Barry Alvarez Q&A: On concussions, Friday night games, former coaches and more
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez is on a media tour promoting the Most Valuable Coach program.
On Wednesday, Alvarez chatted for 15 minutes with FOXSportsWisconsin.com about that program as well as topics related to Wisconsin athletics.
Q. What can you tell me about the community-focused Most Valuable Coach program you are involved with?
A: I’ve done several different projects in the community with U.S. Cellular in the past and they came to me and asked for my blessing and support for the Most Valuable Coach program, and having been a former high school coach I thought it would be a great way to honor, bring attention and say thank you to some of the high school coaches who are doing a great job. So I got involved this past summer and it’s been enjoyable and fulfilling.
Q. You mentioned you’ve been a high school coach and are basically a football lifer, so one of the questions I wanted to ask you was about concussions. I talked with Jim Leonhard last year and I thought he made an interesting comment with this whole concussion awareness that it needs to start at the ground level, at the youth and high school level. But those coaches played 30 years ago, so they’re coaching what they know from 30 years ago. What have you seen and how long do you think until it fully rises up to the college level?
A. Yeah, you know there is a program — when you coach youth football you have to take this program and be certified. And what the program does is teach the coaches how to teach blocking and tackling and eliminating the head. And that’s progressed into the high schools. There’s a totally different way everybody teaches tackling now. It’s a rugby tackle, where the head is behind the body. The rules of the game have changed, to try to eliminate the head and targeting. There are a number of things being done to try to improve upon … improve to save our game of football.
Q. Do you think it can be saved?
A. Yeah, I think so. I think so. What I’m waiting for are results of comparisons since rules have been changed, since we’ve implemented this program, since we’ve addressed concussion protocol. We’re monitoring that much closer now than in the past. There was never any protocol in the past. You asked a kid if he felt OK, held the smelling salts under his nose, how many fingers do I have up and do you feel OK? The kids, they’re competitors, they want to go back in and play. So I think we’re addressing all those things, now we need to take a look and see how much it is effecting it.
Q: Is there any way you can gauge that just from you seeing what’s going on at Wisconsin or the Big Ten, and how long it will take?
A: You know I spoke to Riddell, the company and their salespeople, a couple of years ago, and there are studies out there, and I haven’t seen one recently, but I brought this up two years ago and they said there are studies, they’re ongoing and there’s vast improvement.
Q. Obviously I have to ask you about Chris Borland. What has he said to you and what’s your take on him? It seems like he’s started a movement.
A. I have great respect for Chris. He actually called me just prior to him announcing his retirement, to give me a heads up that he was going to retire. I don’t think he’s taken a stand against football. What as I understand what he’s trying to do is gather information and be a facilitator between a number of different groups that are studying this and not sharing their findings. So consequently you’re wasting a lot of time in redoing studies and redoing things where there are results and no one’s sharing, to bring it all together and have different groups that are doing the studies share the information so that they can make progress. And then I think Chris has gone out and shared his views and what he believes in.
Q. Going back to high schools, the Friday night football games. I know you sent out a statement and the WFCA [Wisconsin Football Coaches Association] sent out a statement on how they were disappointed, and I’ve heard from fans — and this is a small-sample size obviously — who are upset because they have to travel 2-3 hours. What’s your counter-argument?
A. We’re doing one game and it’s on Labor Day weekend. Listen, we’ve set a precedent. We did that before. We played Fresno State here on that weekend.
Q. Are you surprised by the blowback then?
A. No, I’m not surprised. You know what, we’ve put a lot of talk into that and that’s one reason I was adamant we would not play other than Labor Day weekend, that Friday of Labor Day weekend. I had a discussion with Paul (Chryst) about it, it allows us to — and I’m being selfish about it, I guess — it allows us to start camp a day earlier, it allows us one extra day to of preparation for our second game. It allows our commissioner who is putting together the inventory as he negotiated the TV contract, he asked who would be willing to play on Friday night. The games we’re talking about, two are on Labor Day and at least one of them is on Thanksgiving Friday, and you’re talking about a total of six. And I know high school football, and I have nothing but great respect for it and you want to protect it and support it, (but) I think this is a very small sample, a very small percentage of the games that will be played on Friday. I don’t think in our particular case it will effect high school football that much, on a Labor Day Friday.
