Barry Alvarez never came home to coach; instead, he made Wisconsin football power
Barry Alvarez, former Wisconsin football coach, listens during a news conference Thursday announcing the 2010 College Football Hall of Fame Class. Alvarez was one of two coaches and 12 players selected from a national ballot of 77 candidates.
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When Barry Alvarez was a football player at Union High School in Burgettstown in the early 1960s, he was overlooked by Penn State and not offered a scholarship.
The Penn State recruiter responsible for Western Pennsylvania at the time was a middle-aged assistant by the name of Joe Paterno, who saw some flaws in the linebacker from Langeloth, Pa.
"Joe said I was too slow and had a fat [rear end]," Alvarez said.
Alvarez, 63, laughs when recalling the tale from his childhood. Last week, some 46 years after the snub, Alvarez joined Paterno in an exclusive club when he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Alvarez, the athletic director at the University of Wisconsin, earned his credentials for the Hall as coach of the Badgers from 1990-2005. Alvarez finished his career with a 118-73-4 record and won three Big Ten championships, including consecutive titles in 1998 and '99.
From Union High, since renamed Burgettstown High, Alvarez went on to play at Nebraska. After his playing career, he was a high school coach in Nebraska and Iowa before becoming an assistant at the University of Iowa and Notre Dame and finally the coach at Wisconsin.
Despite never returning to work in his native state, Alvarez never lost sight of the athletic roots.
"I never forgot where I came from, my background, the foundation that was built there," Alvarez said over the phone Friday afternoon from his office in Madison, Wis. "I had great coaches all the way back to Little League baseball and football. I was taught the fundamentals."
As a player and assistant coach, Alvarez learned from three members of the College Football Hall of Fame. Alvarez played for Bob Devaney at Nebraska (class of 1981) and served as an assistant coach under Hayden Fry at Iowa (class of 2003) and under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame (class of 2008).
"Those are the three guys who I idolized as a coach," Alvarez said. "I thought Bob Devaney was way ahead of his time with the things he did. My goal when I became the head coach at Wisconsin was to build and sustain that program the way he did at Nebraska and to finish my career as an administrator the way he did.
"With coach Fry, he influenced me in the way he went about his day-to-day operation. And with Lou, it was in the way his general football philosophies jibed with what I believed."
By 1990, Alvarez had become a hot coaching commodity and interviewed for one other head-coaching job besides Wisconsin. The other opportunity was what Alvarez deemed "a courtesy" interview at Pitt.
Pitt passed on Alvarez and hired Paul Hackett, the offensive coordinator under Mike Gottfried who coached the Panthers to a victory in the Sun Bowl after Gottfried was fired after the 1989 season.
Hackett coached Pitt until 1992 and finished his short stint as Pitt's head coach with a 13-20-1 record.
Wisconsin took a chance on Alvarez, who was able to fuse the coaching philosophies of Devaney, Fry and Holtz into a record-setting, 16-year run as the Badgers' coach. When he took over as head coach in 1990, the Badgers had won nine games in the previous four seasons combined.
By '93, Wisconsin won the Big Ten title and the first of three Rose Bowls under Alvarez. During his tenure, he had 59 players drafted into the NFL, including nine first-round choices. He coached 34 All-Americans and set a Big Ten record with 10 consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher.
But when asked for one favorite memory from his distinguished career, Alvarez chose his only victory that took place on foreign soil. The Badgers needed to win their regular-season finale against Michigan State in Tokyo to clinch their first Rose Bowl berth since 1963.
Wisconsin won the game, 41-20, then beat UCLA for the school's first Rose Bowl victory.
"We had to go halfway around the world to get to the Rose Bowl," Alvarez said. "To see how our guys focused and how well they played ... it was really gratifying. We were flat on our backs when I took over the program. So, we celebrated in Tokyo. We flew back to Chicago and bussed back to Wisconsin. People were lined up along the interstate and then we drove into a full stadium [in Madison]."
The victory against UCLA not only was important for the Badgers, but it helped to revive the Big Ten. The Pac-10 had won 15 of the previous 19 Rose Bowls, but, starting with Wisconsin's victory in '93, the Big Ten won six of the next seven, including two more for Wisconsin in '98 and '99.
"The first one was really special," Alvarez said. "The Big Ten was really struggling at the time. The Big Ten could not win out there. I was out there twice with Iowa, and we got whacked both times. We were big underdogs for that game."
Alvarez goes back to Burgettstown a couple of times a year. He still has family there. One of his cousins, Jon Vallina, is the longtime athletic director at Burgettstown High. When he was a teenager, Alvarez worked at Vallina's Market for Jon's father.
"He attributes a lot of what he has accomplished to the work ethic he learned back here," Vallina said.
Many of those extended family members will be in attendance when Alvarez is formally inducted into the Hall at the National Football Foundation's annual awards dinner in December in New York and when he is officially enshrined at the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011 in South Bend, Ind..
"I'm going to make sure that everyone who had something to do with my background that they all have an opportunity to come to South Bend and New York," Alvarez said. "I think it's important to celebrate with the people who mean the most to you.
"I'm very proud of Burgettstown and Western Pennsylvania. Every time I run into someone from Western Pennsylvania, they let me know where they're from. Everyone is proud to call Western Pennsylvania home."
First Published May 31, 2010 12:00 am