Old foe Alvarez posing a new challenge for Stanford
LOS ANGELES -- When Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez walks onto the field for Tuesday's Rose Bowl, a familiar sight awaits him across the sidelines in Stanford, a team he coached against and defeated 13 years ago in the very same game.
"It's the most beautiful venue in all of sports I think," Alvarez said of the Rose Bowl. "I'll be just as thrilled when I take the field this time as I was the first time I took it."
But while the Hall of Fame coach draw on memories, it will a new experience for the Cardinal staff who have to prepare for a coach who hasn't walked the sidelines in seven years.
"Coach Alvarez does a great job managing the game," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He's going to let the coordinators coordinate and play to their strengths. That's what all good coaches do."
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Alvarez, who also is the athletic director at Wisconsin, has had a busy month in the lead up to the granddaddy of them all on New Year's Day. His whirlwind journey to Pasadena kicked off when former coach Bret Bielema was hired by Arkansas three days after the Big Ten Championship Game, becoming the first coach to win the right to play in the Rose Bowl game but not coach in it. Alvarez was not planning to coach in the game but team captains called him up shortly after learning of the transition.
Well, sort of, as Alvarez declined a call from linebacker Mike Taylor because he didn't know who was on the other end. Eventually the two connected and the captain requested the man who sported a 3-0 record in the game take to the sidelines one more time. Alvarez acquiesced to donning the headset when it was clear it would mean a lot to a team that had gone through quite a bit of transition over the past two seasons.
"The players chose me. Bret asked me when he told me he was stepping down, 'Why don't you take it?' I didn't feel it was proper to name myself head coach," said Alvarez. "When the players called and asked if I would do it, I felt an obligation to do that."
"It's definitely an honor to have one of the greatest college football coaches of all time coach us," Badgers running back James White said. "We just want to go out there and play our best and give it our best effort for him."
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A 2009 inductee into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame and 2010 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, Alvarez is the face of the Wisconsin football program of the past 23 years. He compiled a 118–73–4 record while walking the sidelines in Madison and developed the tough, physical brand of football most associate with the team. His unprecedented success with the Badgers includes the majority of school records and an impressive 8-3 bowl record -- as many wins in the postseason as bowls the school had reached prior to his arrival.
Alvarez has said his approach will be much like it was nearly a decade ago because "football is football." Stanford meanwhile faces the challenge of having no recent game film to watch for Alvarez's tendencies.
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“I called up [former Stanford quarterback Todd] Husack and said, ‘Todd, tell me about your game plan against Barry Alvarez back in 1999’ because there are so many unknowns,” Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said.
“He said they were fast and physical, played a lot of combo coverages with not a lot of pressures and they played extremely hard. I said well, 'They have a lot the same attributes today.'”
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Because he's worn two hats the past month -- coach and athletic director -- preparing to face Stanford hasn't been straightforward for Alvarez and Wisconsin either. As AD he hired a volleyball coach and brought Utah State's Gary Andersen over to replace Bielema. Thinking less as a coach and more as someone with a broader day job, Alvarez has kept Andersen as a constant presence around the team during activities and practices.
At the request of the savvy marketer and his new boss, Andersen will even be on the sidelines of the Rose Bowl so cameras will find him for shots that "are invaluable in recruiting and selling the program."
All in all, Alvarez has been busy to put it mildly. The 66-year-old celebrated his birthday on Sunday.
"We would practice two days and then we'd have two days off. Those two days off I used to interview coaching candidates for both football and volleyball," Alvarez said. "You just have to use all 24 hours and I did that. I like to keep busy and I certainly was."
The Wisconsin assistants, all but two of whom are leaving after the bowl game to take other jobs, have done the lion's share of film breakdown and preparation while their families move to new cities and get settled. Stanford's coaches are unsure who will really show up on January 1st.
“It’s a new regime in a certain sense,” Hamilton said. “I have no clue what the dynamics are like when you have coaches that don’t have any accountability to the program. They all have their offices packed and are probably recruiting for other schools in their free time while prepping for the bowl game. I can’t imagine what that’s like.”
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Alvarez has remained steadfast in keeping his team, and coaching staff, focused when they're on the field while also make sure they enjoy the activities that come with going to the Rose Bowl. Under their interim coach,Wisconsin has had shorter but faster-paced practices while in Southern California. This has gone over well with the Badgers players.
When rain threatened Saturday's plans, Alvarez even canceled practice and moved things to a hotel ballroom for a quick walkthrough to save players' legs.
In many ways he's turned into the wise grandfather (or 'Godfather' as the team has taken to calling him behind his back) who has lent a helping hand. Players have responded with enthusiasm for the job he's done so far.
"The tradition that he built and what he's done for the players who move onto the next level, just to finally see him in action on our sidelines is fun," star Badgers running back Montee Ball said. "He brings so much confidence and swagger to the game, we really enjoy seeing that.
"We want to reward him with a win. He deserves it."
"He's around the program all the time but to see him out there with the whistle, we've had a lot of fun," quarterback Curt Phillips said. "Having the opportunity to play with a Hall of Fame coach in the Rose Bowl is something we're all excited about."
True enough for Wisconsin. But the uncertainty of taking on a coach with little to lose and vast experience is less exciting for Stanford.