Dec. 8, 2012
• Related: Badgers hand out awards at team banquet
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- As the leadoff hitter/speaker, Wisconsin Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez was the table-setter for Friday night’s football awards banquet at Union South. Like he has done all week since agreeing to coach the team in the Rose Bowl, the 65-year-old Alvarez swung from the heels and spoke from the heart.
“I wasn’t planning on being up here,’’ Alvarez conceded of his pinch-hitting role for Bret Bielema, who announced Tuesday that he was leaving the Badgers for the head coaching job at Arkansas. “But let me tell you, I’m absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to coach this football team.’’
A year ago, Bielema changed the format of the banquet to be more intimate. In addressing the “family’’ gathering -- which included recruits -- Alvarez reminded everyone that “this is a night to honor a group of seniors and what they’ve done and accomplished here in their career.’’
While acknowledging the “utmost respect’’ that he has for the players, Alvarez spoke directly to the 2012 season when he said, “I don’t know if I’ve been around a team that has gone through as much adversity and dealt with it and handled it and played so consistently.’’
Lesser teams, he suggested, would have buckled under the weight of three overtime losses. Citing Bielema’s patented “1-0” philosophy for the focus that the Badgers played with every Saturday, he said, “You saw that on the field. You saw the resilience. You saw the toughness.’’
Those are the type of things, he noted, that fans have grown accustomed to seeing. “That’s what this program is built on,’’ said Alvarez, the architect. Alluding to his 16 years on the sidelines coaching the Badgers, he added, “That’s how we started this program. And this team exemplifies that.’’
Alvarez’s love for the Rose Bowl environment has been well-documented. Friday night, he encouraged the players to take full advantage of the experience. “But,’’ he said, “when it’s time to practice, I want 100 percent concentration and 100 percent effort and preparation.’’
Earlier in the day, Alvarez met with the team.
“You’re kind of blown away because you’ve never really sat in a room with a legend and had him working with you,’’ said linebacker Chris Borland. “He talked about our practice plan and how we’re going to move forward. Guys came away understanding what our purpose is.’’
It’s obviously been an emotional and challenging week for everyone.
“It’s kind of the best of the best and the worst of the worst,’’ Borland said. “Last Saturday was incredible (the 70-31 win over Nebraska) and we were on a high for a few days. And then we were brought down to earth (with Bielema’s departure). It’s kind of been a roller coaster.’’
The Badgers will return to the practice field Saturday and Sunday.
“We’re fully focused and we’re all together,’’ Borland said. “Right now, we’re all focusing on practicing tomorrow for the first time since the game (in Indianapolis). I think everybody’s heads are in the right place. He (Alvarez) just kind of laid out things for us. It was a great meeting.’’
Regarding the uncertainty over who will replace Bielema on a permanent basis, Borland said, “Coach Alvarez is the athletic director and that’s going to bode well. You can really trust the leadership in this athletic department, and I know we’re going to have a great coach, no matter who it is.’’
UW linebackers coach Andy Buh, for one, is looking forward to working for another Hall of Fame head coach. Before joining Bielema’s staff this season, Buh was the defensive coordinator at Nevada under Chris Ault, the only active coach to have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Until now, of course. Alvarez was a member of 2010 induction class.
“I’m excited as all get-out,’’ Buh said, “to be able to walk the sidelines with Coach Alvarez.’’
Buh has another unique perspective: he coached three seasons (2007-09) at Stanford. “If you put a blueprint up (on the wall), ours next to theirs, it would be real similar,’’ said Buh, listing the similarities in the “style of play, the type of kids they recruit and the physical, fundamental philosophy.’’
Buh, and all of the Wisconsin assistants, are in an understandably tough spot or predicament. Some may catch on with Bielema in Fayetteville. Most are in limbo. Earlier in the week, Alvarez said that he could sympathize with them knowing how difficult such a transition can be, especially given the unknowns.
“I know they have to protect themselves, they have families,’’ Alvarez said. “I can’t promise that I have anything for them here (at Wisconsin). But they’re all solid through the bowl game. They’ll finish up this season for these kids. That’s all I can ask of them.’’
How has Buh personally handled the situation? “You don’t worry about things that you can’t control,’’ he said. “You just come to work every day with a great attitude. I’ve found that if you do that, good things happen. So that’s what we’re going to do.’’
Added tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner, “We’ve got character guys on this staff that will do what they need to do. We owe it to the kids to prepare them well for the Rose Bowl.’’
Both UW coordinators expressed their gratitude to their “kids’’ during the awards banquet.
“To the players, what a great honor it was to have coached you,’’ said offensive coordinator Matt Canada. “Everybody talks about the year -- the ups and downs. The great thing about this place, and I said it the day I got here, is the players and the way you work and grind and come together.’’
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash referenced the “unbelievably wild journey ‘’ before telling the players, “There were a lot of highs and lows. But you guys showed up to work every single day. You’re coachable. You believe in the plan. You stayed together, and last Saturday was your reward.’’
Since Faulkner was a running back for Alvarez, what message will he send to his players about their Rose Bowl coach? “Just listen to him,’’ he said, “and do what he says. He’s got the plan down.’’
There’s no mistaking the Alvarez plan, either.
“Our number one goal,’’ he reiterated, “is to go out there and win another Rose Bowl.’’
He put special emphasis on “another.’’ He’s 3-for-3 in Pasadena.
In his closing remarks, Alvarez reached out to everyone in the room Friday night.
“Lastly,’’ he said, “let me promise all of you -- the players and their parents and the recruits -- we will not take a step back in this program. I will bring someone in here to lead this program that will continue the success and take you to higher heights. I owe that to all of you.
“We put it here, and I will not let it take a step backward. You can mark that sucker down.’’