If 43-year-old Barry Alvarez wanted a football program for his own, he’d have to build it himself. The Notre Dame defensive coordinator took one of the toughest gigs in big-time football for his first time as a head coach.
With nine wins in the five seasons before Alvarez arrived at Wisconsin, it was time for a culture change.
“We were in bad shape at Wisconsin,” Alvarez said Friday before his Rutgers coaching clinic speech. “The facilities were terrible. The state coaches had lost confidence. [Rutgers coach Chris Ash] is probably a little further along than we were when I got there. We really had to start from scratch. When you are an assistant coach like I was and you go to a Division I school in a big conference like Chris did, you have to take bad jobs and make them good.”
Ash, who turned 42 shortly after he took a similar “bad job” at Rutgers, is vocal about his own culture-changing goals in New Jersey. Ash came to Rutgers after two years as a defensive coordinator for Ohio State and a national title.
Part of the culture change means a more Big Ten quality coaching clinic, and Alvarez was happy to provide his own services in Ash’s first year.
“I remember my first head coaching job I would always lean on veteran coaches,” Alvarez said in an in-depth interview with select media. “Every year I’d have someone come into our clinic. They were good enough to do it for me. Guys like Earl Bruce (Ohio State), Don Nehlen (West Virginia), George Perles (Michigan State), it goes on and on. They were good enough to come in and give me credibility. We ran our clinic in conjunction with the high school coaches also. I feel like that’s one of our duties and responsibilities to help a young coach. Chris did a good job when he was with us. That’s the least I could do. Come back here and spend a day and help him out a little bit.”
Ash worked for three years at Wisconsin before he followed Bret Bielema to Arkansas as the defensive coordinator in 2013. He coached defensive backs and called plays for Wisconsin and must of done something right with three straight conference titles.
Ash ran the defense well enough that another defensive mind, Alvarez, remains impressed five years later.
“He’s a tireless worker,” Alvarez said. “I really thought he was a very good teacher – just his methods of teaching, his energy, the way he related to kids. I can remember having the same conversation with Urban Meyer and Urban wanting a recommendation I said, ‘You’ll love him.’ He’s worked for good people and he’s been trained well. He has a knack about him and a seriousness about him. He knows the plan and he did a wonderful job for us.”
Rutgers was in rough shape after its Big Ten transition, and a fresh start is sometimes the best medicine. Wisconsin did it, and Rutgers could not be afraid to make the same tough decisions with a trio of new leaders since December.
“Sometimes you have to reboot things and get people that have come from programs that have been successful, rejuvenate the alums, rejuvenate everybody in the system,” Alvarez said. “I know Chris has met everyone that deals with the football program. That’s important. That everyone understands their role is important. From keeping the place clean to whether you are a ticket manager or taping ankles or serving meals in the training room. Everybody has a role. It’s important that everyone takes care of their business and gets on the same. I think everybody will get on that page. It’s kind of a revitalization, I think, many times for an entire program.”
Alvarez was happy to weigh in during the transition process in conversations with friend and board of governors chair Greg Brown.
Brown, who visited the Rutgers coaches clinic Friday to speak with Alvaraz and Ash, has a friendship with the Wisconsin athletic director. Brown sat in the Wisconsin private box at both the 2015 Rutgers game and bowl game for the Badgers.
“His brother lives in Wisconsin and he called me and asked me if he could take care of he and his brother if they came to our bowl game,” Alvarez said. “They sat with me at our bowl game also.
“Greg and I talk a lot. I don’t have anything to hide. He asks questions and I answer. I’ll tell you what: He is very knowledgeable and he’s engaged and he loves this school. You can see that.”
Brown and Alvarez have a friendship that includes a cameo on HBO’s Entourage.
“My timing and delivery was much better than his,” Alvarez said. “I happen to know the creator, Doug Allen, and we were at a marquee NetJet function and he asked me if I was free on Monday. This was on Sunday and I said, ‘I’m going to take a red eye home tonight and be with my kids on Father’s Day. And then yeah, I’m free. He said drive to Chicago and get on the Motorola jet and you have a spot on Entourage with Ditka. That’s where I met Brownie and we had a great time. We all said the same thing when it was over: It was really a lot of fun.”
"When you are an assistant coach like I was and you go to a Division I school in a big conference like Chris did, you have to take bad jobs and make them good.”
A self-described “bad job” when Alvarez ascended to power in 1990, Wisconsin is anything but that after nearly three decades of his influence.
