MADISON, Wis. – When Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor was a kid, he used to watch the Badgers and dream of playing for Barry Alvarez.
He’s finally getting his wish.
The Badgers are going retro for the Rose Bowl, talking Alvarez – their former football coach-turned athletic director – into returning to the sidelines on New Year’s Day against Stanford after Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas this week.
“It’s the best thing that could happen,” Taylor said Thursday after Alvarez’s return was announced. “He’s familiar with what we do and he built this program. That’s why kids like me come here.”
But this is a one-night-only gig, Alvarez insisted. He’s already looking for a replacement for Bielema, and plans to begin interviewing candidates next week.
“No one likes change, but you can grow through change and there’s opportunity through change,” Alvarez said. “I want the seniors to go out the right way, and I want the young players to understand that I will put a coach in place that they’ll be pleased with.”
It won’t, however, be Paul Chryst.
The first-year Pitt coach was considered the favorite to replace Bielema, a former Badgers offensive coordinator who is from the area, has many ties here and remains a popular figure at Wisconsin. Alvarez pulled some strings to help get Chryst the Panthers job last year, and said it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for him to hire Chryst back such a short time later. Chryst says he is committed to the Panthers, who are preparing for the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 5.
“I think he should be committed to Pitt,” Alvarez said. “I wouldn’t think it would be right for him to leave after one year. I wouldn’t feel right, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to hire him back after I asked someone to do me a favor and help him get that job. So Paul’s going to stay at Pitt.”
But there is no shortage of interest in the job, Alvarez said. His phone was “blowing up” as soon as word spread that Bielema was leaving, and Alvarez said he’s already talked to a few potential candidates. He will not use a search firm, joking that “most search committees use me.”
A current head coach is his preference, though Alvarez would not rule out hiring an assistant. Wisconsin ties are not required, but Alvarez said the new coach needs to be familiar with the program and its history.
“I think anyone that’s competitive understands this is a good job,” Alvarez said. “They’re not going to worry about my legacy or what Bret left behind or anything else. They know this is a good job and they can come in here and continue to win. We’ve got new facilities coming. This is a pretty special place.”
Alvarez is largely to thank for that. Wisconsin was little more than a Big Ten bottom-feeder when Alvarez arrived in 1990. The Badgers had all of six winning seasons from 1964-89, and went 19 years without another bowl appearance after losing to USC in the 1963 Rose Bowl. They were such a sorry bunch that the Wisconsin band’s postgame show was the main attraction at Camp Randall, with students rarely bothering to show up until halftime or later.
But Alvarez came with stingy defense, a power running game and a massive offense line – “those big palookas up front,” he said – that would soon become the standard in both college and the pros. The Badgers had a Big Ten-record 10 straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher under Alvarez, and Ron Dayne became the school’s second Heisman Trophy winner in 1999.
Four years after taking over, Alvarez led the Badgers to a 10-1-1 record, a No. 4 ranking and the 1994 Rose Bowl. Wisconsin has had only two losing seasons since.