In the April 2016 Final Thought column titled, “I’m Not Afraid of Barry Alvarez,” I wrote about my first post-college job (16 years ago) as a small town sports writer, how I had the chance to interview Barry Alvarez, how my fear derailed this golden opportunity, and how, after this experience, I would think of Barry Alvarez to overcome fear in other professional situations.
A few weeks after that column was published, I received an email. It was a Friday. My heart skipped three beats when I saw the sender’s name: It was Barry Alvarez. He had just finished reading the column. “It was enjoyable to read, and very well done. Certainly a good lesson learned, and a great message,” he wrote. “I would love to do an interview with you some day.” With the gracious help of Barry Alvarez’s assistant, Linda, I made sure that day came quickly.
While waiting in U.W.-Madison’s Intercollegiate Athletics Office, I felt queasy. It didn’t help to enter Barry Alvarez’s personal office, perched atop Camp Randall Stadium and dotted with historic memorabilia. I was a little afraid. But when Barry Alvarez sat down and turned his attention to me, I just thought about Barry Alvarez.
What are the qualities that make a good leader, either as a coach or as a player?
You have to draw the respect of the people you are going to lead by your commitment to the overall task. You have to live it, and people have to see it. As a player, you can’t do things your own way, then come in and start yelling about what needs to be done. No one is going to follow.
org jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
A leader is somebody who can get a group of people to accomplish something they could not accomplish on their own. Guys like Joe Panos and Chris McIntosh were not afraid to step up and make decisions regarding teammates, or come to me on behalf of teammates and say “coach this is killing us, it’s counterproductive.” That’s pretty strong, for a young kid to have the confidence to address a coach like that.
As a coach, the players have to know you are committed to them and everything you do is designed to put them in the best possible position to win. When I hire head coaches, I want to hear how they care about players. If a person knows that you care about them, there’s never too much you can ask them to do. And you have to show them how you’re committed, through your hard work and your vision in pulling it all together.
Talk about work ethic. Is that something you can teach?
Athletes want to win. They want to be coached. If I’m the head of a group that’s competing against another group, I want my group to think they have the advantage. If that’s because we work harder, or we’re doing things differently, I’m going to make them feel that they are better prepared than the competition. I did that as a coach and I try to do that as an athletic director.
As a coach, how important is patience? In your book, you mention that it was always your goal to be a head coach in Division I football. But you paid your dues. How do you have the patience to reach your goals and build something great?
You have to have a vision of where you want to go. You set your goals and strive to meet them, but always evaluate. Constantly evaluate. Are you getting better? Are you improving? Are you moving closer to those goals? Do you have to realign those goals?
My goal all along was to be head coach at a Division I school, build it up and sustain it like Bob Devaney did at Nebraska. You can’t get there by being an assistant in high school. So you make the move to be a head coach, even though it’s a small high school. And you are successful there. And then you have the opportunity to go to a bigger place, and you are successful there. And then someone notices that you are doing a good job, and you get an opportunity to get a step closer, as an assistant in Division I at Iowa.
Then, there was a better opportunity at Notre Dame, and working for Lou Holtz isn’t easy. You have to produce or you won’t be there long. We had a very good defense when I was there, and people recognized that. It’s about making things happen and improving, always moving toward that goal. But there will be bumps in the road.
Before I came to Wisconsin, Iowa had six straight bowl appearances. At Notre Dame, we won a lot of games, including a national championship. When I came here it was hard for me to be patient. I wanted to build a program, but I had never been in that position. You’d get ready for a game and think you didn’t have a chance. That first year, our guys played hard, particularly on defense. We just didn’t have the offensive weapons. We couldn’t move the ball.
It was really hard for me, and yet I couldn’t show any signs of weakness. I would go in and talk to my staff on Sunday and talk about the positives and how we could improve. But as I noted in the book [Don’t Flinch – Barry Alvarez: The Autobiography, KCI Sports LLC, 2006], I would go back to my office and crawl in the fetal position. My coaches couldn’t see me like that. I have to walk in and show that I’m confident with the team.
The thing I liked about that first year: Our last game, we played a very good Michigan State team, the last game of the season, at Michigan State. We missed an easy catch. We make that catch and we win that game. It showed me that our guys never quit, and they were buying into what we were doing. I knew right then we had our kids hooked.
Following head football coach Barry Alvarez’s final game at Camp Randall Stadium,
former Badger player Joe Panos presented Alvarez with a commemorative ball,
representing the collective appreciation of past and current players, during a post-game
tribute held at midfield. The ceremony included a video highlighting Alvarez’s 16-year
career at UW-Madison and comments from several dignitaries. Earlier, the Badgers lost to
Iowa, 20-10. Photo: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison.
You worked with a lot of great coaches coming up. What is the value of mentorship? How were you able to establish mentors?
I asked. If I didn’t have the answers, I asked. I asked Coach Devaney when he was still alive. I would call Lou Holtz. I might talk to Hayden Fry. I’d call Lloyd Carr every week, when he was at Michigan. We came up through the ranks as assistants, and we’d just talk about the teams we were playing that week. We had that type of relationship. We knew we would get after each other when we played, but we trusted each other and we shared ideas.
We recently had an all-day coaches’ retreat. I wanted them to get to know one another so that when they have issues, they can talk. There are so many resources and coaches who have been successful at U.W. I want them to feel comfortable picking up the phone, and calling each other to ask how to handle certain situations. I think that gives us an edge.
