A former Nebraska All-Big Eight linebacker is trying to multitask at his athletic director’s desk in Madison, home of one-half of an emerging college football rivalry that’s brewing with Nebraska, his alma mater. Barry Alvarez is laughing because it’s the day after he announced that Wisconsin would play Alabama in a 2015 Labor Day weekend marquee match-up at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Alvarez is laughing because he’s already moved on from the blockbuster announcement that Wisconsin will play Alabama for the first time since the Badgers beat the Crimson Tide 15-0 in 1928. He’s laughing because he’s trying to watch his No. 14 hockey team upset No. 8 Minnesota State, 7-2, and getting ready to pick up Tom Osborne at the airport while finalizing plans to drive to Milwaukee early the next morning, so he can catch a flight to Kansas City and watch his No. 5 seed men’s basketball team get upset by No. 12 seed Mississippi in the NCAA Tournament at the Sprint Center.
At 66, Alvarez can still move fast and tackle anything in front of him. He’s a Big Ten icon who can climb on a stage with Osborne to kick off the 2013 Wisconsin Coaches Association’s annual clinic two weeks after flying to Omaha to be part of a Tribute to Tom major fundraiser. He can pinch-hit as head coach for the Badgers in their 2013 Rose Bowl game against Stanford and be an ally for and a confidant of the most powerful commissioner in college athletics. He can influence a chancellor’s decision on who might succeed a legend like Osborne, and he can raise the flag for Nebraska recruiting at the same time he honors the Wisconsin city that made him famous. Alvarez whirls so fast, we had to catch up with him again Friday just to find out how everything went Thursday. Please join our conversation with one of the top two candidates (Osborne is the other) to represent the Big Ten and serve on the BCS selection committee for a college football playoff that will begin in 2014:
Q: How did Thursday’s session go for two legends?
A: Everything went like clockwork. We sent a plane to Lincoln. I picked up Tom at 3 o’clock at the airport. We had a little lunch, and at 5 o’clock we kicked off the clinic with a Q&A that lasted an hour and 15 minutes. It was awesome. We sat up there and answered every question. I talked about getting into coaching through the high school ranks, and Tom talked about going straight to Bob Devaney’s staff at Nebraska. The coaches loved the format and were very excited to learn from a guy like Tom. He has great wisdom. He really does. He’s won a lot of games and sustained that program for a long time. He has strong beliefs and our coaches thought he shared good information about everything, including Nebraska’s transition to the Big Ten. Tom and Joe Paterno did a similar Q&A about four years ago at the national coaches’ convention in Dallas, and I did the same thing with (former Air Force coach)Fisher DeBerry the next year. Tom and I both like the format, and we were very candid. We covered the gamut, even got into a few philosophical things. We both agreed that when it’s all over, everything comes back to the relationship you have with your players and the way you treat them. We finished the program at 6:30, and I drove him straight to the airport. He probably landed back in Lincoln about 8 o’clock (Central Time). It was a quick, but a fun day.
Q: Speaking of “when it’s all over”, you hired yourself to coach Wisconsin’s Big Ten championship team in the Rose Bowl. Did you give any thought to keeping that job beyond the bowl game, especially since you’re tied with Woody Hayes with the most Rose Bowl wins for a Big Ten coach and the only league coach to win back-to-back Rose Bowls in Pasadena?
A: I did, and I was very serious about it for a while until my wife made me answer a few questions. The experience of going back became very emotional for me. I had some assistant coaches who would be looking for a job. They wanted me to stay. So did all the juniors on the team. They all came in and asked me if I would stay another year. I was getting emotional for the coaches and the players, and I went home and told my wife and Cindy said: “You can’t go back and just coach for one more year because you’d have the same problem the next year. If you’re going to do it, you’d have to do it for three years.” I didn’t want to do that. I was looking at everything emotionally. She thought it through much better than I did.
Q: Let’s talk about the new divisional alignments that everyone seems to embrace, particularly the proposed Western-most division that would include Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin and whoever wins the Purdue-Indiana coin flip to join what some call the farm states. How do you view being in the same division with your alma mater?
A: I like it because it keeps our natural rivalries together. Proximity makes it easier on our fans and you still preserve the competitive balance within and between the divisions. Purdue and Indiana would be the only crossover game needed because everything else makes so much sense. I wanted Wisconsin and Nebraska to be in the same division from the beginning because we were natural rivals, but we couldn’t do that. We’ve developed a rivalry based on the three games we’ve played against each other in the first two years together in the Big Ten. Our people love going to Lincoln, and I think Nebraska people love coming up here. It’s an easy trip both ways. Before expansion, we had to protect our rivalry with Minnesota because it’s the longest running rivalry in college football. We were also opposite Iowa, and our longstanding rivalry with them was very similar. It’s an easy trip for both teams’ fans. We were kind of odd man out the first time. We wanted to be with Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska all along. Competitive equality was the No. 1 priority and six teams separated themselves, so we had to go 3-3. I knew we were going to be displaced that first time around. We didn’t want it, and we didn’t like it, but you have to move forward because sometimes you have to give a little bit. I’m very pleased with the way we’re going now. Our fans will embrace it.”
Q: Nice job getting ‘Bama to open the 2015 season against your Badgers in Dallas. Did the ‘Bama-Michigan opener there last year help the cause?
A: I did talk to (Michigan AD)Dave Brandon about their experience there. Michigan got beat, but the overall experience was good. Their fans loved it, and they thought they were treated right. I thought it was good for us to do something like that, too. If you want to be a player, you have to play games like that.
Q: Can you describe the process it takes to make such a big game?
A: We’ve been working with ESPN, Alabama and the Cowboys. There were lots of pieces to the puzzle, and it worked for everyone. We talked about something like this as a league. We have a commissioner going back to the marketplace for another TV contract, and we all agreed we need to improve our non-conference schedules. When you look at the whole league’s non-conference schedule over the past four years, it’s not very good, not very appealing. Nobody wants those kinds of games in the inventory. So we agreed in principle that after the 2014-’15 season, there would be no more lower-division opponents after that.
Q: What about the expanded divisions? Won’t that necessitate moving from eight to nine Big Ten Conference games a year?
A: If we go to nine conference games, and it appears that’s the way we’ll go because we’re splitting divisions, scheduling gets pretty tough. You schedule at least one BCS Conference game a year and the rest need to be Division I schools. That’s the only way we’re going to improve our league and the only way we’re going to improve the kind of inventory we need for TV contracts. I thought playing Alabama was healthy for everyone. Some years you’re going to have five conference games at home and some years only four. That’s why I started studying the impact of playing neutral site games – because almost all BCS schools are going to want a home-and-home contract. Getting a game like Alabama just once helps you come close to the financial equivalent of what you make for a home game. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that it would be good for the fans and special for our athletes to play in a stadium like the Cowboys play in. Players and fans are the two groups that count the most. If it works out like we think it will work out, we might schedule more one-time games at a neutral site.
Q: I’ll be honest. Most people tell me they were underwhelmed when the Big Ten invited Maryland and Rutgers to join the nation’s oldest conference. How do you view adding them to the league?
A: I’ve thought about it a lot. We could sit here for the rest of our tenure, and it probably wouldn’t bother us. But as population continues to decrease in the Rust Belt and increase in the Eastern Corridor and the Southeast and in Texas and California, it can be a real factor for the league you’re in. When that population shifts, you better be prepared for the consequences. It can hurt you in recruiting and really set you back from the foundation you’ve already built. If we didn’t do something, the day might come when Penn State might step back and say: “What are we doing out here all by ourselves?” This move was for TV sets and the league and BTN. It opens up a lot more for all of us and, in my opinion, protects us for the future. I’m 67, but I have to think long term instead of short term for all those who will be in the Big Ten and want it to remain the best conference in the country. Short term, adding those two schools doesn’t move the needle for some people. Long term, I think, those two make a big difference.
Q: Everyone wonders which major BCS conference will be the first with 16 teams. Might that league be the Big Ten?
A: I can’t talk to that. If you’re asking if we’re looking, I think every conference is always looking. If you’re asking about any specific school, there isn’t any I know of.
Q: Let’s end with a subject that I know you know – Shawn Eichorst. He did a great job as your top aide at Wisconsin. You helped him land the athletic director job at Miami and communicated positive things about him before Harvey Perlman hired him at your alma mater. Any predictions about the new AD at a school you continue to love, honor and appreciate?
A: By now, most people probably know that Shawn tries to stay in the background, but he’ll have his fingerprints on everything. Everywhere he’s been, he puts the spotlight on his coaches and his athletes, and that will never change. He’s a good man and a good leader. I’m glad he’s in our league.