In 1993, Wisconsin football head coach Barry Alvarez was fresh off three losing seasons. Those tumultuous three years were his first at UW, as Badger fans were anxious for a return to prominence. Wisconsin hadn’t won a Big Ten title in over 30 years, and the picture wasn’t look any brighter under Alvarez.
Ten wins later, the Badgers not only had that conference title they were desperately yearning for, but also a precious Rose Bowl win. Under Alvarez’s calm, collected leadership, Wisconsin defeated UCLA 21-16 in Pasadena and the coach’s legacy was born. The rest, they say, was history.
Joe Rudolph was part of Alvarez’ first UW recruiting class, and he quickly became the latest in a long line of standout Wisconsin offensive linemen. The season after the Rose Bowl win, Rudolph was a team captain. Now, he’s tight end coach under Bret Bielema, and very few remember the birth of Alvarez’s legend.
“He’s created a very strong tradition now,” Rudolph said. “Once the first team went there and won, I think it was the second team felt that same pressure, and it was on their shoulders now to keep that alive and rolling, and they were able to do so. Then onto the third, and now onto us. I think that’s any bowl game; you want to do that. Again, all the focus was within the preparation and the everyday work. It doesn’t happen by magic, you’ve got to work your tail off and make it happen.”
The second Rose Bowl team Rudolph referred to came in 1998, and the third was the following year. Now, the 2010 Wisconsin Badgers are Pasadena bound. Alvarez has passed the coaching reins on to Bret Bielema, and he now serves as UW’s athletic director. Between Alvarez, Rudolph and the rest of Wisconsin, this year’s Badgers definitely don’t lack for Rose Bowl inspiration.
“I was way too young for the ’93, but I remember watching highlights,” said center Peter Konz, a native of Neenah. “There’s just one picture I always remember, and everybody thinks it’s Ron Dayne, but it’s Brent Moss. I have a Brent Moss uniform in my closet, and I think I wore it in middle school; it’s really tight, so I thought I looked big in it. I tried to act like a running back, but I was always a lineman.
“I always just remember the scene of Barry Alvarez in the end of the game, the lights, the roses, the team just kind of holdings its hands up. That’s what always sticks with me; that, and how hard the offense worked is impressive, just to see them work.”
Clearly, Konz holds the Granddaddy of Them All in high regard. In Wisconsin, you’re essentially born with reverence for Alvarez and UW’s Rose Bowl years. After those glorious ’98 and ’99 teams, though, the Badgers have been relegated to middle-of-the-run bowls like the Outback, Capital One and Champs Sports Bowls for the past decade. So while some like Konz can talk fondly for days of their rosy memories, there’s a strong sense of urgency for many others.
“To really know what a Rose Bowl means to us, you probably only have to be here one or two days in the program to get that feeling,” said defensive end Louis Nzegwu, a native of Platteville.
Short, sweet and to the point. Yesterday’s Badgers blazed the path to Pasadena, and today’s can’t possibly run along it any faster. Yet, for all the desperation to return to Rose Bowl glory, this year’s Wisconsin squad boats a significant number of out-of-staters that have played crucial roles in the team’s success.
“I think I didn’t understand until I got here,” said defensive back Antonio Fenelus, a native of Boca Raton, Fla. “Growing up, watching the Miami Hurricanes playing, it’s always either the national championship … or the Orange Bowl. I really didn’t pay too much attention to the Rose Bowl. But coming here, and playing, I understand how serious it is.”
Perhaps that’s the best word to describe it – serious. Getting back to the Rose Bowl is serious. Wisconsinites were born with that mentality, and outsiders like Fenelus, Jay Valai, Niles Brinkley, John Moffitt and Culmer St. Jean quickly adopted it. Bielema’s mantra is 1-0; each game is its own season, take each one at a time. But no matter who it is, these Badgers can only push the “it’s the same as any other game” coachspeak so long.
“When it’s business time, yeah,” said defensive tackle Jordan Kohout, a native of Waupun. “But when you step back, and you kind of realize, ‘Wow, this is the Rose Bowl,’ this is something that you’re going to remember for the rest of your life.”
Indeed. After Wisconsin’s regular season-ending 70-23 trouncing of Northwestern, Alvarez spoke in the locker room of the monumental reward coming the Badgers’ way. He lauded all the hard work, all the little things; the “focus” Rudolph alluded to in expressing his congratulations for this year’s Rose Bowl participants. But as quickly as Alvarez was there to acknowledge what the team has accomplished, he rushed to address what the Badgers haven’t done.
They haven’t won it yet.
“As a kid, I remember watching the Rose Bowl games, and I’ve dreamt about going there,” said left tackle Gabe Carimi of Cottage Grove. “To make that a reality has been unbelievable. I can’t wait to prepare well and play well. I remember watching [Alvarez] when I was a fan and a kid, and now I get an opportunity to go out there myself and try to win a Rose Bowl.”