Roach: Jump Around
One thing will be missing this year. For the first time in three decades, Barry Alvarez won’t have a formal role on Madison Saturdays.
With the assumption that the Delta variant can be held at bay, this could be a very interesting season at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers boast talented players and a veteran coaching staff, all itching to make a statement after a preceding season that was memorable only for head coach Paul Chryst affixing a COVID-19 mask to his face with scotch tape.
It was vintage Chryst; long on effectiveness, short on fashion.
But one thing will be missing this year. For the first time in three decades, Barry Alvarez won’t have a formal role on Madison Saturdays.
This is worthy of reflection.
The last game played before Alvarez’s arrival was a Wisconsin loss to Michigan State on Nov. 25, 1989. The Badgers scored three points. Michigan State scored 31. There were 29,776 fans in attendance, which means only every third seat had a butt in it. Most left early. Having attended that game, I can describe the experience in one word: desolate.
Since that day, the University of Wisconsin Athletics department has undergone one of the most remarkable transformations in the history of college sports. The reason? Alvarez’s teams started winning football games. The nearly 50,000 seats that were rumpless in November 1989 were filled for the next 30 years.
The way Alvarez won was remarkable to witness. First, he wasn’t homegrown. He arrived with fresh eyes, and what he saw wasn’t pretty. He was ruthlessly honest about what was lacking in the culture of the football administration offices on Monroe Street and immediately set about changing it.
Alvarez brought swag, brashness and bravado to a program that had none.
Think about it. Before Alvarez arrived, the most interesting thing at Badgers games was a fat plumber from Portage in drag descending from the stands to dance with the pom pom girls. After his arrival, the most interesting thing became his teams.
Did his style rub some folks the wrong way? Sure. Did Alvarez care? Nope. In some ways, that was the real beauty of it. He disrupted a frumpy program that needed disruption.
Alvarez crafted a simple vision of how he could win and then adhered to it with unblinking consistency. And then, unlike the vast majority of coaches hired for college programs, he delivered.
Alvarez’s teams were physically stronger than their opponents. He found massive, homegrown Wisconsin boys to make holes for quick, strong running backs to fly through all day long. Sure, they threw the occasional pass, but at its heart Alvarez’s game was a war of attrition. His plan wasn’t particularly complicated, but when applied with discipline by athletes who were true believers it was witheringly effective.
And so the wins piled up as the stadium filled. Before becoming athletic director, Alvarez and his teams went to three Rose Bowls and won all of them. The winning became so contagious that even the moribund men’s basketball team started to win. Over time, Wisconsin boasted one of the best one-two punches of revenue-producing programs in the country. Better yet, the wins came without tarnishing the gleam of the university’s academic reputation.
The success that began on the field also transformed the campus and the city. UW facilities became competitive in the arms race that is big-time college sports. Madison’s hotels, restaurants and taverns became full-on football Saturday spots and have remained so. That cha-ching sound you hear on game day is $5 for a can of Miller Lite hitting the register’s till again and again and again.
As the wins accumulated, Madison became known as one of the best college football venues in the nation. If not THE best. Folks in Madison and around the state felt like winners for the first time since before Vince Lombardi packed up his trench coat and blew town.
Football isn’t everything. It has issues regarding the health of its players. But when done right, it is a celebration of community unmatched in our culture. That is what Alvarez brought to Madison.
This fall, as the stadium fills, the crowd roars and “Jump Around” begins, it might be worth remembering something.
The reason you’re jumping is Barry Alvarez.
John Roach, a Madison-based screenwriter and producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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