The top two administrators in the University of Wisconsin athletic department had a day to burn between the 2019 NCAA volleyball national semifinal and title game, so Barry Alvarez asked his protégé to go for a ride.
Alvarez and Chris McIntosh left their Pittsburgh hotel, hopped in a rental car and made the 25-mile trip west to where Alvarez grew up in Langeloth. They picked up Alvarez’s brother Woody, cousin Bimbo and longtime friend Phil, and McIntosh couldn’t help but feel at times as though he was part of a family reunion on wheels.
At one point during the tour of his hometown and the other old, small mining towns surrounding it in Washington County, Alvarez couldn’t help notice his guest’s eyes were wide open.
Alvarez’s backstory is well-documented as he nears the end of a legendary run at UW that began when he took over the football program in 1990 and will end Wednesday, his final day as athletic director.
His humble beginnings in western Pennsylvania included working as a youngster at his uncle’s grocery store in Langeloth during the summer and on weekends during the school year. Each day, he’d watch men carrying their lunch pails as they’d get on a bus that would take them to work. At the end of the day, the bus would return and the men would file out, tired and dirty.
Alvarez decided then and there he wasn’t going to work in a steel mill.
McIntosh, a two-time captain and All-American left tackle under Alvarez in the late 1990s, had heard anecdotes like that one used as metaphors. As a coach for 16 seasons, Alvarez wanted his teams to have a lunch-pail mentality; as the leader of the athletic department, he constantly talked to his employees about taking a blue-collar approach and not taking any shortcuts.
On Dec. 20, 2019, the man who will be handed the baton and officially take over as athletic director Thursday gained a bigger appreciation for the symbolism Alvarez had been using at UW for three-plus decades.
McIntosh returned to his hotel room that day with the visuals to match Alvarez’s words.
“You could see that edge,” McIntosh said, and, more importantly, he could feel it.
That famous line from his opening news conference at UW in early 1990 — “They better get their season tickets right now because, before too long, they probably won’t be able to” Alvarez says — is one of those quotes that looks good on paper but is even better when watching him say it.
The look on Alvarez’s face while delivering it borders on arrogance. Moreover, he doesn’t immediately turn away from the reporter off to his right who had asked the question, holding an icy stare for a few seconds. Three decades later, Alvarez doesn’t even remember the question. He just recalls feeling like he was being challenged and wasn’t about to be pushed around.
Alvarez, with rare exceptions, always has believed in himself. A player on the final high school team he coached in Mason City, Iowa, once told him that it wouldn’t be long before Alvarez was coaching in college. Alvarez’s response: I know.
When Alvarez was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, a reporter asked him if he was surprised a guy from his little hometown had earned such an achievement. Alvarez’s response again was blunt: No, it doesn’t surprise me.
Long before they served as Alvarez’s vehicle out of steel-mill country, sports helped develop that swagger we see over and over from the face of the Badgers.
Alvarez admits he’s been fortunate to play for or work under some great coaches at the college level, a list that includes Bob Devaney at Nebraska, Hayden Fry at Iowa and Lou Holtz at Notre Dame.
Less famous than those three giants is Pat McGraw, who coached Alvarez in both baseball and football at Union High School in Burgettstown.
McGraw arranged scrimmages with bigger schools during training camp every year, including one instance in which the Class A Blue Devils traveled to nearby Canonsburg for a matchup against Class AAA Canon-McMillan.
Alvarez and his teammates — there were only about 30 players on the team — were on the field doing calisthenics in their dirty practice uniforms when the other team came running out of its field house. The line of players never seemed to end and the Blue Devils were outnumbered by at least a 3-to-1 ratio by the time the entire team was on the field.
McGraw could tell his players were in awe. He gathered them together, spit some chewing tobacco out of his mouth and didn’t mince words.
“I don’t give a (expletive) how many guys they have. I don’t care what they’re wearing,” Alvarez remembers McGraw saying. “They can only put 11 on the field. We can put 11 on the field, and our 11 can kick their 11’s (expletive).”
And that’s exactly what happened, an experience that stuck with a player who later would deliver his own share of fiery pep talks.
“That,” Alvarez said, “was a great lesson for me.”
Man with a message
It’s one thing to have confidence, but how do you spread it to someone else?
As a coach, Alvarez always tried to look for an edge. He wanted his players to feel as though they were better coached and more prepared than their opponents. When Alvarez arrived in Madison, he’d polled the returning players that would form the nucleus of his first team and realized how much work had to be done. The consensus among the Badgers was that they felt they were beaten before even stepping on the field.
