As the Wisconsin football team has prepared for its biggest game of the season to date, the program has also been in its most delicate state in the last two decades.
The sudden departure of former head coach Bret Bielema following the Big Ten Championship Game left the Badgers in need of finding a balance. The preparations for the Rose Bowl had to continue, after all, a less than stellar showing after falling short in their last two trips to Pasadena would be unacceptable as far as the fan base was concerned.
On the other hand, Athletic Director Barry Alvarez and staff needed to find a new head coach that would help ensure the long-term stability of the tradition that Alvarez has worked so hard to rebuild.
We may never know the full list of potential solutions that were compiled by those in charge in Madison. What we do know, however, is that a final decision was reached because a group of players walked into Alvarez’s office with a request.
“First of all, I didn't choose myself. The players chose me. Bret asked me, when he told me he was stepping down, he said why don't you take it? And I didn't feel it was proper to name myself the head coach, to step in,” Alvarez said when he met with the media in Pasadena on Sunday. “But later that day, when the players called, the captains called and asked if I would do it, I felt an obligation to do that.”
By now, most are probably familiar with how the rest of the story worked out. Utah State’s Gary Andersen was selected to take the reins and the rest (for now) is history.
But, the need for balance remains, even less than 48 hours away from the showdown with Stanford. Almost immediately after the hiring, Alvarez found a way to integrate Andersen and his growing staff into practices.
“His role here is to – he and his staff have come out and watched a practice. They're evaluating our current players. They're trying to study the roster as far as recruiting what they need as far as next year and the year after that,” Alvarez said. “Gary has been very respectful of our team, our coaches, and does not want to be a distraction. Everyone certainly appreciates that.”
When speaking of possibly opting to bring Andersen onto the sideline for the Rose Bowl, Alvarez was candid in pointing out that his reasoning goes well beyond an additional opportunity for evaluation.
“I may put him on the sidelines just because you can't pay for that publicity because I figure we'll get a few shots of him on the sideline, and that's invaluable in recruiting and selling the program, and selling himself,” Alvarez said.
Though there were a lot of decisions that had to be made in regards to Andersen and the future of the program, there was still plenty of work to be done on the field prior to the Granddaddy of them all. It didn’t take long for Alvarez to regain his comfort in the saddle.
“Just give me a whistle. That's all I need is a whistle and a bunch of guys to coach, and I feel very comfortable with that. And it's been fun for me,” Alvarez said. “This has been like a gift to be able to do this and on this stage is truly special.”
He may have left the game nearly a decade ago, but there are many things in the world of college football that have remained constant since his departure.
“What's changed? Nothing has changed. Football is football. There are different schemes. There are different ways that people play. I think it's college football is cyclical,” Alvarez said. “There is always a trend. There is always a fad. But the bottom line is you still have to block, and tackle and have good fundamentals. That will never change in football.”
For the second season in a row, a number of assistant coaches have opted to pursue other opportunities next season. Though some have already left for their new gig, Alvarez was pleased with the dedication shown by the ones who chose to stay and coach in the Rose Bowl.
“I've said all along, I've been very impressed with the professionalism that the entire staff has shown. We have two of them that are staying, the rest of them are leaving to take other jobs, yet they committed themselves immediately,” Alvarez said. hey wanted to coach in this game. They felt an obligation to their players, and they've done an outstanding job. I couldn't ask any more of those guys.”
It appears as though adding a, somewhat, new face to a team that has dropped back-to-back Rose Bowl games brings with it a fresh perspective.
“I don't think there is any more resolve that we have to win this game. We're 0-2. You just take a look at it as it's another game. We're going to prepare as well as we can. We're going to play as hard as we can,” Alvarez said. “I think we've done some good things and done some things differently. I've tried to do some things differently to prepare them for the game. But I don't think those last two games have anything to do, other than the guys who have been here before have experienced this.”
Throughout the process, Alvarez has been impressed with the mindset of his team.
“I would say we're a pretty good football team. We're a better football team. This is a group of young players that probably have persevered and are more resilient than any group I've ever been around. They've gone through an offensive line coaching change. They've lost three overtime games. They've lost two games where they've had a chance in the last possession to win, yet they came out the next week and played well. They lost their head coach,” Alvarez said.
“First time ever a coach has won the opportunity to come to a Rose Bowl and not coached in a Rose Bowl. Yet they come back to practice. They come back. As I told them, I'm so proud of them because they're guys that have chemistry. They have good chemistry and great leadership. And if you deal with adversity in a positive way, you get stronger, and that's exactly what they've done.”
"So, if you just look at our – how many losses we have, it's very misleading. I'm hoping Stanford's looking at that because we're a much better team, much better football team than a five loss team.”
That isn’t to imply that there won’t be a few things on the mind of the legendary head coach when the whistle blows on Tuesday afternoon.
“I always worry about if our guys are ready and that they're ready for the tempo and the speed of the game. That's what I'll judge early on. Other than that, I'm really not worried about anything,” Alvarez said. “I just want them to play. I told them I want the same team to show up.”
“Bowl games are different. Most teams are different than the last game they've played. There's a month. There are a lot of ways that they can be distracted. There are a lot of thing that's can affect a team. I want the same team to play that played in Indianapolis, to play in the Rose Bowl,” Alvarez said. “That's what I want to see. That's what concerns me. I don't worry about Stanford. I can't control Stanford, but I can control us.”
The coaching instincts that Alvarez possesses are, perhaps, most evident in his desire to reward his players, especially the seniors, by sending them out winners.
“It would really be a great life lesson for these players. I think they'd learn quite a bit about how to deal with things, how to deal with adversity, how to deal with situations and make something positive come out of it, especially after two tough losses,” Alvarez said. “They could have won either game the last two years. They had opportunities to win, but couldn't close the deal. So I think it would be a tremendous lesson for them and very positive if they could win."