In the days before Alvarez, the Badger football team had enjoyed sporadic moments in the sun: a couple Rose Bowls in the 1950's, the memorable clash with USC in Pasadena in 1962, the stunning upset of Nebraska in 1974, and some entertaining mid-tier bowl teams under Dave McClain in the early 1980's. And yet, the culture surrounding the team was one of complacency. The good times were certainly enjoyed, but they were viewed more or less as a pleasant distraction from the general campus climate, from the protest movement in the 60's to the rise of the band and the party atmosphere in the 70's. If the Badgers won 5 or 6 games and provided some entertaining home games in between getting thrashed by Michigan and Ohio State, it was considered a pretty good season. Since 1960, the Badgers won more games than they lost in just 9 of 30 seasons, and most of those were of the 7-4 type variety.
There was also an element of distrust between the academic and athletic elements of the University. Many of the academics had little use for the athletes sullying their fine university, while the athletic folk often felt that the academics were out to get them. There was no perceived desire to field top notch athletic teams as Wisconsin's fine academic reputation and generally full Camp Randall was enough for most.
As with much change, things had to totally bottom out before eyes were opened to the possibilities at a school like Wisconsin. When the football team bottomed out in the late 80's under former coach Don Morton, Badger fans finally began their metamorphosis by staying away from the Camp in droves as the product on the field became embarrassingly weak. It was a blessing in disguise for Badgerland.
Chancellor Donna Shalala and athletic director Pat Richter decided to take a shot with a former Bob Devaney and Hayden Fry disciple currently heading the defensive unit of Notre Dame under Lou Holtz. Barry Alvarez came to Madison with a bravado and confidence that was refreshingly unique to Badger fans. He spoke of selling out Camp Randall every week, of bringing pride to the state of Wisconsin, and of raising the expectations and work ethic of the players. He did not talk much about wins and losses, because he understood early on that success on the field would take care of itself once the infrastructure was in place. He did not talk about the limitations of the program (and never did make excuses in the years that followed). Many returning players did not buy into the system. Alvarez pushed them hard, harder than many chose to be pushed, and attrition was high that first year.
The team back in 1990 wasn't good at all. They finished 1-10, but it was clear that indeed, it was a whole new animal. The team struggled to put points on the board, but played their backsides off and went into the fourth quarter with a chance to win all but three games. Despite their poor record, they were physical on defense. They tried to run the ball despite not being very good at it. It was a clear that a mindset was being put in place that would lead to success.
The following year the team made incremental improvements, attendance picked up again, and we started to see names like Fletcher, DeRamus, Raymer, Verstegen, Roan, Thompson, Fowler, Holt and Nelson. They weren't going to always be as talented as the team across the field, but the foundation was nearly complete and these players did indeed buy into what Alvarez was selling them.
The rest as they say is history. There was one more 5-6 season before roses bloomed in 1993, resulting in the first Rose Bowl win in school history. In the next 12 years, Alvarez took the Badgers to 10 bowl games and won three Big Ten championships. We have seen a flood of NFL-caliber players come through Madison. Camp Randall has been refurbished and is once again sold out months in advance of the season. National TV appearances are a regular part of any season. Badger fans can now typically figure on a December trip to San Antonio or El Paso or Tampa or Pasadena.
The most telling legacy of the Alvarez era is that Badger fans now believe and expect their athletics to be at least a match for the superior academics. Barry Alvarez changed the mindset around campus. Fans are no longer content with 6-5 and no longer "go to see the band" as their primary motivation for being in Camp Randall. His legacy has extended to areas such as the basketball program, which has indirectly reaped the benefits of these high athletic ideals on their way to a borderline elite status. That didn't happen by accident. It happened because Barry Alvarez (and Pat Richter) showed the UW community that it was possible in a mainstream sport in which tradition was weak. Barry Alvarez engaged the academic community and made attempts to bring the university together under one banner. While there will always be elements of discord among some departments, for the most part, the academic community at the UW now takes pride in the performance of athletics and understands the great boon they can be for everyone.
Barry Alvarez wasn't perfect. His teams weren't always as good as we fans might have hoped. There will always be plays to question or decisions to dispute. There will always be players that did not take advantage of their opportunity or boosters who felt slighted. That is part of any big-time football program. But the point to remember is that Barry Alvarez is what MADE US a big time football program. For that, as a lifelong Badger fan that used to watch Dan Relich, Ira Mathews, and Dave Crossen as a wide-eyed 8–year old, I will ever be thankful.
Thank you Barry Alvarez, you will be missed. An end of an era indeed.