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Barry Alvarez's dedication to
learn the coaching profession has paved the road for his journey
to become a head coach.
By Scott Kraft
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During his formative
years as a high school coach, Barry Alvarez religiously studied
the game while absorbing knowledge from a variety of sources. One
spring, he decided to prove he was willing to go the extra mile
(or miles in this case) to learn everything he could about the Xs
and Os of football. So he piled into his car with one of his
coaching buddies (a former college teammate at Nebraska) and they
toured multiple college football programs and campuses. Their first
stop was North Texas State where Hayden Fry was intelligently innovativing
his passing game. From there, they drove to Norman, Okla. and spent
a day watching the Oklahoma Sooners practice. The final stop was
Lawrence, Kan. and the University of Kansas for a coaching clinic.
I really worked hard at football, Alvarez recalled
fondly. Anything I could get my hands on to read, Id
read. Anyplace I could go where they were having a clinic, Id
go. Anything that I could learn, Id try to learn.
At the time, Alvarez was running a high school program in Lexington,
Neb., his first head coaching job. His traveling companion on his
college tour was also a prep coach in Nebraska. At the time, Frank
Solich was heading one of the states most successful programs,
Lincoln Southeast. The gregarious Alvarez, a former Cornhuskers
linebacker from Burgettstown, Pa., and the soft-spoken Solich, a
former Cornhuskers fullback from Cleveland, Ohio, may have made
for an odd couple back in the day (mid-70s). But they were united
in their passion for the game, committed to success and intensely
focused on one goal.
I knew what I wanted to do, Alvarez said with
conviction. I wanted to be a head coach at a Division I school.
The two friends have traveled a long distance from their spring
barnstorming trip and early coaching apprenticeships. Today, with
their ambition rewarded, they still reminisce on the phone on a
regular basis after having put a signature mark on their very own
college programs. The 55-year-old Alvarez is entering his 13th season
at Wisconsin, while Solich, 58, is going into his fifth season at
Nebraska. They have shared so much along the way its only
fitting now that they share something else: Go Big Red.
Under Alvarezs leadership, the Badgers have enjoyed an unparalleled
run of success in Madison, Wis. The teams success has drawn
a great deal of attention to the Badger football program. In fact,
the team has enjoyed an attendance of at least 70,000 people for
54 consecutive games at Camp Randall Stadium. Alvarez is the winningest
coach in school history (84-55-4), overcoming a nightmarish 1-10
start in 1990. His teams have won or shared three Big Ten championships
since 1993. Hes the only coach in conference history to win
back-to-back Rose Bowls. His 6-1 record in bowl games, including
a 3-0 record in Pasadena, is tied for second best all-time.
Only seven active college head coaches have a longer tenure at one
school than Alvarez, who has no intentions of becoming a coaching
lifer. I dont know when Ill quit, but I dont
want to coach until Im 70, Alvarez said. As
long as I still get excited about spring practice, I still get excited
about starting a new season, and I still get excited and
my blood starts to boil when we take the field, theres
no reason to stop. As long as I have my health and enthusiasm for
the game, and Im doing a good job, Ill continue to coach.
Where did it all start? Alvarez first thought about getting into
the coaching profession during his freshman season at Nebraska where
he played for Bob Devaney, who was building the foundation for what
would be a legendary program in Lincoln. Alvarez was a wide-eyed
17-year-old linebacker from Western Pennsylvania. His Burgettstown
high school coach was Pat McGraw (Good, hard-nosed Irishman.
Chewed tobacco. Tough as hell). Marty and Kurt Schottenheimer
were products of this same coal-mining region. So was Bill Cowher.
McGraw would always scrimmage us against bigger schools,
Alvarez remembered. We showed up in sweat shirts, all our
practice gear, and theyd come out of the locker room
some 100 strong in full game uniforms. We all thought, Holy
mackerel, this was only suppose to be a scrimmage. But McGraw
would just say, Hey, they can only put 11 out there. It doesnt
make any difference how theyre dressed or how many they have.
So we went out there and beat the hell out of them, beatem
Alvarez lettered three years for the Cornhuskers, earning All-Big
Eight honors as a senior. Although he was selected to participate
in the Senior Bowl and the Blue-Gray game, he realized that his
playing days were over. With this realization, he was more determined
than ever to get started as a coach. Devaney opened the first door,
knowing that he would get an honest days work from the overachieving
Alvarez. I always took pride as a player as being very smart,
he said. I was never gifted with speed or anything else, but
I could anticipate things and I really studied the game.
Alvarez worked two years as a graduate assistant on Devaneys
staff, which featured a wealth of top shelf assistants in Tom Osborne,
Carl Selmer and Monte Kiffin, among others. Alvarez watched how
they each went about their business and tried to establish his own
philosophy on how he would run things if he had his own program.
Of course, Devaney carried his own clout. He was ahead of
his time on how he practiced, how he went about things on a day-to-day
basis, Alvarez said. More than anything else,
he knew how to deal with people. I was always impressed with how
he could fit in with whatever group he was with.
Devaney could be in some mining town with a bunch of coal
miners and mill workers one night and the next night hed be
at a black tie affair with the wealthiest people in Detroit or Pittsburgh.
And he would be the center of attention regardless of where he was.
Devaney wound up passing along some valuable advice to Alvarez,
instructing him to set a timetable for becoming a college head coach
before he reached the age of 42. But I never looked at it
that way, Alvarez said. I was a guy who always
concentrated on the job that he had. Wherever I was I wanted to
be the best coach I could be. Thats all I focused on. I was
too single-minded to look beyond that.
Alvarez took his first paying job at Lincoln Northeast High School.
