MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin is going retro for the Rose Bowl.
Left without a coach when Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas, the Badgers asked former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez to lead them when they face No. 8 Stanford on New Year's Day.
“We wouldn't want anyone else but coach Alvarez to coach us in this game,” linebacker Mike Taylor said Thursday. “Kids like me, growing up in Wisconsin, you watched him on the sidelines and you always dreamed of playing for him.”
The return is for one game only, Alvarez said. He's already started the search for a new coach, and plans to begin interviewing candidates next week.
“I don't want this to be about me,” Alvarez said. “I want it to be about the players. I want to give them as good an opportunity to win the Rose Bowl as we possibly can.”
Bielema's departure was a shock, coming just three days after Wisconsin earned a school-record third straight trip to the Rose Bowl with a 70-31 rout of then-No. 14 Nebraska in the Big Ten championship. Alvarez, in fact, had no idea Bielema was even talking to the Razorbacks until Bielema told him Tuesday morning he was leaving.
As the news filtered down to the Badgers, they immediately knew who they wanted as their interim coach.
“Originally, it didn't really cross my mind as far as the option of him stepping in,” quarterback Curt Phillips said. “But as we got together and talked as a group, once it was brought up, it was something everyone was extremely excited about. ... For us, there couldn't be a better opportunity than to have coach Alvarez step in here, someone who's had success at this stage. Guys are extremely excited to play for him. He's someone guys can definitely rally around.”
Alvarez said his phone was “blowing up” after Bielema's departure was announced, including two calls from a Green Bay number that he didn't recognize. Turns out that was Taylor, saying the Badgers wanted him to be their coach.
“I told him I would be honored to coach them,” Alvarez said. “I wanted them to understand, if I was going to coach them, we weren't going to screw around, We were going to go out there to win.”
Alvarez's 118-73-4 record in 16 seasons coaching the Badgers includes a 3-0 mark in the Rose Bowls — Wisconsin's only victories in eight trips to Pasadena. He was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009.
“He's never lost a Rose Bowl, so were kind of hoping he can shed some light on that for us. Because we've had some struggles the last couple of years,” Phillips said.
Having Alvarez as their coach means little disruption for the Badgers, and even fewer distractions. Though he stepped down as head coach following the 2005 season, he's remained an integral part of the football program as Wisconsin's athletic director and players are familiar and comfortable with him.
“He's at every practice watching and observing,” Taylor said.
The Badgers won't have to adapt to a new coaching style — Alvarez hand-picked Bielema as his successor — and the assistants won't have the pressure of a one-game audition.
The chance to see Alvarez on the sidelines one more time is sure to entice some alums and boosters into making trips to the Rose Bowl, too. Wisconsin supporters will always appreciate Alvarez, who took a program that was little more than a laughingstock for three decades and turned it into one of the Big Ten's top teams. Wisconsin had five straight losing seasons before Alvarez arrived in 1990, and posted a winning record in just six of the previous 26 seasons. After losing to USC in the 1963 Rose Bowl, Wisconsin went 19 years without a bowl appearance.
The Badgers were in such sorry shape 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 under Alvarez, Wisconsin became known for stingy defenses, a power running game and a massive offense line — “those big palookas up front,” Alvarez said Thursday — that would soon be imitated throughout 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 then.
Alvarez's return also gives the Badgers something to talk about besides their less-than-impressive record. Wisconsin is headed for the Rose Bowl at 8-5, and more than a few people have said the Badgers aren't worthy of a spot in a BCS bowl.
Wisconsin was just third in the Big Ten's Leaders Division. But neither Ohio State nor Penn State was eligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, sending the Badgers to the Big Ten title game by default.
“I'm not apologizing for us to go to the Rose Bowl with five losses,” Alvarez said. “We all knew the rules. ... Whoever wins the Big Ten championship goes to the Rose Bowl. We didn't have anything to do with two teams being ineligible in our division. That allowed us to be in the championship game, and we soundly beat the champion from the other division.
“I've been through that before when we were the worst team ever to represent (the Big Ten) in the Rose Bowl,” Alvarez said, referring to Wisconsin's 1999 Rose Bowl appearances, when the Badgers went over Michigan and Ohio State because they'd gone the longest between appearances. “My response to that was, ‘I know there's at least one team worse than us.’”
Wisconsin beat UCLA 38-31 that year.
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