Even though it has been more than 40 years since he was a standout linebacker for Hall of Fame Nebraska coach Bob Devaney, Alvarez was effusive with praise this week about the atmosphere inside Memorial Stadium, the red-clad fans and the importance of the Cornhuskers to the state they play in.
Wisconsin's athletic director remembers those things vividly because he envisioned creating that culture with the Badgers when they hired him in 1990 to lead their football team. As a coach through 2005 and as AD since 2004, Alvarez has nurtured a Husker-esque atmosphere in Madison, and when No. 8 Nebraska faces No. 7 Wisconsin on Saturday night in front of a national TV audience, the 64-year-old will be beaming with pride.
"I'm anxious to show off what we have here in Madison," said Alvarez as he looks forward to Nebraska's first-ever Big Ten game. "I'm excited for my friends from Nebraska to come to Madison, to see our city, to see the atmosphere that we've created here and to see what game day is like at Camp Randall."
Saturday's meeting of 4-0 teams will be the first game between the schools since 1974, and Alvarez is Wisconsin's honorary captain. The College Football Hall of Famer graduated from Nebraska in 1969, met his wife, Cindy, in Lincoln, saw his three children born in Nebraska and took his first head coaching jobs at Nebraska high schools. He then modeled his coaching and administrative career after Devaney's transition to athletic director.
Alvarez even played against Wisconsin in 1965 and '66, winning those games by a combined score of 68-3. Blowouts like that were common for the Badgers in the 1970s and again in the late 1980s but became a memory after Alvarez took over the football program. By the time he walked away after the 2005 season to become a full-time AD, Alvarez had won a school-record 118 games, three Big Ten titles and three Rose Bowls.
In a way, Alvarez has become Wisconsin's Devaney.
"My background and what I believe in, in football, was established at Nebraska," Alvarez said. "As far as fundamentals, physical play, sound play, all those things are things I took with me and brought to (Wisconsin).
"I stole the walk-on program from Nebraska. Being the one Division I school in the state, as Nebraska is, I really felt that there were a lot of players that were borderline. Guys that you're not quite ready to pull the trigger on, that we would actively recruit. Quite frankly, they've been our savior. I call them our erasers. The make up for any mistakes you make in recruiting. Over the years, every Rose Bowl team we've had, we've had a walk-on as a captain. That is definitely something I took from Nebraska."
Alvarez and his athletic department are expecting a full city this weekend. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Nebraska fans, with or without tickets, are descending on Madison to experience the school's Big Ten christening. The game is a culmination of early Big Ten expansion talks Alvarez was a part of. Sitting down to dinner with Alvarez two years ago, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney began quizzing Alvarez on the Huskers' philosophy, how they do things and if they would be a good fit for the conference. It was foreshadowing of the process to come.
"Ironically I got home the next day, and I wasn't home 15 minutes, and I got a call from (Nebraska AD Tom) Osborne talking about not really being very happy and knew we were thinking of expansion and didn't know whether … the Big Ten would be interested in Nebraska," Alvarez said. "I stopped him right there. I said, 'Matter of fact Tom, I think the commissioner is interested because we had a long discussion about it last night.' So I gave him Jim's number, called Jim and told him to expect a call and gave (Osborne) a little background on some of the things that Jim and I had discussed."
Ever since Saturday's game was announced last September, Alvarez has tried to stay out of the ticket request business, but he has been able to secure roughly 150 seats for family, friends and former teammates. Although his luxury box will filled with a mix of Badgers and Huskers fans, Alvarez will throw his support behind his current employer in one of the most anticipated games of his long, historic career.
"It has to be right up there at the top," he said. "Last year, we played No. 1-ranked Ohio State, and you anticipate a big game, but you didn't know they'd be No. 1 in the country when they came in here. It was a very similar feeling that week. But this game — from the time it was announced that we would be the first game that Nebraska played in the Big Ten — I think it's been very exciting and particularly in my situation.
"I can't say that there has probably been any with more anticipation over a long period of time that I've been involved in. You look forward to a Rose Bowl, you have about three weeks of anticipation, but this has been like a year."
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