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He’s never publicly acknowledged this, but Barry Alvarez turned down the head football coaching job at Miami three times, and he rejected the head coaching job once at Oklahoma.
It takes some character to make those kinds of decisions, but Alvarez is, after all, a Nebraskan at heart, so don’t be so surprised.
“I feel like this is my home state . . . I really do,” said Alvarez, the former Wisconsin head football coach and now the school’s athletic director who roamed the hallways at the Nebraska athletic complex Friday afternoon before addressing 800 coaches Friday night at the 2009 Nebraska Football Coaches Clinic.
The Barry Alvarez Success Story should sound fairly familiar to any captive audience.
“Almost everything we did at Wisconsin, we stole from Nebraska, including the fabled walk-on program,” said Alvarez, who has Wisconsin’s best all-time winning percentage and the school’s highest winning percentage ever in bowl games.
How did he do it?
“I used the Nebraska blueprint,” he said. “We analyzed what we could do and what we could consistently have, and then we implemented our strategy. First, we kept the best in-state kids at home. Then we recruited the best players we could recruit to be a very physical, run-oriented team. And, finally, when we realized no one in the Big Ten was doing what Nebraska was doing with walk-ons, we went after it.”
Wisconsin went after it in a way big enough to impress both Bob Devaney, Alvarez’s head coach at Nebraska, and Tom Osborne, Devaney’s successor who perfected the nation’s best walk-on program.
Walk-Ons: The Ultimate Recruiting Erasers
“Walk-ons were a big key to my success and still are to our program,” Alvarez said. “For all the mistakes we make in recruiting, walk-ons are our erasers.”
Like they have for the Huskers, walk-ons kept the Badgers consistent and productive. “When I was coaching, we’d bring 20 to 25 walk-ons in every year,” Alvarez said. “At least four or five of those walk-ons would turn out to be really good players. In the 16 years I was head coach, we probably awarded scholarships to about 140 walk-on players . . . at least eight or nine a year.”
A few of his walk-ons would earn scholarships fairly early. Some didn’t earn them until their third, fourth or fifth year – “another idea I stole from Nebraska that kept players motivated and working hard with an end goal in mind,” Alvarez said.
The big exception to the rule was Jim Leonhard, a walk-on from tiny Tony, Wis. “He was a little safety that no one recruited,” Alvarez said. “By his second year, he was leading the Big Ten in punt returns and still wasn’t on scholarship. We got him on scholarship in a hurry after that.”
And where’s Jim Leonhard now? “In his fifth year in the NFL,” Alvarez said. “He just signed a big contract with the New York Jets. Rex Ryan, his defensive coordinator when he was with the Ravens, is now in New York.”
As great as that walk-on story is, it’s not even close to his favorite walk-on story ever. “That would have to be Trey (Langston) Coleman – the first walk-on Bob Devaney ever had,” Alvarez said. “He was one year ahead of me and came out of nowhere from Washington, D.C. He claims to have hitch-hiked and taken bus rides to get to Lincoln, but I’m pretty sure he hopped a box car or two to get to Lincoln.”
In High School, Coleman Was a Drop-In, Not a Drop-Out
The player Alvarez calls “Nebraska’s original walk-on” is a punch-line, too. “Trey enjoyed telling people that in high school, he wasn’t a drop-out – he was a drop-in. We always laughed at that one, but few knew how literal that really was. I mean, he came right off the streets of D.C.”
Alvarez remembers Coleman living at the Downtown YMCA for $2 a night when he first arrived in Lincoln. “We used to kid Trey that the only clothes he ever wore were the ones he got out of the laundry every day in the equipment room,” Alvarez recalled. “When he came here, it was do-or-die. He had to make it, and he wasn’t going to let anyone stop him from making it.”
The funniest story of all is relating how Coleman first got on the field. “This is a true story, and one of my absolute all-time favorite stories,” Alvarez said. “When Trey was a sophomore, they only had one college football game a week on television, and one week it was Nebraska at Minnesota in 1964. We were in the last year of the two-platoon system at the time, so there was a little confusion out there now and then.”
Coleman was getting antsy when it didn’t look like he was going to play, so his friends could see him back home on TV. Finally, All-America teammate Freeman White convinced Coleman to run out on the field – on his own accord – to substitute for Chuck Doepke. “Freeman got Trey all fired up, and so he finally just went in and made a couple of quick plays,” Alvarez recalled.
