Oct. 16, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Barry Alvarez has been preparing for this role most of his life. He just didn’t know about it.
Now that he has been named to the College Football Playoff selection committee, he can fall back on his experience as a Hall of Fame coach and a successful Big Ten athletic director at Wisconsin.
“I’ve been a decision-maker,” said the 66-year-old Alvarez. “You make tough decisions every day as a head football coach; you make tough decisions every day in this job as an athletic director. There are going to be some tough decisions made on this selection committee.
“I’m not going into this blind. You’ve got to have thick enough skin where you can handle the criticism because that’s coming right along with it. There are going to be cases where you’re going to have to make a decision between a one-loss team and a no-loss team. Who’s the better team?
“When you put all the criteria together, somebody has got to look at the film and say, ‘Wow, this team is off the charts’ or ‘This team is much better than that team.’ I think I bring that to the table. I bring a knowledge of the game and an understanding of watching a team and being able to evaluate it.”
Not only does Alvarez bring an invaluable coaching perspective to the selection committee, but he brings an unbridled passion for the sport dating to his playing days at Nebraska. “I’ve been committed to college football all my life,” he said, “and I feel like I have an obligation to give back.”
That was reinforced by his wife, Cindy.
“I had a talk with Cindy about it,” he recounted. “I told her, ‘Quite frankly, this is going to be very time-consuming and there could be a lot of criticism with it. She said, ‘You owe it to college football. I’ll support you 100 percent. You need to do this.’ I needed to hear that from her, I really did.”
At the behest of Bill Hancock, the executive director of the Bowl Championship Series and the College Football Playoff, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany approached Alvarez last spring about representing the conference on the selection committee. He was interested but wanted to hear more.
“I knew it could be a hassle, I knew there could be issues with it,” Alvarez said. “I listened to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley say there was no way he would go on the committee. He painted a pretty ugly picture of what could happen. But someone has to do it and I feel like I’m qualified.”
Alvarez confided that Foley “did get my antenna up” to the potential fallout.
|“I’ve been committed to college football all my life,” Alvarez said, “and I feel like I have an obligation to give back.”
“Are you asking for it with something like this? Do you need the aggravation?”’ Alvarez posed rhetorically. “In our position as athletic directors, we get enough criticism as it is. We make a lot of decisions and every one you make, you have people who disagree and voice their opinion.”
The more he thought about it, the more he thought “my experience and history lend itself” to this type of selection process -- a four-team playoff -- which will replace the BCS model in 2014.
“We’ve all heard the criticism of the BCS,” Alvarez said of a system that has been in place since 1998. “Yet, in the same respect, the BCS has been the best thing to happen to college football. The interest has never been higher. I believe this four-team playoff will even do more for our sport.”
Alvarez made it clear that serving as Wisconsin’s athletic director “is still my first priority.” As far as any potential conflicts with Badgers games next season, he said, “As I understand it, I won’t miss any. I would not have taken this if I had to be gone every weekend. I couldn’t have done that.”
The selection committee is scheduled to meet in November and Alvarez is hoping to learn more about what kind of access he will have to game films from week to week during the 2014 season.
“I’ll do my due diligence, I’ll do my work,” he pledged.
Breaking down film, after all, was part of his routine as a head coach.
“When I watch a game now, someone sees a great run, I see someone missing a gap responsibility,” Alvarez said. “I remember sitting with a Big Ten athletic director at his team’s bowl game and he said to me, ‘I thought we were watching different games. You saw things I never thought of.’
“That’s the way I was taught, that’s the way I was trained to watch a game. I just don’t sit there and watch the ball. Anyone who sits in my suite (at Camp Randall Stadium) knows that.”
The committee is getting someone who was so instinctive as a college linebacker that “I could turn my back to the line of scrimmage and I could tell you whether it was a run or a pass. I didn’t have to see the linemen coming off the ball as much as I could hear them coming off the ball.”
The committee is getting someone who was so meticulous in his recognition of what he was seeing on film during the week -- and on the field at game speed -- that “I could take advantage of the matchups by knowing the down and distance tendencies and the formation tendencies.”
All of these things -- “Things that I learned at a very young age and I took with me” -- should bode well for someone now entrusted with differentiating between a good team and a very good one. If you think choosing one over the other is a tough business, try hiring and firing coaches.
“That was always very hard to do,” he said. “Picking teams is not quite as personal.”
Alvarez was pleased with the makeup of the College Football Playoff selection committee. He has had dealings in the past with every member except retired Lt. Gen. Michael Gould and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Like many, though, he knows of her sterling reputation.
“The first thing I think about is integrity and honesty and somebody that can make decisions,” Alvarez said of Rice. “I know she’s very interested in football; she’s a very avid fan. I also found out that she grew up in a football household; her father was a football coach, which is huge.
“Unless you’ve grown up that way, you don’t understand the impact that it has on who you are. She understands what winning and losing is. She understands the type of commitment that each coach has to make and how that affects everyone’s life in that family.
“When I was coaching, there was a cloud over our house when we lost and I was vulnerable to my kids when we won. That was the way it was and she knows that. She understands how important this playoff process is and I look forward to working with her. I think she’ll be outstanding.”
University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long is the chairman of the selection committee. He also hired Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin. Asked if that might lead to some awkwardness, Alvarez, who knew Long when he was the AD at Pitt, stressed, “I have no problem with that at all.”
Alvarez also doesn’t have a problem with transparency; a must for the committee, he insisted. “As you go along, it’s important you’re telling people why you made these decisions and why you ranked teams a certain way,” he said. “Everyone is going to have an opinion and you have to let people know.”
To this end, Alvarez can again fall back on his coaching experience from the standpoint of explaining to players what his thinking was behind moves or why they weren’t starting or playing.
“I remember when I had the tough talk with our quarterback, Scott Kavanagh,” he said. “He was a fifth-year senior who had waited his turn to play and now I was moving a freshman (Brooks Bollinger) in front of him. That’s not a fun conversation but you’ve got to do it for the best interest of the team.”
Right now, Alvarez is looking out for what’s best for college football and he couldn’t be prouder to have been chosen as one of the game’s caretakers.
“I’m intrigued; this is a big deal,” he said. “I’m honored to have been asked and I’m honored to be representing the Big Ten on this committee.”