MADISON, Wis. — Barry Alvarez stood Saturday afternoon in front of more than 100 Wisconsin football players, each kneeling on the ground and listening intently to his every word after practice. A whistle hung over his white Wisconsin polo shirt, which tucked into red pants and draped across the top of white tennis sneakers.
It was a scene that could have been ripped directly from the 1990s, when Alvarez built the Badgers’ program from a Big Ten doormat into a major conference player. For Wisconsin’s assistant coaches, it was a scene that, while a reminder of the past, spoke to the direction of the team in the immediate future.
Four days after losing head coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas, Alvarez already had begun reprising his role as coach of Wisconsin’s football program, where he spent 16 seasons in charge. The College Football Hall of Famer, who has served as the school’s athletic director since 2004, opted to come out of retirement at the behest of the team’s captains for Wisconsin’s Jan. 1 Rose Bowl game against Stanford.
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In the process, he provides instant credibility for players and coaches who wondered what would happen when Bielema left.
“Our kids already feel his juice,” said Badgers associate head coach Charlie Partridge, the longest tenured assistant on staff at five years. “They feel his energy. They feel his passion, and it’s all about these kids. We have a living legend who’s leading us into the Rose Bowl. That’s what comes out.”
The mood during Saturday’s practice, which was open to the media for an hour, was especially upbeat. If nothing else, Alvarez’s presence appears to have created a comfort level for the players while he searches for the next head coach. And for assistant coaches, Partridge admitted it was the best possible scenario on an interim basis as they try to remain unified and not worry about their job security.
“I think the thing that will help carry us to that next step is Barry Alvarez taking over,” Partridge said. “What that does is that defuses an interim coach stepping in. Then you have another guy who wishes he was the interim coach and all the feelings those things can create. We have a very clear leader who’s done it and has won three Rose Bowls.
“We get the opportunity as coaches if we take advantage of this for three weeks to work for a legend in our business. You can feel it from the second he walks out in front of our team. It’s special.”
Just how involved Alvarez will be in the day-to-day operations of the program remains to be known. He was seen offering pointers during practice on Saturday, watching every repetition and talking in the ear of the team’s offensive linemen in between plays.
“We’ve communicated on a lot of fronts,” Badgers defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “We’ve communicated about practice plans, recruiting, the bowl plan and things like that. We’re still in the transition phases. He’s had a lot of duties that have taken him away from football with the athletic director title. We’ve had a plan in place and we’re working that plan. As we move forward, he’ll get more and more involved.”
Alvarez, of course, experienced tremendous success when he was Wisconsin’s coach. He finished 118-73-4 to become the winningest coach in program history and, most important to Badgers fans, went 3-0 in Rose Bowl games. Under Bielema, Wisconsin was 0-2 in the Rose Bowl.
Despite Alvarez’s successes, he said Thursday during a news conference that he would let the assistant coaches game plan and that he would manage the Rose Bowl — a tactic the assistants certainly appreciate.
“To come in at this point would be a challenge,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “That’s why its great to have an athletic director who’s been a football coach and understands that. Coach certainly understands that to come in and learn the system — obviously he watches every day — but to come in here and start trying to take over, I think he understands.”
The game plan isn’t expected to drastically change from the way Bielema handled Rose Bowl preparation. After all, Bielema was the hand-picked successor to Alvarez after he stepped down in 2006.
“You’ve got to understand coach Bielema was very successful doing things that were done here before,” Ash said. “Although some things might be slightly different from what coach Alvarez had done, he tried to improve on some things. But there’s not a lot of difference.”
The only major difference everyone hopes for is a Rose Bowl victory this time around.