A bit of a fixer-upper is an understatement for Rutgers football. There is no simple answer (although the Hobbs “screw that” approach in front of students is a great start), but Alvarez did his best when asked how to fix Rutgers.
How does Rutgers catch up in the Big Ten Conference?
Alvarez folds his arms and adjusts one of his championship rings before a detailed monologue.
“Everyone has to devise a plan according to who and where you are,” Alvarez said. “When I went to Wisconsin, here’s what I saw -- I saw a state who’s losing all of its players. I saw the top two committed to Notre Dame already. Iowa was going to the Rose Bowl, and they had 11 in the two-deep from Wisconsin. The first plan was to keep your best players at home.
“I said, ‘I’m going to build a wall around the state.’ We were able to keep our best players at home. I looked at the type of players that we could consistently recruit. You are going to get a Melvin Gordon occasionally and a Michael Bennett, guys who are as fast as anybody in the country. But for the most part we’ve got big guys in our state. We can recruit linemen. That’s how we devised our plan and style of play.
“We’re going to be big and physical. We’re going to run the football. We’re going to play with good fundamentals and technique, and be tough and sound on defense. We may not get as many five-stars. Back when I took the job, it was -- you have to beat Michigan and Ohio State. Our plan was we were going to be more physical, better prepared, more sound and then execute it. Get those types of guys. We were able to do it.
“I think we’ve probably been the most consistent program in the last 20 years in the league. Since ’94, we’ve been to six Rose Bowls. Basketball is the same way.
“We call ourselves a development program. We don’t have access to a lot of five-stars. Our advantage is walk-ons in football. This year I think we have 14 [signed prospects] but if we bring in another 14 walk-ons who are a little slow, maybe an inch too short, just not far enough along. Of those guys, five or six are going to earn scholarships.
“We had a First-Team All-American last year, our starting quarterback, our starting running back. Probably five of our best players were walk-ons. You get them free and they help fill your roster. We made that priority. That’s the plan.”
“[For] Rutgers, Chris has to sit down and the basketball people have to sit down and devise a plan. You have access to a lot of players. You have access to a heck of a lot more players than we do. I came back here and got a lot of good players -- a Heisman Trophy winner (Ron Dayne). Between here and New York and Connecticut -- we had great players come out of Connecticut. Some of our All-Americans are out of Connecticut. You are not far from D.C. and Baltimore and Virginia, you could drive four hours from here and you don’t have to get on a plane to recruit. You have to devise a plan that fits you.”
The pressure falls upon Ash to lead the charge alongside Hobbs.
We call ourselves a development program. We don’t have access to a lot of five-stars. Our advantage is walk-ons in football. This year I think we have 14 [signed prospects] but if we bring in another 14 walk-ons who are a little slow, maybe an inch too short, just not far enough along.
Greg Schiano proved in 2006 what a successful football program can do for a school, both financially and academically.
A winning start to Ash is the best possible shot in the arm before full Big Ten money arrives.
“Let me tell you something,” Alvarez said. “You win in football and everything else falls into place. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got when I took over, I was doing both jobs: You want to be a good athletic director, win in football and everything else falls into place. We win, we will fill the place up – which we did in a few years. Then you can build a new basketball arena and then you can build an indoor golf and an indoor softball. You can do a new hockey facility. All those things come because you are filling up the football stadium.”
Rutgers cornerbacks coach Aaron Henry was little more than a child when he first popped up on the radar of Alvarez.
Alvarez owns property within an hour of Henry’s hometown in Florida and followed the former All Big Ten safety’s career since high school. The latest stop is at Rutgers and the first full-time coaching job for Henry. Alvarez could not be prouder.
“To see his growth through college, and actually through high school and how he handled himself, he’s very highly thought in Madison,” Alvarez said. “I’m sure he did a good job for Bret [Bielema] down at Arkansas. It’s good to see him.”
Henry was an excellent student during his time as a star at Wisconsin.
“I watched Aaron from the day he walked in there and how prepared he was and how he went and introduced himself to everyone,” Alvarez said. “Once a year we have a recognition for all our people who endow scholarships. He was our representative who stood up and spoke for all male athletes. That’s how much people thought of him.”
Alvarez has a background with the other half of Rutgers’ secondary leadership as well.
“Billy Busch did a heck of a job for us,” Alvarez said. “I hated to lose him. He was one of our better recruiters. The players loved him. I had a grandson that played for him and really appreciated playing for him. I know a lot of the guys on this staff.”