You talked about building networks, for recruiting as a coach. And you are building partnerships and collaborating as an athletic director. How do you do that successfully?
In recruiting, you have to build trust with high school coaches and people in the know. Sometimes game film doesn’t tell the whole story. You need contacts with people who can say, “this kid can play, I’m telling you.” At the same time, they have to know that when you take that kid, you are going to take care of him, that he will be treated fairly and be given every opportunity to graduate and play, and that they will have a good experience with you.
Bernie Wyatt was very good at that. He had the whole East Coast, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Those coaches knew him. The ones who sent players knew he was going to look after them. That’s how we got Ron Dayne. That’s just good business.
Building relationships and trust with different people is about communication and honesty, following through, and being available. It’s all those things. It’s a constant communication of what you are all about and what they will get from you, and what you would like from them.
You can’t win every game; some seasons are better than others. How do you deal with disappointment?
You have to learn from losing. You have to learn from disappointment. If you are in sales and you aren’t making the sales, why? What can I do? How can I improve? What are the best practices? What do I see out there? What are other people doing that I’m not doing? There’s constant learning, and you can never be in a position where you feel like everything is perfect. If you do, then you’re done. If you plateau, everybody is catching you. You have to try and continue to improve and strive to get better.
I’m always looking for best practices. I did it as a coach, and I do it as an athletic director. I’m always looking for things I can do to help us be better. The cost and expenses of running an athletic program continue to rise and I ask the questions: How can we maintain our excellence? How can we get better? How can we afford to do all this? How can we keep up with facilities? How can we keep up with paying salaries and maintaining a good relationship with our fan base, where we aren’t charging them an arm and a leg for tickets? How do you monetize different things? How can we maximize what we have here? We have been very creative, building partnerships with businesses and other organizations, where they are getting value from our name and we are getting value from them. We are always thinking of different ways that we can improve and increase our value, keep up and stay ahead of other programs.
You have had offers to leave. What has kept you here?
I always go back to my goal: getting to a place, building it and sustaining it. I never had a vision of going to a particular place, whether it was my alma mater Nebraska, or Notre Dame, or being an NFL coach. That was never my goal. My goal was to find a place, build it and sustain it.
My wife said, “I don’t want to be a vagabond, and just keep moving and moving and moving.” We wanted a place where we call home, be close to kids and grandkids. Those things are important. It was always flattering when an NFL team or a high-profile college team came around, but I would always go back to square one, my goals and what I wanted to accomplish.
You mention your family. How were you able to balance family life with the things you were doing in football?
When you get into this business you are gone a lot. During the season, it’s a grind. You leave before they get up in the morning, you don’t get home until they are asleep, and you are gone on weekends. Then the season is over and you are out recruiting.
It’s probably hardest when you have young children. I was lucky, in my Iowa years. I lived close enough to campus, I would drive home and have dinner with my family every night. And whenever I had time off, I got involved in my kids’ lives. I’d go to their activities. I would travel with my daughter who did gymnastics. Go to little league baseball, go to softball games, basketball games. Be a part of their lives whenever you can. But I couldn’t do it without a strong wife who understood the business I was in, the time commitment that football coaching demanded.
What’s your vision for U.W. athletics?
We’ve been one of the most consistent programs in the country. I want to make sure we continue that. I try to tell our fans not to take things for granted. Don’t take winning for granted, it’s very difficult. Just looking at our league, there are some schools that have more wherewithal than we do, the Penn States and Ohio States. They are in populated areas, they have bigger stadiums. They have an advantage because they have more people within driving distance to recruit, and they have more tradition. We are still building our tradition.
About 70 percent of our income comes from football. The other 30 percent is basketball. We are continuing to build that winning tradition. But we don’t take it for granted. We want to do all the right things and stay true to ourselves. We want to take advantage of players within our state first, and then go from there. We have stayed consistently good in football and basketball because we develop players, and we are good fundamentally. When those sports do well, we can fund other sports to be competitive. We have to continue on that path.
How do you deal with change, and how the game of football has changed? What about the role of athletic director?
In terms of change within the game of football, that’s the coach’s responsibility. The game is more spread out. But we can’t recruit enough of the type of players to spread teams out. What we can do is recruit the type of players that can line up and play our style, make other teams play physical with us. I make sure that the coaches understand what we can do to be competitive. We make adjustments to compete with the changes around us, but we also try to make people adjust to our game. It’s hard to prepare against somebody who’s going to come out there and be physical and run the ball and do those things like we do.
The athletic director role has a lot of layers, more layers now than 20 or 30 years ago. There is more that you are involved in now, with TV contracts as they are, rights and licensing. It’s a big business. When I came here, I’m guessing our budget was probably in the low teens. Now we are at $130 million and growing. It’s more complicated now.
I designed my career after my college coach, Bob Devaney. He was head coach before taking the athletic director role, but you don’t see that much. He started out as a high school coach, signed on as assistant at Michigan State, and got the head coaching job at Wyoming. Then he went to Nebraska, which was not a winning program. He built the program up, worked as coach and athletic director for a while, then stepped back and took over the AD’s job until he retired.
When I first interviewed at Wisconsin, Pat Richter asked me what my next job would be. I said I wanted his job next. He knew I had a vision for U.W. football and U.W. athletics.