Barry Alvarez's last season as a football coach was 2005.

However, as Wisconsin's athletic director, he still watches Badger games with the eye of a coach, he said Wednesday from Madison, Wisconsin.

He certainly doesn't hesitate to offer suggestions to the Badgers' current head coach, Gary Andersen, whose team plays 13th-ranked Nebraska on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium.

Alvarez, a former linebacker at Nebraska, said he learned his basic beliefs about the game while in college during the late 1960s, mostly from the great Bob Devaney. In fact, Alvarez idolized the iconic Husker coach.

As Wisconsin's extremely successful head coach (1990-2005), Alvarez established a formula that turned around a wayward program and made it a force in the Big Ten Conference during much of his tenure.

His formula began with building a mammoth and forceful offensive line. In addition, Wisconsin often played solid defense and had sound fundamentals across the board. It featured a lot of in-state players, especially big and burly ones — 300-pounders. There are plenty of those in Wisconsin.

Is Andersen, in his second season at the school, following the Alvarez blueprint?

"I think, for the most part, that's what we're doing," Alvarez said. "We put an emphasis on keeping our good kids at home, and our good kids are normally going to be linemen.

"We're going to get a few in-state skill-position kids like (running back) Melvin Gordon (from Kenosha). … But it won't be an overabundance. We have big kids here. We have an abundance of big people."

If you've been to Wisconsin, you understand. Much of the population has Northern European ancestry, folks who enjoy a rugged lifestyle and consume plenty of fried fish, cheese curds, milk and oh, yes, beer. Plenty of beer.

"You're talking big, blond-haired, big-boned people," Alvarez said. "Beer drinkers."

He recalls the program's summer camps for high school players, when he would routinely see 6-foot-5, 300-pound ninth-graders. It makes you wonder how their parents afford to feed them.

It also helps you understand why top-flight running backs want to play for the Badgers.

Gordon, a 6-1, 215-pound junior, is second nationally with his average of 162.0 rushing yards per game. He's scored 18 touchdowns.

Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) ranks 25th in total offense and first in total defense. 

The Badgers' offensive line, as usual, is big and experienced. The smallest and youngest player is redshirt sophomore center Dan Voltz, a 6-3, 313-pound Illinois native.

Two of the starters — senior left guard Dallas Lewallen (6-6, 322) and senior right guard Kyle Costigan (6-5, 315) — are Wisconsin natives.

"I think it's a solid line," Alvarez said. "These guys have played a lot of snaps. They're similar to the lines we've had. We're not as deep as we'd normally like to be. … But it's a good group."

It's a group that, in addition to paving the way for Gordon, is allowing less than one sack per game.

In recent years, Wisconsin's offensive line talent has stacked up favorably to Nebraska's, especially in terms of NFL draft picks (UW has had three first-rounders in the past four years).

Alvarez established the O-line tradition. It wasn't rocket science. Then again, the most ingenious ideas often are relatively simple. Ketchup comes to mind.

Thing is, Alvarez said, too many in-state players, period, were leaving for other schools. When Iowa played in the Rose Bowl following the 1990 season, Alvarez recalled, the Hawkeyes had no fewer than 10 Wisconsin natives on their two-deep chart.

Alvarez had to win over Wisconsin high school coaches. He had to show them how their players could benefit from attending UW. He had to show them he would always be available to work with them. He assigned his assistants a given number of high schools with which to maintain close contact.

He began to emphasize a walk-on program, having experienced its merits at Nebraska.

Of course, Alvarez learned from Devaney, whose outgoing personality is legendary. Bob had fun. He was a master at forming relationships with the right people and getting the most out of his players.

Some folks would suggest Alvarez possesses similar traits.

"That could be relatively accurate," he said with a chuckle. "It's good to have fun."

Alvarez soon made it difficult for Wisconsin high school coaches to direct players elsewhere. The "balookas" up front — as Alvarez calls them — began heading to Madison en masse. A tradition was born. A tradition that makes a lot of sense.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.​


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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