PASADENA, Calif. – It was the ending of an era for Badger football in the 99th installation of the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Or rather, it was the bridging of one chapter to the next in a storybook that largely began in 1990.
Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez had left his lasting imprint on the UW football program long after his departure as the head coach after the conclusion of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. And nowhere was that more apparent than the 2013 Rose Bowl.
The principles have remained the same in the game plan at Wisconsin for more than two decades. Grind opponents down with the “big palookas” up front, a term Alvarez so affectionately used to refer to the offensive linemen at a press conference in December, utilize the play-action and dominate with the ground game over a four-quarter slugfest.
It was an idea that stuck around well after Alvarez retired from coaching to become the AD at Wisconsin, one that he mentored onto his handpicked replacement Bret Bielema. As the years passed under Bielema’s – and Alvarez’s – watchful eye, the formula for success remained the same. With Bielema as the head coach, the Badgers produced two Outland Trophy winners (best interior lineman) in Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi and six all-conference offensive linemen during the 2010 season. Yes, only five linemen play at a time on the offensive line, and the Badgers managed to get six honored.
Few doubted that Alvarez still had sizable influence over the program. He would pop in occasionally at practice, take weekly walks with Bielema and, well, he was the Athletic Director. In fact, Bielema cited in his departure to leave for Arkansas that he wanted the chance to “spread my wings and fly a little bit further.” Maybe the comment was a thinly veiled reference that Alvarez was still micromanaging the football program further than anyone knew. Alvarez even said after Bielema’s departure that his pupil had won following his blueprint for success – which was true, to a degree.
Whatever the case, the Rose Bowl made it clear that the program’s identity still belongs to Alvarez. After all, why else would the players have personally reached out to him over an assistant coach to lead them in their bowl game?
It’s no surprise that Wisconsin football players have the nickname “The Godfather” for Alvarez. He made Wisconsin football what it is. He had an 8-3 record in bowl games prior to the 2013 Rose Bowl, he loved to coach the big games and he won them.
That’s why it was so fitting that he was the one to take on the role of figurehead in this in-between period in Wisconsin football history. That respect Alvarez commands, that aura of legend that surrounds his legacy as a coach and as a winner made the transition to the hiring of Gary Anderson as the new head coach while the players focused on the Rose Bowl easier than could ever be thought possible.
And there’s never been a coach who has made the Rose Bowl and not coached in it. But Alvarez found a way to turn the attention to his return rather than the uncertainty surrounding his team.
Wisconsin’s brand of football, its brand of character and toughness that was first established under Alvarez in the ’90s and continued under Bielema after his retirement was on full display in Pasadena in what can best be characterized as old-school: great defense and hard-nosed running offenses going at each other’s throats in a low scoring affair.
Alvarez mentioned during the week leading up to the game that football is cyclical by nature. He has a point. Look at the teams that made the Rose Bowl and the BCS National Championship game: Wisconsin, Stanford, Alabama and Notre Dame. See the similarity? All of these teams follow Alvarez’s belief and conviction towards the style of football Wisconsin has played since he took the reigns.
Wisconsin can’t consistently recruit the athletes needed to run a spread right now, but they can consistently recruit the giant offensive lineman to run the style of football that almost beat one of the three most physical teams in the entire country. And that’s why Alvarez’s theory works in practice. If Wisconsin can’t be a fast team, it sure can be the strongest. And look at the success that has brought the Badgers since the forgettable Don Morton years in the late ’80s.
The bad news for Wisconsin this season was that it lost a BCS bowl for the third straight year in another close loss. The good news? Fans found out that this program isn’t going to fall in stature any time soon.
Wisconsin football is not one man, but simply “the next man in.” It is an idea, an identity, a program that was established by a single man. And that man is still the face of Badgers football.
Was his legacy tarnished because a team he led into battle lost The Granddaddy of Them All? Absolutely not. He restored confidence and order to the Badgers at a time where there was chaos.
Whatever may be said about Bielema at the end of the day, he did lead UW to three straight Rose Bowls. And with Andersen already a proven winner as a head coach, there’s no reason to doubt that the future of Wisconsin isn’t bright.
As the motto in the Badger State goes…”In Barry We Trust.”
Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in history and English. What were your impressions from the Badgers’ third consecutive Rose Bowl loss? Let him know at email@example.com.