Editor's note: This is the second in a series of 10 N-Sider columns that will count down Nebraska's journey to become an official member of the Big Ten Conference on July 1, 2011. This column focuses on Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, who was an All-Big Eight linebacker at Nebraska in 1967. The Countdown to the Big Ten series will culminate with an N-Sider on Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany on July 1.
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Q: Now that everything has soaked in and your alma mater is joining the Big Ten Conference, what does that mean to you personally and what do you think it means for Nebraska?
A: I'm really eager to see the dynamics of this play out. I've watched Nebraska from afar the last several years. I'm not as close to the program as I was years ago, but I'm really looking forward to seeing Nebraska up close and personal, so I can rub shoulders with some old friends again and be competitive with them. Everybody I've talked to in the Big Ten is very excited. I haven't heard one negative thing about Nebraska coming into the league. Everybody realizes how much Nebraska strengthens our league, and everybody knows what a great brand they bring to our league.
Q: How would you describe that brand and why is the Big Ten welcoming Nebraska with such open arms?
A: You talk about brand. The brands in our league are Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State. If you're Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, you hate to admit that, but it is what it is. You throw Nebraska right in there with those other three schools and we have four national brands in the same conference. They've all won national championships. They all have great fan support, and they all have well-rounded athletic programs. That's why people call them traditional powerhouses - because they have their own style of play, they play in huge stadiums, and they have the whole package.
Q: You said you want to rub shoulders again with Nebraska, and that's exactly what you'll do when Wisconsin hosts Nebraska in its first ever Big Ten game. You're a competitive guy. Isn't your idea of rubbing shoulders inviting Nebraska in for a night game where they can't hear, so you can pull down the curtain and say: "Welcome to the Big Ten!"
A: (hearty laughter here from the former Husker All-Big Eight linebacker) Well, whenever I played my brother in pick-up basketball, I never wanted to lose. I mean, everyone's a competitor. In this business, you better want to compete or be good at it or you won't last very long. You know, we will host Nebraska, and we will be gracious hosts, yet I'm sure our guys will try to give Nebraska their very best shot, and I'm sure Nebraska will try to do the very same thing. That's what athletics is all about. I will say that I've already invited Tom Osborne to speak at my luncheon on the Friday before the game, and he has accepted that invitation. He will be traveling with a big group of donors on a special road trip, and we are inviting that whole group to attend the luncheon. Tom, Bret Bielema (Wisconsin's head football coach) and I will speak that day. It will be a nice kickoff to an historic weekend. It should be fun for everyone. The luncheon's a block-and-a-half from the stadium, and Nebraska is hosting its alumni functions in that same general area.
Q: Bret Bielema publicly expressed how he wanted Nebraska to be Wisconsin's designated cross-divisional rival, but that didn't happen. Penn State is Nebraska's cross-divisional rival, and Minnesota is Wisconsin's. Would you have preferred that Wisconsin play Nebraska every year?
A: Well, that would have been hard for us to do just because a lot of people were upset that we weren't going to play Minnesota and Iowa every year. We had to keep one of our annual trophy games, and we've been playing Minnesota for the Paul Bunyan Ax since 1890. We've played 120 games in that series, and as Joel Maturi (Minnesota's Director of Athletics) said, we'd probably both get fired if we didn't protect that game.
Q: Understand that logic completely. So what do you think about Nebraska and Penn State playing every year?
A: I think that game makes sense because there's a history there. Both schools have had great teams and legendary coaches and some great games against each other. That's a great cross-divisional rivalry right there.
Q: Nebraska fans are pretty high on Jim Delany, your commissioner. What's your take on his style of leadership?
A: I'm close to Jim. I consider him a very good friend. He came into the league just a few months before I did, so we've been together through this whole thing. In fact, when I was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, I asked Jim to introduce me.
Q: When Delany made the decision to pursue Nebraska as a member, how much did he lean on you since you're so well versed on your alma mater's culture and tradition - enough so that you've even been featured in Husker recruiting films?
A: He didn't really lean on me or rely on me, but I could see this coming. Jim asked me a lot of questions about Nebraska after the Rose Bowl a year ago last January. Before that, Nebraska's name had not even surfaced ... ever. The more he asked me, the more I told him. Jim's a great listener, and he's always asking the right questions. First and foremost, he wanted to know: Does Nebraska do things the right way? Are they legitimate? Do they have a broad-based program? How do they run the university? How do they run the Athletic Department? Jim is like a sponge. He's interested in everything that's relevant. The more Jim asked me, the more this whole thing made sense to me. Remember, Missouri was trying to make a strong run at the time. Rutgers was trying to make a strong run. Other schools in the East had the same interest to join our league. The more Jim and I talked, the more obvious it became to me that the Big Ten and Nebraska would be a good fit. The next morning I flew home and just happened to get a call from Tom (Osborne) asking similar questions about the Big Ten. I could sense that there may be some interest there, too, not even knowing if the Big Ten might have any interest. I told Tom I knew there might be interest because I had talked to the commissioner the night before. I explained to him how things might work. I gave him Jim's number and suggested he get in touch with him. That was more or less me being the conduit between the two. There were a lot of things that would need to be worked out between the league and Nebraska, and I wasn't involved in any part of that. I was just appreciative to play a very small role in it all, and I'm very pleased that Nebraska is in our league because I think it was the best team out there and the school that brought the most to the table. If you're going to expand, both sides want the best possible outcome, and we all were very fortunate to get it.
