We knew it was coming, but maybe not this soon.
UW-Madison Athletic Director Barry Alvarez last week announced his retirement on June 30 — ending what will be a 32-year run, first as football coach and then as AD for the past 18 years.
It was a remarkable run — and one that didn’t come easily.
He built a football program and an athletic program that was based on an expectation of success; he exuded that with his strong personality and he spread it to his athletes and all across Badgerland.
Almost by sheer willpower, Alvarez, along with then AD Pat Richter, took a hapless Bucky Badger up by the back of his jersey, dusted him off and remade him into a gridiron powerhouse, a basketball tournament contender and a formidable foe on the hockey rink.
Consider that in the four seasons before Alvarez joined Wisconsin, the Badger football team went 9-36. Over its history the Badgers had played in a total of just six bowl games.
Success was not immediate. Barry’s Badgers went 0-8 in the Big Ten and 1-10 overall in 1990, his first year as head coach. Year two and three were a little better when Wisconsin went 5-6 in both seasons, but still didn’t have a winning season under its belt.
Then came the magical year of ’93, when the Badgers, with Racine’s Brent Moss in the backfield, went 6-1-1 in the Big Ten and 10-1-1 overall to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl against UCLA. A stunned California crowd watched as hordes of red-clad, victory-starved Badgers fans, who had travelled 2,000 miles, filled the Pasadena stadium with a sea of red and made it into a faraway home game.
Barry’s Badgers delivered and Wisconsin walked off the field with a 21-16 upset win and their first Rose Bowl crown. That win stamped the Wisconsin football program as one to be reckoned with, and spurred Badger fans across the state to renewed enthusiasm and support.
In the Alvarez era, Wisconsin has played in 26 bowl games and won six Big Ten titles. Before he came to Wisconsin, the Badgers’ most recent season with nine wins was in 1901. Since 1993, UW football has won 10 games in a season 13 times.
Alvarez did it with an old-school approach that often featured massive linemen, rugged running backs who pounded through holes and journeymen quarterbacks. It wasn’t always flashy, but it was successful.
On hearing the news of Alvarez’ impending retirement, Scott Nelson, who played safety for the Badgers in those early days, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Alvarez was “brutally honest with us that first year. Guys were expecting to start winning games and turn the tide. You all feel that.”
“Yet, he said, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do before we can get there.’ That was an eye-opener … but I still remember this when he came in. He had four words: love, trust, commitment and belief.”
“Love what you do. Trust your teammates. Be committed to the task at hand. And believe you’re good enough, believe your teammates are going to do what they are supposed to do and believe that as a group that we can move this thing forward.”
That’s a philosophy that’s very similar to the approach of another Wisconsin legend — Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. And it’s a philosophy that has served UW athletics and its athletes who have often gone on to pro success remarkably well over the past three decades under Alvarez.
For Badgers fans who remember the dreary days as a Big Ten doormat, it can be boiled down to three words: “Thank you, Barry.”
This editorial first ran in the Racine Journal Times and the Kenosha News.