TAMPA, Fla. - It was a question that set up Barry Alvarez perfectly.
In the minutes following No. 17 Wisconsin’s 34-31 overtime victory over No. 19 Auburn in the Outback Bowl, a reporter asked UW’s hall-of-fame coach if his team delivered a statement that proved Wisconsin can play with the bigger, quicker, more athletic teams while utilizing his “style” of football.
Alvarez measured his words carefully before responding, giving a simple answer that spoke volumes.
“I don’t know what kind of football I play,” said Alvarez. “There’s a lot of ways to win football games. You just have to execute. You have to be sound in how you do it…There’s not one secret formula.”
Dusting off his coaching formula of pounding the ball, mixing in throws to set up the run and playing physical, smash-mouth defense, Alvarez showed the country that Wisconsin football is far from broken.
Out of retirement for a second time, Alvarez did it by increasing strength workouts to add a measure of physicality to the Badgers. He pushed UW in conditioning and increased the tempo in practices so they would be ready to match the speed of Auburn.
Most importantly, he told the players to trust him, that he would get them ready to compete. That conviction gave Wisconsin its third 11-win season in the last five years.
“I thanked them for believing in me,” said Alvarez. “The plan I would give them in a very short time, I told them I would have them ready for the game. We’d try to get them stronger, we’d try to get them healthy and we give them a good game plan.”
The game plan resulted in the Badgers rushing for 400 yards (a new Outback Bowl record), limiting Auburn’s offense in the first half and overtime and pushing all the right buttons to send UW’s senior class out as winners for the first time in a bowl game.
“He’s such a busy guy, does a lot of work for the University and then also being on the (College Football Playoff) committee this year,” said senior tight end Sam Arneson, who like many in-state kids watched Alvarez while growing up. “He said he’s doing it for us and nobody else, especially the seniors. He sent us out right. It meant so much.”
Wisconsin’s players were left stunned and spinning in the first week of December. The Badgers were still in the process of wiping the egg off their faces from the 59-0 clocking Ohio State gave them in the Big Ten championship game when Gary Andersen entered the room and told him he was leaving for Oregon State.
It could have been another major kick to the program’s reputation, but the seniors decided the only person who could guide Wisconsin through another coaching change was, once again, Mr. Wisconsin.
“The only thing that made it easy was Coach Alvarez,” said senior linebacker Derek Landisch. “He’s been that one constant throughout this program.”
Alvarez thought he was done coaching nine years ago when he raised his arms in triumph following a 24-10 victory over No. 7 Auburn up the road in Orlando’s Capital One Bowl. He handed over the keys to hand-picked successor Bret Bielema and headed up to the athletic director’s box.
When Bielema resigned to accept the head coaching position at Arkansas, Alvarez was asked by the seniors to coach the 2013 Rose Bowl, a bowl in which he went 3-0 during his 16-year tenure. Instead of getting his hands dirty, he was more of a figurehead in the 20-14 setback, something he admitted that he has been kicking himself for doing ever since.
Now, two years later, Andersen was leaving, but Alvarez was content to be done.
“I didn’t want to coach these guys,” Alvarez. “I first initially said I would feel uncomfortable doing that again when they asked me, and they asked me to sleep on it and they would come back. I thought maybe they would forget about it. But they did show up the next morning … I started thinking, and I thought about it actually that night, if they came back and asked me again, why are we all there? Why are we at the university? It’s still about the kids or we would [not] have jobs.
“So the least I could do, if could bring them some stability, and that’s what they felt like they needed, then I should do that.”
The first order of business was to not have the players pretend like the Ohio State game didn’t happen. In his first meeting with the team, Alvarez relayed his own personal experiences from one-sided losses (he had eight by 30-plus points in his career) and pointed to the gauntlet of Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota the squad went through to get to Indianapolis.
“If you’re Auburn and you played a team like us three weeks in a row and you have to go out next Saturday and play, you don’t have a lot left in the tank,” said Alvarez. “I guarantee you those guys were sore and beat up. It’s hard to come back.
“I explained that to them, get it out of your system, realize you’re playing for 11 wins, you’ve won 10, you’ve beat ranked teams down the stretch. That’s the team I want to show up, and they bought into it.”
Alvarez – feeling his program was at somewhat of a crossroads in needing to hire a second head coach in two years and after dropping four straight bowl games – promised he would have an active role in the play-calling. He didn’t have a problem with Andersen’s style of play, but he did want to bring back the physical, smart, tough brand that was his calling card during the program’s turnaround in the early 1990s.
It’s a reason why the Badgers didn’t flinch when he went for it three times on fourth down (UW converted all three of them), striking a balance between his bravado and the coordinator’s well-designed game plan. In a word, it was Throwback Thursday.
“He preaches everything that’s right about Wisconsin football,” said Landisch. “Toughness, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, take it to them, don’t be scared. You saw that in the calls, going for it on fourth down. That gives players confidence, confidence in our defense, confidence in our offense.”
For the first time since the 2009 season, Wisconsin heads into an offseason with some of its swagger restored, confident that it can win bowl games against top-20 programs, and gives the program’s prestige a feel-good shot in the arm.
It also gives Alvarez a measure of redemption, his 119th win and an improved bowl record of 9-4. Before handing the program over to new head coach Paul Chryst, Alvarez thanked a resilient group of seniors for spinning another coaching change into a positive.
He also got a cherished Gatorade shower from senior linemen Rob Havenstein and Dallas Lewallen after what he said was his last trip down to the sidelines.
“I’ve had a couple of those,” said Alvarez of his post-game bath, “and I like them.”
What did it mean
- Wisconsin won its first game against a nonconference opponent away from Camp Randall since 2011 (Northern Illinois in Chicago).
- Wisconsin beat a ranked nonconference opponent for the first time since No.14 Miami (FL) in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl, which was also UW’s last bowl win.
- Wisconsin beat a SEC conference opponent for the first time since the 2007 Capital One Bowl (a span of three games).
- Wisconsin's three-point victory was the first one-possession win against a ranked opponent away from home since beating No.11 Michigan State, 42-39, in the 2011 Big Ten championship game.