Q: Put yourself in the shoes of a Husker fan. What do you think is going to be the most exciting thing about Nebraska coming into the Big Ten, and what's it going to be like at some of these huge venues around the league?
A: I've always felt that Nebraska's fans may be the most knowledgeable fans in the country. I've seen it, and you've seen it many times. If someone goes in there and plays a good game, they appreciate that and show their appreciation. So many times, you see opposing fans harass the team leaving the field. You never see that at Nebraska. Even if they lose, Nebraska fans are out there congratulating the team that beat them because they know how hard it is to do that. You don't find that anywhere else, and a big part of that is how much they understand the game. When you come into our league, you're going to see some very rabid fans. When you go the Horseshoe in Columbus, there will be over 100,000 fans that also live and die football. Football is very important in Columbus, Ohio, and throughout the state of Ohio. You've already been to Penn State, but they're also well over 100,000 people now with miles and miles of motor homes tailgating two nights and two days before the game. It gets loud in there, and we haven't even talked about the Big House in Ann Arbor. Just like Nebraska, it reeks of tradition the minute you walk in there because they're so good historically. And don't forget Iowa City. Even though it's a smaller venue, I've always felt that Iowa was one of the toughest places to play in the league because their fans are seated right behind your bench. They can hear you talking to your players on the bench and vice versa. They can play games with your players' heads if you let 'em. That's a tough, tough place to play. Their people get into it. I'll say this. The Big Ten has the biggest stadiums, and this is a very physical league. By the time we played Iowa last year, we had lost six starters and our top two tailbacks. You're going to get beat up in this league, so you need a lot of depth to get through it. Bo Pelini played in this league. He knows how important depth is, and I'm sure he'll have his team prepared for the physical grind.
Q: As an AD, you rub shoulders with your alums. Are they as excited about Nebraska joining the Big Ten as you are?
A: They're excited because they think Nebraska will strengthen our league. Our fans are very excited about hosting Nebraska in their first conference game. Even before Nebraska, our TV footprint was bigger than any in the country. We're all big universities in the Big Ten. We have alumni everywhere, and that's a big reason why we've been able to get such good TV contracts. Over the years, the success that Nebraska has had in football, has created Nebraska fans all over the country. I've met and know a lot of people that are Nebraska fans even though they have no connection to Nebraska other than the football team. They've just always liked Nebraska and the style of play they have. That's why they follow Nebraska. I always think of Californians for Nebraska. There are so many of them, and they can't all be alums. You just see that. People follow Nebraska. What Bob and Tom built there by winning those national championships is really impressive. They built a traditional powerhouse, and that goes a long ways, much like a Michigan, an Ohio State ... Southern Cal, Texas, Penn State. Those schools are all historically strong. They're football "names". They carry weight, and they draw fans wherever they go and whoever they play. People just naturally follow all of those teams nationally.
Q: Bob Devaney was your mentor, both as a football coach and as an athletic director. Don't you think he'd really be proud that Nebraska is now in the Big Ten and in the same division as his old stomping ground at Michigan State? What would Bob think of all of this, including you being the AD at Wisconsin?
A: I think Bob would be very pleased and very proud. I had people tell me - people that would know - that Bob would have liked Nebraska to have played in the Big Ten Conference. Back in his day, he always scheduled Big Ten teams - Minnesota, Wisconsin, anybody. Having grown up in Michigan and coached at Michigan State, I think he always identified with the Big Ten.
Q: The countdown continues. Nebraska is ready to go to the very roots of the man who put Nebraska on the national college football map. It almost seems unreal that it's finally going to happen. People are tired of waiting.
A: You don't hear anything about the Leaders and Legends anymore. People just want to get back into football, I think. Everybody's reading the magazines to see who has who and who has what. It'll be here before you know it.
Q: When is your official ceremony to enter the College Football Hall of Fame?
A: Enshrinement is July 14-16 (in South Bend, Ind.). I'm honored, and I'm humbled.
Q: Be honest now. Is there any tougher place in the Big Ten for Nebraska to begin a new era than Camp Randall?