Alvarez took a program that went 6-27 in the three seasons before his arrival and led it to a Big Ten title and 1994 Rose Bowl victory in his fourth season. Back-to-back Rose Bowl wins followed in 1998 and 1999.
One word that comes up often as McIntosh describes Alvarez’s strength as a leader is alignment. There weren’t false promises made during the recruiting process. Alvarez acknowledged upfront that the workload would be demanding and tried to attract players who would buy into that model.
Even players aligned in their beliefs have doubts at times, but that’s where Alvarez’s motivational skills would take over. Some of his Friday night speeches would leave the Badgers ready to take the field that minute. As with the news conference line about season tickets, it wasn’t only the words Alvarez was saying to his players; the manner in which the message was being delivered mattered just as much.
“There were no cracks in his delivery that would leave anything up for interpretation,” McIntosh said.
Alvarez borrowed one particular entry from the Holtz playbook several times during his career. It came in handy when UW was an underdog and Alvarez felt his players needed an edge to get them over the top. On the night before games, the last thing the players would hear before heading to their hotel rooms was their coach saying he not only believed the Badgers could win, but that they could win big.
“Listen,” Alvarez would say, stealing the words right out of Holtz’s mouth, “this sucker doesn’t even have to be close.”
He pulled out that tactic in late 2014 after Gary Andersen bolted to Oregon State and the players asked Alvarez to coach them in the Outback Bowl vs. Auburn. The Badgers had been beaten 59-0 by Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Alvarez inherited a team that he felt was a shell of the tough, physical teams he’d coached and also was in the dumps after being embarrassed by the Buckeyes.
Alvarez took over and assured the team it was good but needed to change how it was operating. He told them practices were going to be more demanding and the approach in the weight room was going to change as well.
“Now,” Alvarez said, “I don’t know whether you can get stronger in three weeks — probably not — but I was going to make them think they could get stronger.”
The night before the Badgers’ 34-31 victory over the Tigers, Alvarez pulled out the Holtz line.
“And if (Joel) Stave wouldn’t have thrown those” three picks, Alvarez says now, “it wouldn’t have been close.”
Alvarez’s messaging as an athletic director wasn’t all that different from when he was a coach. Leading a team is leading a team, whether it’s athletes or the people responsible for giving them — and here is a description Alvarez uses all the time — a first-class experience.
Whether it was his talks to begin training camp or one at a meeting in a boardroom, Alvarez wants his charges to understand that everybody has a role in the organization’s success.
Alvarez tells this story a lot and doesn’t remember where he heard it: Back in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy was taking a tour of Cape Canaveral and the group he was with crossed paths with a janitor mopping the hallway. They stopped and asked him how he was doing.
“He could have said a lot of different things, could have had a (poor) attitude,” Alvarez said. “What does he say? ‘Just trying to put a man on the moon, Mr. President.’”
Most of the people in the UW athletic department call him “coach” even though he’s never coached almost all of them.
When Alvarez was an assistant under Holtz and Fry, he appreciated how they gave him a job and let him do it without meddling. He’s taken the same approach in a role he’s held since 2004, letting new employees know what he expected from them and turning them loose without micro-management.
“He’s hired good people and he trusts them,” McIntosh said. “He lets them do their job and he holds them accountable.”
‘What in the hell am I doing here?
About the only time Alvarez admits to his confidence wavering was upon his arrival at Nebraska as a 17-year-old in 1964.
Alvarez and another recruit from western Pennsylvania hopped off a plane in Lincoln and went straight from the airport to the Cornhuskers’ football facility. There the two youngsters wearing suits and string ties walked into the room where veteran players had gathered to eat between two-a-day practices. Alvarez looked at them and saw grown men with big, heavy beards and he could have sworn some of them were 30 years old; they looked at him and the other player and saw fresh meat. A round of cat-calls started.
“One of them was married, divorced and had a brand-new car,” Alvarez said. “I was like, damn, I’m 17. What in the hell am I doing here?”
Teams could stockpile players on the roster because there were no scholarship limits in the Big Eight Conference back then, and Devaney took full advantage. Alvarez and teammate Rick Coleman, who both played middle linebacker and still are close friends, told each other it was a survival of the fittest.
The Cornhuskers were so deep that they scrimmaged in shifts: three teams in the morning and three more in the afternoon. Alvarez spent the 1964 season playing on the freshman team and the idea of actually getting on the field with the varsity felt far beyond the horizon.
But the great equalizer, whether it’s a 17-year-old from western Pennsylvania or an upperclassman divorcee with a car, was the willingness to be physical. The pads would go on and players would separate themselves.
And Alvarez loved to hit and had ever since he started playing for the first time as a child. The men with beards at Nebraska suddenly didn’t look so intimidating. He got on the field for the Cornhuskers in 1965, his first season eligible.
