Monday, January 7, 2013

Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema...and observations

I am a Barry Alvarez fan.

He turned around the Wisconsin football team.
This is a team that under John Coatta in the late 1960s went winless for two seasons, with the streak ending in a tie.

After going to three bowl games in the early 1980s, the team only won nine games from 1986-1990.
Fans like me were used to losing. The fact was that the best part of the game was the 5th quarter when the band played.

Under Alvarez things changed. Wisconsin started winning and being competitive on a consistent basis.
He coached for 16 years and finished with a 118–73–4 record, going 8-3 in bowl games−the best in college football history (among coaches with at least 11 bowl appearances). He is the only Big Ten coach ever to win the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons (1999 and 2000); was named national coach of the year in 1993 and Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1993 and 1998; and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

When the team captains asked Barry, the legend, to stand on the sidelines once again and coach them in the Rose Bowl, after Bret Bielema took the job at Arkansas, many fans were thrilled. In fact, some had even started online campaigns to enlist him to coach the game.
However, I was one fan who did not jump on this bandwagon.

Yes, what he has done for Wisconsin football is remarkable, but his time as a coach has come and gone. I just thought it was time for him to step back and let the assistants do their thing.
And, while everyone was remembering his three Rose Bowl victories, his winning record, and what he means to Wisconsin football−putting us on the map and close to being in the discussion year in and year out−fans continued to dis Bret, as they had throughout his time at Wisconsin.

How quickly they all seem to forget…it took Barry three years to build a winning season with a record of 10-1-1 and go to the Rose Bowl. In his first three seasons there were plenty of losses. He went 1-10 in his rookie year as head coach and 5-6 the next two.
Bret, on the other hand, just won…and won a lot−right from the beginning going 12-1 in his first season as head coach and earned the Big Ten Coach of the Year award along the way. And, in seven seasons he was 68-24. It’s all about winning in college football and you can’t argue with those numbers. Sportswriters started talking about Wisconsin more and more.

Bret’s Badgers went to a bowl game in each of his seven seasons. In his first two seasons as head coach, he led the team to 21 wins. Only two other men in Big Ten history have guided their teams to 21 wins or more in their first two seasons−Michigan’s Fielding Yost won 22 and Ohio State’s Jim Tressel won 21.
In addition, he took the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowls. The only other coaches to do this were Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. I don’t know about you, but any Wisconsin coach who can be mentioned in the same sentence as those two all-time greats, is not just another guy. We will all look back on the Bret years and realize we were witnessing something truly special.

Last season the Badgers were two plays away from going undefeated and in the discussion for the national championship. Many national sportswriters acknowledged that it was the “what if” season for Wisconsin.
This season the Badgers were the best five-loss team to ever make the Rose Bowl. Three of those losses came in overtime and the other two losses were by three points. It was a tough year…having to replace a quarterback with the skills and leadership of Russell Wilson. Wisconsin had never seen a quarterback of this caliber…a guy who is up for NFL Rookie of the Year after being drafted in the third round.

The Badgers replaced numerous assistant coaches and it took a while for everyone to get adjusted. And, Montee Ball’s early season concussion slowed down this touchdown-scoring machine for quite a few weeks.
The other reason I was concerned with Barry on the sidelines was his conservative offensive philosophy. I remember not knowing if the team would win and counting down until 0:00 was left on the clock. Too many loses at the end of a game on fumbles against Northwestern and others…just not being able to finish.

And, for this Rose Bowl whose offensive plan would they use? The one that got them there with a 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game, with an innovative style of play. Or, going back to the old plays that worked with a big back like Ron Dayne, but are not the same with Montee Ball or James White or Melvin Gordon?
Stanford, on paper, was by far the superior team. But the Badgers were in it, surprising everyone.

Barry threw out much of the scheme and played Barry Ball…running the same (conservative) plays over and over. The play calling was suspect all game. I won’t even go into the non-touchdown in the first half and using James White in a Montee Ball situation.
The third quarter turned into a field position game, the defenses were playing tight. The Badgers were down by three and had a 4th and 1 just about midfield, and they punted.

Even Barry still questions his decision to punt. He knows that in a tight game whoever can break through the defense and score wins. So, take a shot and do the unexpected. Play to win.
Bottom line, they did not do this and came up short for the third consecutive year. As I heard someone say, ‘the Badgers are the Buffalo Bills of the Rose Bowl.’

Barry Alvarez was a remarkable coach. He took an under-performing program and turned it into a competitor. He is a legend and deserves the statue.
Bret Bielema grabbed the torch and pushed even closer to consistently being a Top 10 program. He, too, was remarkable. And, it’s time he got his due.

Gary Andersen, you’re next. You have a lot to live up to. You inherit a program that wins the right way. It’s up to you to raise the bar once again.