A: I'll tell you, our place will be tough to play, especially at night. Over the years, we've played well at night here. Our fans get into it. They're known for the "Jump Around" and have been since October of '98 when we played Drew Brees and Purdue. It was a night game, and Brees broke an NCAA record with 83 passing attempts. He completed 55 and set another NCAA record, so it was pretty electric that night. It was a heckuva game. We beat 'em, 31-17. There was this fraternity guy from New York that claims to have started it all. They played Jump Around, and he started jumping, then the guy next to him started jumping and before you knew it, the whole student section was jumping around. The place went crazy. Ever since that game, our students do the Jump Around at the end of the third quarter. Actually, it's not just the students anymore. The whole stadium - or everyone except the visiting fans - jumps around. It's fun to watch. It really is. When they hit that first beat, every coach that comes in here has his team prepared for that moment. Sometimes, you'll see the whole team on the visiting side look at our student section. If the coach hasn't prepared them properly, the team will start jumping around. It's kind of a neat dynamic - one that separates us from everyone else.
Q: Last question. You've played at one venue and coached at the other. How does Camp Randall in Madison compare to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln?
A: I know how great Memorial Stadium is and why it's been sold out more than 300 consecutive games since Coach Devaney arrived in 1962. But I've also heard a lot of people say Camp Randall could be as good a venue - and as good an atmosphere - as anyplace they've ever been. Nebraska fans will love coming in here and watching their team play in this stadium. They know they're going to get our best shot, and I'm sure we'll get theirs, too.
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Voices from Husker Nation
Great story on Coach Alvarez. I've got to tell ya, I am a Nebraska boy through and through, and I am German and Sicilian. I believe the greatest American citizens in our nation reside in the Midwest. God Bless the American citizens in the Midwest and thanks for a great story, Randy. Coach Alvarez is an outstanding leader, and I love him to death. Donald Funkhouser, US Marine Forces Europe, Stuttgart, Germany
Barry Alvarez appears to be so much like his mentor, Bob Devaney. He doesn't beat around the bush. He just says what's in his heart, and that's why Husker fans I know have always had a soft spot for Barry, even when he was coaching under Hayden Fry and Lou Holtz. Those two were successful coaches and good teachers, but Devaney was the ultimate role model. He hired great people and let them do what they do best. Listening to Alvarez, it sounds like that's what he did. What a straight shooter and what a motivator! If Wisconsin beats Nebraska in Madison, all I can say is tickets for a rematch in Indianapolis would go straight through the roof. I realize that's assuming a lot, but I wouldn't bet against it. Good luck, Barry, to you, your head coach, your school and those "Jump Around" fans of yours. Can't wait to watch that first Big Ten game on TV when all those great Badger running backs try to run right at your old Blackshirts. Could be a classic. David Edwards, Omaha, Nebraska
Loved this N-Sider on Barry Alvarez. How refreshing it is to hear someone say what he actually thinks and believes. No wonder he became the winningest coach in Wisconsin history. Steve Williams, Scottsdale, Arizona
Thanks for all the great editorials and video on Barry Alvarez. It means a lot when a Hall of Fame coach and a Big Ten athletic director says that everything he ever accomplished can be traced back to Nebraska. That's why most of us will be rooting for Wisconsin every game this year except one. I just want to say one more thing. It's okay if the Badgers jump around after the third quarter. We just want to be the ones jumping around when the game's over. Nevertheless, good luck, Barry - you're one of Nebraska's best ambassadors ever! Susan Sanders, Omaha, Nebraska
Great Q&A on Alvarez. Great column on the way he copied Nebraska's walk-on program, too. Had never heard that one. Keep up the good work. Gary Green, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I thought of an interesting link between your columns on Bill Hancock and Barry Alvarez. Hancock said Devaney was successful because he cherished every relationship, no matter how important the other person was. Alvarez didn't say that, but I've talked to people who knew him when he coached at Lincoln Northeast and Lexington, and they tell me that he was just like that. He treated everyone with respect, and to this day, he keeps in touch with "the little guys" who were part of his Nebraska experiences. Kevin Herman, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Loved the article on Barry Alvarez. Can't wait for the upcoming football season to begin. Wish I could afford to go to that game in Wisconsin! Mike Wuerth, Omaha, Nebraska
I remember the fireworks and the videos after Nebraska's 300th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium. The big board showed tributes from Bobby Bowden, Keith Jackson and others, but as we sat there, we all said, no one's congratulations means more than Barry Alvarez's because he played here, and he knows why there is no place like Nebraska. Thank you, Barry, for staying true to Nebraska, even though you did for 'Wisconsin what Bob Devaney did for Husker Nation - create statewide passion for the football program. Congratulations on making the Hall of Fame! You deserve it. Kyle Anderson, Dallas, Texas