Alvarez later used his experience as a lesson to the high school players he’d coached who were going off to college programs.
“I trained you, man,” Alvarez would say. “You know how to hit and when you strike somebody, you will get the coaches’ attention. You whack people and be physical, they’ll find a place for you.”
Coleman, who hosted Alvarez on his recruiting visit, came to consider him a younger brother. He’s the first to admit he never could have seen his Hall of Fame coaching career coming, but it’s been impressive to watch play out as a friend.
“What I love about Barry — and I tell everyone this — is he’s had all this success and he’s the same guy I met more than 50 years ago,” Coleman said.
It was in Lincoln that Alvarez met his wife, Cindy. She stood him up on what was supposed to be their first date but felt bad and gave him another chance. They’ve been married for 53 years.
She’s spent most of this month as the host of Barrypalooza. The couple was going to throw one giant retirement bash at their home in Fitchburg, but the guest list got too big. They instead divided the groups and held four parties, one each weekend in June. The parties may stretch into July.
“I don’t know how many we have,” he said. “We just keep going.”
Cindy is the one there to listen when her husband is angry at something or someone and needs to vent. She’ll never forget the moment they shared back in 1990, when Barry was struggling to put on a brave front during a debut season in which the Badgers went 1-10.
“I can never show weakness to anybody but you,” he told her.
Cindy has been part of a group that plays bridge ever since the couple arrived in Madison. She refers to it as the “Pulse of America” because some of its participants had no connection to Barry’s work life or her UW-centric social circles.
She brings another viewpoint to Barry’s attention when she believes he is viewing a situation only in terms of athletics administration or the student-athlete. An example came in 2008 when negotiations between the then-fledgling Big Ten Network and cable companies had stalled. Barry wasn’t directly involved in those talks, but he had the ear of people who were, and Cindy needed him to know it was time to end the madness and find some resolution so BTN would be included in cable packages.
Other times, Barry will be riled up about an issue and Cindy will tell him it’s not worth the stress because the topic hasn’t even registered on the Pulse of America’s radar.
When Barry is asked about his decision-making process, he brings up Cindy’s value as a sounding board. “But nine times out of 10,” she says, “I just think he just wants to hear himself say it because he knows what he’s going to do.”
‘He needs that spotlight’
So what is Alvarez, 74, going to do now that he’s retiring from UW?
He’s been in the spotlight for 31-plus years in Madison and there’s little doubt that he’ll remain in it.
“Oh, and he needs that spotlight,” Cindy said. “Yes, he does. I call it his ego check. I’ll always say, ‘Oh, you need to get your ego checked? Want to go out tonight?’
“He loves people. My husband will be the only person in the world who attends his own funeral, and he will be partying.”
While Alvarez denied in May a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report that he’s expected to begin work with the Big Ten office as a liaison between commissioner Kevin Warren and the conference’s football coaches, all signs appear to be pointed in the direction of the deal eventually getting done. Warren came to Madison at least once in May to visit with Alvarez about taking on an advisor role that would seem to benefit the league while also keeping Alvarez in the public eye.
While Alvarez has moved into a smaller office at Kellner Hall, he said it has nothing to do with the Big Ten position. He wanted a quiet space he can go to work, whatever that entails. Alvarez said in the next breath that he won’t interject himself in McIntosh or anyone else’s business at UW unless asked.
There also seems to be an eagerness on both the part of Barry and Cindy to focus less on work and more on enjoying life. They’ll leave after Thanksgiving for their winter home in Naples, Florida — where Barry can dance to Pitbull and Bruno Mars — and remain there until the end of May.
They’ve made plans to travel to France next May and their next big trip after that likely will be to Australia and New Zealand. Cindy would like to go to Africa; Barry, at least so far, is resisting that idea.
One project on his horizon is his desire to write a book on coaching youth football. She’s also encouraged him to take piano lessons, though his arthritis and short-attention span for non-football activities may prevent that.
Alvarez arrived at Kellner Hall a little before 9 a.m. Monday in navy shorts and a teal Under Armour polo shirt, the type of outfit that would draw dirty looks in Washington County until the residents realized it was one of their native sons.
Wherever he goes, whatever he does next, there’ll always be a part of western Pennsylvania that never leaves Alvarez. McIntosh could sense that the day his boss gave him a closer look at his roots.
“He’s very proud of where he came from and what it is and represents,” McIntosh said. “It’s clear it guides him as a person and it’s now part of our culture here. It’s kind of the ultimate honor to where he came from.”
Photos: A look back at Barry Alvarez’s tenure with the Wisconsin Badgers
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