When you ask a random Wisconsin Badgers fan who the greatest football coach in program history is, the usual answer you’re going to get is Barry Alvarez.
And by no means is that a bad response. He’s a modern-day renaissance man by turning around a program that was 6-27 the previous three years under Don Morton before the former Nebraska linebacker got here in 1990.
The Big Ten record during that span was 3-21 with the Badgers getting outscored 756-320 in conference play.
There was no faith in the program, which was highlighted by weak Camp Randall Stadium crowds.
Alvarez got here and immediately injected enthusiasm and passion into a program that hadn’t seen a bowl game since 1984. Alvarez’s main goal was always to win the Big Ten and advance to the Rose Bowl. He never really concerned himself with the national title picture or the voters. And when he was introduced as coach, the much slimmer Alvarez said that people better start getting season tickets now because before long they won’t be able to get any.
And he was right.
After leading the Badgers to Rose Bowls in 1994 and back-to-back trips in 1999 and 2000, he became one of the best turnaround architects in college football history, earning him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
When Alvarez made the full-time move to athletic director 2006, he gave the reins to his defensive coordinator Bret Bielema and a solid program was already in place. Wisconsin isn’t a punchline anymore and it can go into any living room in the country and get instant recognition from kids and parents.
Which is why Bielema had to be a little different. Alvarez and Bielema would take strolls around Lake Mendota a year before Bielema was head coach and Alvarez would give him coaching morsels to digest.
Alvarez may have built the program back from rubble but now its Bielema’s turn to perfect it into a work of art.
Which is why the answer undoubtedly is Bielema.
He understands that in this crazy BCS world of human and computer polls, he’s got to put the ball in the end zone as often as possible. That may not sit well with everyone but let’s face it, that’s just too bad. Human voters will always give a nod to a team that can throw 60 or more on the scoreboard — a feat that Bielema’s boys did three times last year, including an 83-point outburst at the hands of Indiana.
Also, with the help of quarterback Russell Wilson, the entire culture could be changing at Wisconsin. The Badgers will always be known as a tough, physical team but when a talent like Wilson chooses the Badgers, who have been known for their plodding style, many talented pass-happy quarterbacks aren’t going to be as apt to say no to Madison. When a guy like Wilson turns down Auburn, who won the national title and started a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, Wisconsin instantly becomes more attractive.
They see the kind of time he gets behind the huge offensive line and wonder what it would be like to throw darts to receivers without being touched.
Bielema has changed Wisconsin from a solid and respected Big Ten school to a nasty national powerhouse that nobody wants to play.
But Alvarez and Bielema still have a lot of the same philosophies. Alvarez modeled his walk-on program to that of Nebraska and made sure that all the Wisconsin kids stayed in state.
Bielema still believes in that as evidenced by sophomore wideout Jared Abbrederis. The walk-on is averaging over 16 yards a reception and is 66th in the nation with 328 receiving yards — and that includes the season-opener in which he was held without a catch.
Alvarez will always be know as the ‘Father of the Motion W’ but with the way Bielema has cranked up this team and lured in an entire nation with a roster full of playmakers on offense, the only place for Bielema to go now is the school’s first national title game.