Q. I know there were some games on Friday, but I’m a traditionalist, I like games on Saturday …
A. I think this is different. I think Labor Day Friday is different. And Thanksgiving Friday is different. Rather than a Friday during the school year, when it’s Friday Night Lights, it’s high school football. I’m a traditionalist, too. I don’t think that one date or the two of them, effects high school football that much.
Q. I didn’t want to belabor the point, but I did want to ask you about it.
A. That’s fine. Everyone is quick to express their opinion, I can feel free to express mine.
Q. I’m sure when you took this job you didn’t anticipate all the things you’ve had to deal with, like Friday night games. Another is social media. I know you’ve talked about this as well, but the other day players, and not just football players, tweeted a statement about racial inequality at Wisconsin …
A. You know what, I think they talked about our campus, but you’re seeing this everywhere. This is not just a Wisconsin problem.
Q. I agree. But my point was just how things have changed since you started. This did not happen in your day. If people had a problem, they came to you or whatever, but now they have their own sounding board to the public.
A. Well, that’s right. Social media and cellphones have changed our society and changed how we communicate.
Q. Do you talk to these guys about be careful about what you say and what they communicate?
A. I will. I will talk to these guys. My chain of command is I talk to the coaches. I addressed our whole athletic department. My first meeting with the entire department I talked about these things and that we have to be sensitive to social issues. And I go back to the ’60s, living in the ’60s when there was unrest because of the Vietnam War, there was unrest because of social issues and I just wonder how much we’ve learned from the ’60s. It doesn’t seem like we’ve learned very much.
Q. I know you’ve pretty much told these kids to post …
A. You know, you come to college to think and express yourself. I thought their release was very well thought out. I thought they expressed themselves, they have a right to express themselves. Now, it’s how do we answer this? I want to visit with them, I want to talk with them. How can we help, how I can help, what can they do, what can this university do? I actually quite frankly was proud of them, how they handled it and how they released it and how well-thought out it was.
Q. I want to change gears a little bit here. You’ve had three recent pretty major coaching hirings with (Greg) Gard, Chryst and (Tony) Granato. Was one factor that this was not a stepping stone, that they were Wisconsin guys and they probably weren’t going to leave?
A. I look for fits. I can even — Jonathan Tsipis, our women’s basketball coach — I look for somebody that fits. I’ve learned that you better have somebody that understands how we win here, understands our formula, buys in to that, that it all starts with our Wisconsin kids, it all starts with that our best kids stay home and you put an emphasis on that. But, yeah, when they’re Wisconsin guys they want to be here and they understand and they’re good fits, it’s a win-win.
Q: You had that with Bret Bielema for many years, although it was kind of surprising he left, and Gary Andersen didn’t work out as well obviously. Looking back were there any red flags, where you can now say why didn’t I see that coming?
A. Nah, you know what, when I interviewed Gary, and I talked and I talked with players, and I explained how we win here, but Gary didn’t buy in. Gary wanted to revert back to what he was doing at Utah State, and that didn’t work here. There wasn’t an emphasis on Wisconsin kids and we were going to start losing those kids. Bret understood it and Bret followed the plan to the ‘T’ and was successful. He made a choice, and you know what, for Bret it was probably the right choice to make a move and sew his own oats and make a name for himself in the Southeastern Conference.
Q. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but was it like Gary did well in the interview but then didn’t follow through on what he said in the interview?
A. I’d say that. I thought he understood how we won and the recruiting emphasis and what this state was all about. Because when he called and told me he was leaving he told me I can’t do it the way you want me to do it, I can’t do what you want me to do. So that’s about (laughs), that’s about as blunt as you can be.
Q. Well, Paul seems to be doing it the way you want it to be done.
A. He is. Paul understands. Paul is a Wisconsin guy. He knows the formula.
Q. Last question: When all is said and done and you decide to retire, what do you hope is your legacy? Maybe it’s different between players, coaches and fans, but is there something you want to be known for or remembered by?
A. I want to be known as the guy that flipped this program around, the entire athletic program. Because of our success in football that we were able to stay up and improve facilities and build other programs, make them stronger and competitive because what we’ve done in football. That I’ve championed all the sports while being the athletic director.
Dave Heller is the author of the upcoming book Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow as well as Facing Ted Williams Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns