Alvarez savors return to Rose Bowl

MADISON, Wis. -- Barry Alvarez extends his right arm and tugs back the sleeve on his gray sweatshirt to reveal a red and white wristband.

The wristband includes two phrases: "I'm in" and "I'm on."

Alvarez ordered the wristbands shortly after Wisconsin's seniors asked him to coach the team in its upcoming showdown against Stanford in the Rose Bowl game presented by Vizio. Although six assistants have since accepted jobs with other programs, they all assured Alvarez they would remain with the team through the game in Pasadena.

"The coaches, when they put it on, that means you're all-in and you're on," Alvarez said. "The players had to earn it, and when the coaches felt that they were ready, they got one."

Fittingly, the white letters on Alvarez's wristband already are fading a little. He has been all-in at Wisconsin since the school hired him to coach its sputtering football program in January 1990, leading the Badgers for 16 seasons before moving into a full-time athletic director role. And for the past three weeks, Alvarez's on button has been constantly lit.

Head coach Bret Bielema's surprising departure to Arkansas on Dec. 4 set off a whirlwind for Alvarez. His days were filled with the search for a permanent coach, which culminated Thursday with the hiring of Gary Andersen.

Alvarez also oversaw bowl practices and handled his regular duties as athletic director -- a role he has occupied since 2004 -- such as interviewing candidates for Wisconsin's volleyball coach vacancy.

"I can't sleep," said Alvarez, who turns 66 on Dec. 30. "I've just got so many things on my mind. Regardless of what time I go to bed, I wake up at four and can't go back. My newspaper gets there about 5:15. I usually start the day by reading the paper. I may go down and get a workout in. That's when I clear my head a bit.

"Then my day starts, and it's go, go, go. It's just been a nonstop merry-go-round."

He definitely has a presence about him. Any time he's there, guys definitely take notice of that. He's somebody who doesn't need a whole lot of chatter. Whatever he says, guys take it to heart.

--Wisconsin QB Curt Phillips

Despite the hectic pace, Alvarez, who will earn $118,500 for coaching the game, is enjoying the ride. Sure, Bielema's departure caught him off guard, and he wasn't pleased when other coaches (namely Bielema and former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren) aggressively pursued Badgers assistants for their own staffs before Wisconsin could hire its new head man. Alvarez briefly considered coaching the team next season in order to prevent coveted assistants from taking other positions.

But the chance to return to the sideline and prepare Wisconsin for a game in which he enjoyed his greatest triumphs isn't lost on Alvarez, who boasts a 118-73-4 record as Badgers coach, with three Big Ten championships, two Big Ten coach of the year awards and a national coach of the year honor in 1993.

"It's special, it's ridiculous," he said. "That's like the greatest gift anybody could give me, a chance to coach in another Rose Bowl. It's always been special to me. I love it. There's no other feeling."

Alvarez is following the same postseason plan he used while guiding Wisconsin to 11 bowls between 1990-2005. Practices are short but productive -- Friday's workout lasted only about an hour. The game plan is installed before the departure to the bowl site -- the coaches finalized it Saturday, in advance of Tuesday's flight to California.

Linebacker Chris Borland said the team's first few practices under Alvarez were the best of the season.

"We all know that Coach Alvarez is watching," defensive tackle Beau Allen said. "If he comes over by a drill, it's going to pick up in intensity and people are going to get excited."

Alvarez roams the field during practices, not saying much and not needing to.

"He definitely has a presence about him," quarterback Curt Phillips said. "Any time he's there, guys definitely take notice of that. He's somebody who doesn't need a whole lot of chatter. Whatever he says, guys take it to heart."

Added offensive tackle Rob Havenstein: "There's no B.S. with him."

Alvarez regularly attended practices during Bielema's tenure and met many of the players during their recruiting visits. Phillips remembers sitting in Alvarez's office with his family and learning about the success of the program from the man responsible for much of it.

While no introductions are needed between players and their College Football Hall of Fame coach, Alvarez provides enough breathing room.

"I didn't recruit these kids, I wasn't in their homes," he said. "I don't know every kid well enough to jump right in the middle of everything and get after somebody. That would be totally disruptive because I don't have a relationship with them."

He takes a similar approach with the assistants.

"Listen, I can't jump in the middle of game plan," he said. "I haven't invested enough. I fully trusted both coordinators [Matt Canada and Chris Ash]. I told them what I'll do is manage the game. You guys game plan it."

It's more of an administrative role than Alvarez had during his 16 seasons at the helm, but when mistakes are made, the head coach inside him won't hold back.

"I gave them a little lesson today," he said after Friday's practice. "My whole thing was they've got to finish. We haven't finished. We lost five close games. You could win every one of those games, but we didn't finish. We didn't finish today on offense. The defense did a good job. And we hurt ourselves with a bad snap, and a pick. That's the end of the game. You just lost two games. You did!

"Before you win, you've got to stop losing."

The five losses -- by a total of 19 points, three in overtime – represent only some of the challenges Wisconsin has endured this season. From the Aug. 1 attack of star running back Montee Ball in downtown Madison to the September dismissal of offensive line coach Mike Markuson to three different starting quarterbacks to Bielema's surprise exit to the assistants taking other jobs, the Badgers' road to the Rose Bowl has been anything but smooth.

Even after a signature performance in the Big Ten championship, more adversity arrived within 72 hours, when Bielema told Alvarez he was leaving. It's why Alvarez's chief duty is boosting confidence, a quality he has never lacked.

"He just has that swagger to him, the way he walks, talks," Ball said. " … We were all kind of knocked off our feet from Coach B's decision because it was so sudden, and [Alvarez] came and swooped us up, and he's bringing that confidence back to us."

Alvarez showed his swagger during a Dec. 6 news conference at the start of his coaching search, delivering several delicious lines, among them: "I won't use a search committee. Most search committees use me." Allen and his teammates took notice of the news conference and have seen the same attitude from Alvarez at practices.

"I like to think that my confidence rubs off," Alvarez said. "I'm confident. It's a coach's job to give them confidence that they can win the game, so they can go out there and turn it loose."

As the first five-loss team ever to reach the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin is an underdog in the game, which is nothing new for Alvarez. His first two Rose Bowl teams (1993, 1998) were underdogs, and both won. His final Rose Bowl squad (1999) also prevailed, beating Stanford 17-9.

Former USC coaches Howard Jones (5-0) and John Robinson (4-0) are the only coaches to appear in more Rose Bowls than Alvarez without a loss. Alvarez, who also coached in two Rose Bowls as an Iowa assistant, was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009. He's the only coach in Big Ten history to win Rose Bowls in back-to-back seasons.

Those credentials aren't too shabby for a Wisconsin team that has fallen short in each of the past two Rose Bowls.

"He can win the big one," Borland said.

"We don't want to be a blemish on his perfect record," Allen added.

Along with Alvarez's son, Chad, two of Alvarez's grandsons will be on the Badgers' sideline to watch their granddaddy coach one final time in the Granddaddy.

Asked what it will feel like to walk out of the tunnel Jan. 1, Alvarez smiled.

"I've experienced it, so I know what it's going to feel like," he said. "It's going to be special."