A while later, White convinced Coleman to run onto the field again – on his own – for Doepke. “This time, Trey really lights up the field on defense,” Alvarez said. “He ends up being our Player of the Game, the Sophomore of the Year in the conference, and he never sat on the bench again that year or the next two years. You couldn’t keep him off the field, not even the coaches. No one messed around with Trey at practice either. Ask Tony Jeter. He was always baiting Trey, and once, Tony got his head bashed in. Obviously, he never antagonized him again.
“I had a lot of respect for Trey Coleman,” Alvarez said. “He was truly one of those self-made guys, and we ended up working together at the Job Corps one summer. I came to Nebraska from Burgettstown, Pa., and Tony from D.C. We learned how to work, and we learned how to study. That’s what’s always made Nebraska so successful – the way they teach you how to reach your potential in football and everything else in life. They let you know it’s all up to you.”
The Ultimate Rags-to-Riches Walk-On Story
Last fall, Nebraska’s School of Nutrition and Health Sciences honored Alvarez, but he said Coleman is the one still deserving of academic recognition.
“Trey’s the guy who really kept after it,” he said. “He turned into a very serious student late in his career and has had his doctorate degree for many years. He’s the best rags-to-riches walk-on story I’ve ever known. I love talking to Trey. He’d call me whenever we’d make the Rose Bowl. It’s nice that after all these years, we still stay in touch.”
For Alvarez, a former All-Big Eight linebacker who finished his four-year Husker career before he was 22, the laughs come easy, and the memories never fade.
“I idolized Bob Devaney. I really did,” Alvarez said. “I tried to emulate everything he did, even to the point of becoming an athletic director after being a football coach. I tried to pattern my career after him in every way possible.”
Like Devaney, Alvarez got into coaching for the love, not the money. That’s why he bypassed offers from Miami and Oklahoma. Nebraska was, is and continues to be the benchmark program for him.
“I love Nebraska,” Alvarez said. “Why else would I agree to be in one of Nebraska’s recruiting videos? Whenever anyone asks me where I went to school, I tell them, very, very proudly, that ‘I went to school at Nebraska, and I played for the Huskers.’”
Alvarez and his wife, Cindy, lived in Lincoln 10 years. “Every time I come here, I feel like I’m coming home,” he said.
After graduating from Nebraska, he worked two years for the Lincoln Police Department before teaching and coaching for four years at Lincoln Northeast High School.
The next stop was two years at Lexington, followed by three at Mason City, Iowa, then eight more on Hayden Fry’s staff at Iowa.
Alvarez spent three years with Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, the first as a linebacker coach and the last two years as the defensive coordinator on teams that lost only one game.
Melton and Devaney Mentored Alvarez
John Melton, the coach who recruited Alvarez to Nebraska from his own hometown, was also the one who encouraged him to “make a name for himself outside of Nebraska.” Devaney told Alvarez to set a goal of becoming a Division I head coach by the age 42 – the same age Devaney was when he began his head coaching career at Wyoming.
“I missed that goal by one day,” said Alvarez, 62, and as active as ever.
Like Devaney, Alvarez is a good story-teller. Because of that ability and because he’s the only Big Ten coach ever to win the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons, Alvarez has been an analyst on the Fox TV team for two of the last three Bowl Championship Series telecasts.
He’s also one of the chairs of the NCAA’s Football Academic Enhancement Group, which was formed to review and recommend improvements for the APR rating. “Part of my Nebraska background, my Nebraska training and my Nebraska commitment,” he said. He’s also on the NCAA’s Football Rules Committee and the NCAA’s Infractions Committee.
He’s a busy man and a family man. Brad Ferguson, a former Husker letterman linebacker (from Chadron) in 1987 and ’88, came to Lincoln this weekend with Alvarez, his father-in-law.
On Saturday, Scott Raridon, another former Husker letterman lineman who played on Alvarez’ state high school championship team in Mason City, Iowa, will pick up the Wisconsin athletic director and his son-in-law in Lincoln and fly them to Detroit for the NCAA Final Four.
Life is good for a man who recently signed a new five-year contract as AD.
“Everything I ever accomplished can be traced right back here to Nebraska,” Alvarez said. “That’s why it’s such an honor to come here every time we get the chance.”