Barry Alvarez is telling stories and talking football and waxing about his career and somewhere in the middle it casually comes out.
“My goal was to coach at Nebraska,” Alvarez says.
So why didn’t this happen? Why didn’t the man who played linebacker at Nebraska for Bob Devaney ever come home?
What about 1998, when Alvarez had built a Rose Bowl machine in Madison, Wisconsin, and had not yet taken the athletic director’s job?
Would history today be different?
“No,” Alvarez said. “Tom (Osborne) had promised the job to Frank (Solich). It wasn’t going to happen. I respect Tom for doing that because I don’t think Tom was ready to step down then. But he gave Frank his word.
“The funny thing is, Frank was coming up here. Years earlier, I had asked Frank to join me at Wisconsin and be my offensive coordinator. He agreed to do it. But when he told Tom, Tom told him he wanted him to stay and take his place one day. Frank called me and said he couldn’t come. Tom had promised him the job.”
But what about when the Nebraska job was open in 2003? Or 2007? Did Alvarez ever think about going for it then?
“It was too late,” says the Wisconsin athletic director. “I was too entrenched here.”
So Alvarez never did coach at Nebraska, but along the way, he found another role, one just as good for him, if not better.
He became Bob Devaney.
That was always Alvarez’s main desire. Devaney was Alvarez’s coach, mentor and idol. Alvarez studied Devaney the way some people study Bruce Springsteen and can tell you what songs Springsteen wrote in 1978 and where he wrote them.
Alvarez turns 70 in December. He recently signed a contract extension into 2021 to continue a brilliant career that resembles the great Devaney in a most uncanny way.
Devaney was a high school coach in Michigan before launching his college career at Michigan State as an assistant to Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty.
Alvarez coached high school football at Lincoln Northeast, Lexington, Nebraska, and then Mason City, Iowa, before Iowa coach Hayden Fry hired him as linebackers coach.
Devaney had a stop as head coach at Wyoming before taking on the Nebraska job. Alvarez was an assistant to Lou Holtz at Notre Dame (including during the 1988 national championship season) and waited for a reclamation project to come open. That was Wisconsin.
Devaney built Nebraska into a power, winning or sharing eight Big Eight league titles and two national championships. He won 101 games in 11 seasons at NU. Devaney is the architect of the Husker football tradition.
Alvarez turned Wisconsin into a power, taking the Badgers to three Rose Bowls (to cap the 1993, 1998 and 1999 seasons), winning 119 games in 16 seasons. He’s the godfather of Wisconsin football.
Devaney was both coach and athletic director from 1967-72 before becoming full-time athletic director until 1993. He picked his successor from his staff, Tom Osborne, who would win three national titles and many league titles.
Alvarez was football coach/A.D. in 2004 and 2005 and retired to become full-time athletic director. He picked his successor from his staff, defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, who coached UW to three Rose Bowls.
Off the field, Alvarez also took notes. Devaney was not shy about having fun in public, and could blend in at the country club or the Legion Club. Alvarez liked to say Devaney could “wear a bow tie with the big donors and polka with the regular folks.”
Alvarez has fit that mold, too. He’s a social athletic director, known to show up at big events, like the World Series in Kansas City last year with former Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. The night before Wisconsin’s 2012 game in Lincoln, Alvarez hit the night spots with friends in a limousine. Devaney would give a wink for that.
It’s almost as if Alvarez planned the same career track as his coach and mentor.
“I did,” Alvarez said. “I really admired him as a coach and an athletic director. I knew the path he followed. He was a high school coach at Alpena (Michigan), he got his break at Michigan State. He went to Wyoming and took on a place that had never won in Nebraska. Then he settled in and became athletic director until he retired. Did it all at one school.
“That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to find a place that had been down and build it up, then stay as the athletic director and have the people say, ‘This is the guy who built this place.’
“When Pat Richter (the A.D. who hired Alvarez at Wisconsin) talked to me about the job, he said, ‘What’s your plan? What’s the next step?’ I said, ‘This is it. I want to come here and win big and then take over as athletic director one day and stay here my whole career.’ ”
Working under Fry and Holtz provided plenty of lessons, but Alvarez always made sure to stop by Memorial Stadium for advice.
“When I was at Notre Dame, my oldest daughter was going to Nebraska,” Alvarez said. “A couple of times I’d go there for father-daughter events at her sorority, and I’d stop by and see coach (Devaney).
“He always gave me good advice. One time, he said, ‘You’re in a good spot with Lou. But if your goal is to be a head coach, make sure you do it by the time you’re 42.’
“I just made it. It was three days after my 42nd birthday when I took the Wisconsin job.”
It was Chuck Heater, the secondary coach for Notre Dame, who got Alvarez interested in Wisconsin. Heater had been on Dave McClain’s staff from 1982-84 in Madison.
“Chuck told me there was talent in Wisconsin, but it wasn’t staying home,” Alvarez said. “I knew he was right. The top two players I had recruited to Notre Dame were from Wisconsin. When Iowa was going to the Rose Bowl, 11 players on their two-deep were from Wisconsin. Nebraska had some Wisconsin guys, like Jerry Tagge.
“They had a lot of the same issues that Nebraska had when Devaney got there. The first thing I did was meet with the high school coaches and get them on our side. We couldn’t let anyone else leave the state.”
Wisconsin has owned Nebraska of late, winning four of the last five meetings. But Husker fans can remind their Badger friends that Wisconsin football was modeled after Nebraska.
“I studied how (Devaney) built the program,” Alvarez said. “I had a pretty good idea what I was going to do. The first thing I did was hire a strength coach, Scott Raridon, a former Nebraska offensive lineman. We did a lot of the things they were doing in Lincoln, including work with the track people.
“I stole the walk-on idea from Nebraska. The Big Ten did not do walk-ons. But I knew it would help us the way it helped Nebraska. Every one of our Rose Bowl teams has been captained by a walk-on. J.J. Watt was a walk-on.”
Over the years, Alvarez had plenty of offers to leave — from top-10 schools, he said. He turned them down, in part because his wife, Cindy (Jelinek, of Omaha), “put her foot down.” When one big-time school in particular kept calling Alvarez with an offer, Cindy told her husband to “hang up, we’re not going anywhere.”
“When we were leaving Lexington, she was crying the whole way,” Alvarez said. “After South Bend, I didn’t want to do that to her anymore. I didn’t want to be a vagabond coach. I wanted to do what (Devaney) had done.”
Alvarez is the dean of Big Ten athletic directors, and he’s been more than just a football guy. His basketball coaches have been to three Final Fours. But he’s a dinosaur and he knows it; most athletic directors today are attorneys or businessmen.
Devaney worked until he was 77, and the latest contract puts Alvarez on that path, too.
“I think having been a coach helps me,” he said. “I hire people with business acumen to help us. Being a coach, you know how to delegate and pick the right people to serve certain roles, create a team atmosphere.
“I’m going to keep going. I feel good. I have a grandson who just committed to play football here. It’s fun for me to follow them. As long as they’re willing, and we’re doing positive things, I’ll be here. I enjoy my job.”
Devaney would understand. And he’d be proud.