He spent four years there as an assistant coach before landing his
first head coaching position at Lexington, Kiffins hometown.
Kiffin made some calls on behalf of Alvarez who was inheriting a
tradition-rich program. Some people thought he was crazy for leaving
Lincoln. At the top of this list was his wife Cindy. She cried
all the way back (from Lexington) when I told her we were going
to take that job, Alvarez said. But I knew what
I wanted to do, I wanted to be a head coach, and I was ready.
After fashioning a 16-4 record in two seasons at Lexington
he was named the Nebraska prep coach of the year in 1974
Alvarez was ready for his next challenge. So when he got a phone
call from the superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa
a big Cornhuskers alum he had an offer that he couldnt
refuse. Most would have turned it down. I probably shouldnt
have taken that job, Alvarez said. I wasnt
smart enough to ask the right questions or realize how bad it was.
I just thought I could coach anybody and turn them into a winner.
But when I got there it was a joke. Over 1,800 kids in the school
and we had less than 30 out for football.
Despite the drawbacks, Alvarez rolled up his sleeves and went to
work. While Cindy was selling hot dogs to raise money to send the
assistant coaches to clinics, Barry was selling his players on how
they were going to turn things around. It started with the construction
of a weight room that was the envy of the college programs in Iowa
City and Ames.
In 1978, his third season at Mason City, Alvarez won the Iowa Class
4A state championship. Shortly thereafter, he was approached by
Hayden Fry who was Iowas new head coach, replacing Bob Commings.
Fry liked Alvarezs style and hired him to coach tight ends.
The following season, Alvarez took over the linebackers and worked
under defensive coordinator Bill Brashier. Frys offensive
coordinator was Bill Snyder.
There was no shortage of ideas and Alvarez closely observed how
everybody performed their roles. Hayden was very organized,
Alvarez said. It extended from the day-to-day meetings to
the practice schedule. He was just meticulous in his organization
and structure. Everybody on the staff had a clear-cut role. Everybody
knew exactly what their responsibility was. There was no overstepping
your boundary or stepping on toes.
The Hawkeyes went to six bowls, including two Rose Bowls, during
Alvarezs eight years in Iowa City. In 1987, he got a phone
call from coach Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. Holtz was interested in
having Alvarez come to South Bend to coach the linebackers. I
really had nowhere to go at Iowa Brashier was the coordinator
and I couldnt move up, Alvarez said. Plus,
Lou told me that he felt Foge Fazio was going to take another job
or go to the NFL, and if he did, Id have the first crack at
the coordinators job. Thats all I wanted is a fair chance
and an opportunity.
Alvarez got more than he bargained for at Notre Dame. In addition
to taking over as the teams defensive coordinator and assistant
head coach, the Irish won the 1988 national championship. By now,
Alvarez was a hot commodity. Several schools contacted him about
head coaching vacancies. But he wasnt ready to make the move
yet. His second daughter, Stacy, had one more year of high school
in South Bend and Alvarez was committed to staying until she graduated.
(Likewise, he didnt leave Iowa City until his oldest daughter
Dawn had completed her schooling.)
Lou Holtz probably had as much impact on me as anybody,
Alvarez said. Devaney and Fry gave me a foundation and I took
something from each of them. But Lous philosophy is very similar
to mine in many areas how you challenge players, and how
you go about the daily things. I still call Lou today and he calls
me. I feel very comfortable asking him any question. I think everybody
needs someone to bounce things off. You need a different perspective.
You need someone out of your arena, out of your day-to-day life,
to take a look at it objectively and give you an answer.
After three seasons under Holtzs wing, Alvarez pronounced
himself ready for the next challenge. On Jan. 2, 1990, three days
after his 42nd birthday, Alvarez became a Division I head coach,
taking over a moribund Wisconsin program that rivaled Mason City
for all the wrong reasons. But, once again, it didnt take
him long to produce a winner. In his fourth season, he had the Badgers
in the Rose Bowl. When asked if its harder to win the first
title or sustain success, Alvarez said, Both are hard. This
is a never-ending job. But its very difficult to take that
And what advice would Alvarez offer to coaches seeking to take the
next step? Its not about the Xs and Os,
he said, its about caring for the kids and motivating
them. If a high school coach has a desire and vision to coach at
the collegiate level, he has to take care of his job first and do
a good job where he is. Do that, and youll get noticed.
Take his word. Or Solichs.
Before anybody addressed Barry
Alvarez as Coach Alvarez he was answering
to Officer Alvarez.
While Alvarez was laboring as a graduate assistant coach at
the University of Nebraska his day job he needed
to find some steady work to pay the bills. He was married and
his wife Cindy was still going to school, too.
So Alvarez went out and got a full-time job with the Lincoln
police department. He walked the campus beat from 10 at night
until 7 in the morning.
I was a 21-year-old kid out on the streets,
Alvarez said, and I was dealing with everything, all the
different police calls, from investigating to dealing with domestic
disputes. You see a lot of things and it teaches you a lot of
things. You really have to think on your feet in that line of
After his night shift, Alvarez would attend an early grad school
class, return home for a nap, coach football in the afternoon,
attend another class in the early evening and report back for
When youre young, you dont need a lot of sleep,
Alvarez said. I also felt a responsibility and I didnt
have any choice. I had to go out and make some money. I knew
that I wanted to get my masters and coach. And I wanted to make
sure Cindy got her degree.
During his two-year stint with the police force, he served as
a cruiser officer and a detective for a brief period. His shift
Id take Tuesdays and Wednesdays off from the
police department, Alvarez said, so I could
do my school work and catch up on my sleep.
At one point, Alvarez considered going into the FBI.But,
he said, I knew what I wanted to do.Coaching
football was his passion. Still is.