich in tradition, rich in winning, three Rose Bowls in a row, where are you going to take it next?” said Andersen, almost chuckling at the thought. “To be a consistent winner, again, they’ve been a consistent winner, but I think the thing is to have kids that are going to be able to compete at a national level and hold consistency to be a college football powerhouse year in and year out.
“What’s my stamp going to be on it? I sure hope my stamp at the end of the day is to be on a football team that’s physical, tough minded, plays aggressive, plays the game the right way, is respected by their opponents, solid in all three phases, has one of the best graduation rates in the country. That’s what I expect.”
Andersen possesses the characteristics necessary to begin his Wisconsin coaching career on fans’ good side, including maturity, humility and confidence. That may help buy him time in finding an identity for the Badgers’ program. He has past successes as a head coach at Utah State to lean on and more life experience to make him sure of who he is.
When Bielema took over for Alvarez, he was 35 years old with no previous head coaching jobs. He relied on Alvarez in ways that more experienced head coaches with their own game plans never would have. The two spoke daily and even shared walks around campus, and many assumed that Bielema was a sort of Alvarez minion, which made it difficult to be accepted on his own.
Andersen, meanwhile, is 48 years old with four years of FBS head coaching experience. He is responsible for turning a terrible Utah State program into one that nearly made a BCS bowl game this year, but he also had the full respect of players and fans. Even when he exited Utah State, he called all 106 players to personally inform them of the news.
There are certainly similarities between Alvarez and Andersen, otherwise he wouldn’t be Wisconsin’s next coach. During the interview process, a Wisconsin athletic official told Alvarez that Andersen answered questions in exactly the same way as Alvarez.
“That’s how our philosophies and our beliefs have meshed,” Alvarez said. “They’re very similar.”
Andersen said he would continue Wisconsin’s pro-style, run-first game plan, which fits the model established by Alvarez. Yet despite the similarities, Alvarez believes Andersen can thrive without comparisons.
“I think it’ll be easy,” Alvarez said. “I really do because you have good players. He’s a good coach. Guys just come in and coach.”
Andersen recognizes that winning certainly would signify a good start at Wisconsin. But that alone wasn’t enough for Bielema to ingratiate himself with fans, which means it likely will take even more if Andersen wants to emerge from Alvarez’s far-reaching shadow.