MADISON — University of Wisconsin senior linebacker Mike Taylor grew up in Ashwaubenon and, like many young football players in the state, he dreamed of playing for a coach such as Barry Alvarez.
But in Taylor’s wildest imagination, he couldn’t come up with a scenario like the one that will play out in his final game with the Badgers.
Taylor led an appeal from the team’s leaders that persuaded Alvarez, who is UW’s athletic director, to return to the sidelines for one game and coach the Badgers against Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.
Alvarez’s decision, announced Thursday, instantly energized players and fans who had been through a turbulent week after coach Bret Bielema abruptly left Tuesday to become the coach at Arkansas.
“I think it’s the best thing that could happen,” Taylor said at a news conference. “(Alvarez) is familiar, obviously, with what we do. He’s the one that built this program. That’s the reason why kids like me come here, to play for a coach like that.”
Alvarez brings the instant credibility of someone enshrined in the Rose Bowl and College Football halls of fame. He is the winningest coach in UW football history (118-73-4, .615 in 16 seasons) and has gone 3-0 in Rose Bowls.
The Badgers, who suffered close losses in the past two Rose Bowls under Bielema, could have fractured over the loss of their coach. Instead, the players sounded more united than ever behind Alvarez.
“If anything, I think it gives us a better chance to win the Rose Bowl,” senior quarterback Curt Phillips said of having Alvarez on the sideline. “He knows the formula for success there.
“It would have been business as usual for us if this hadn’t happened. It gives guys a chance to rally around him and have something even extra to play for.”
Alvarez said he would not have been interested in coaching the game if the players had not asked.
After Bielema delivered the shocking news he was leaving, he offered to coach in the game. Alvarez immediately shot that down and told Bielema he needed to go to Arkansas.
Then the UW assistants — who are expected to stay through the game — made an appeal for Alvarez to coach.
“I said, ‘I wouldn’t feel right doing that,’” Alvarez said. “So it did not cross my mind (again).
“But when the players asked — it’s about the players. I don’t want this to be about me. ... I want to give them as good an opportunity and as good a chance to win the Rose Bowl as we possibly can.”
Alvarez met with offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Chris Ash and told them they would be responsible for game plans on their sides of the ball.
“I’ll oversee practices,” Alvarez said. “I’ll oversee the game. I’ll manage the game. I’ll take that pressure off of them.”
None of the players saw Bielema’s departure coming — especially when he assured them during a team meeting Monday afternoon things would be fine. Bielema then flew to New York City, where he accepted his new job.
“We had a team meeting ... (Bielema) kind of ended it by saying, ‘Some things may be brought up with a couple places,’ but not to make anything of it,” Phillips said.
The next day the players gathered for a somber meeting with Bielema, who told them he was leaving.
“When he walked in, it got super silent,” Taylor said. “He started to talk, he got emotional, it was just super awkward.”
The team leaders then met to discuss how to move forward. Taylor said he never thought about asking Alvarez to coach but when someone brought it up, it won quick and unanimous approval.
Phillips sent Alvarez a text, requesting a meeting. Taylor also called two times, but got no response.
“I kept getting a Green Bay call,” Alvarez said. “I didn’t think there was anybody in Green Bay that I needed to talk to. So I didn’t take the call.”
Alvarez eventually listened to his messages and was moved by a heartfelt appeal from a state product.
“I was nervous calling him,” Taylor said. “Never really talked to him like that before, one-on-one on the phone. I just felt that’s the best thing to do. Just spoke from the heart, let him know I thought he’d be the best person to coach us in the Rose Bowl.”
Said Alvarez: “I told him I would be honored to coach them and I wanted them to understand, if I were going to coach, we weren’t going to screw around. We were going to go out there to win.”