ORLANDO, Fla. — In what has been a season full of “lasts” for Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez, Monday’s Capital One Bowl against Auburn marks the definitive end of the road for the man who put the UW program on the map.
This year has been all about endings for Alvarez, who announced in July that he would be stepping down following the 2005 campaign.
Every road game marked his final trip to another stadium. He was honored after his final home game against Iowa Nov. 12 and patrolled the sidelines in his final regular season contest at Hawaii Nov. 25.
“Every week I get the same questions—it’s the last time you play at Penn State, it’s the last time you play a non-conference game, it’s the last time you play a Big Ten game,” Alvarez said.
But Monday’s game against Auburn will be the end of a 16-season run at Wisconsin.
Alvarez has taken the days leading up to his final game just as he has each and every game all season. He is doing everything he can to make sure that his players are not focusing on it being his last game.
“I have never brought [my final game] up all year. I haven’t played that card,” Alvarez said. “You play because you want to win, you want to compete. You shouldn’t have to have any other motivational factors.
“It’s another game as usual.”
Some of the Badger players have tried their best to heed the advice of their head man.
“It’s a big game, definitely, but we’re just looking at it as another game,” sophomore defensive tackle Nick Hayden said.
“Obviously it’s Coach Alvarez’s last season and last game, but I think also what’s important is it’s a chance for us to win a 10th game,” junior tailback Brian Calhoun said.
But whether they are trying to forget about it or not, the desire to send Alvarez out on a high note is still lingering somewhere in each of the players’ minds.
“I just think that the stage is set. A lot people didn’t expect us to be here,” freshman cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. “This is a great way for coach to go out. I think that we just have to play well for him, because he’s done a lot for this program.”
“He’s been a great leader and put us in positions to be successful throughout his whole career, especially this year with our young team and everything. It would be great to go out there and get a win for him and we’re going to play that much harder for him.”
All of the players shared Ikegwuonu’s feelings as far as Alvarez being the team’s vital leader—one that has done extraordinary work at UW and one that will be missed on the sidelines.
“Being Barry’s last game, we need to go out with a win for him, that would be great for him and great for the program,” defensive lineman Justin Ostrowski said. “He’s been a great coach, he’s a great leader and he’ll be greatly missed.”
“One of the things I have the most respect for is that his players are really the most important thing to him,” co-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. “Having grown up in Wisconsin, understanding what he’s done and where he’s put this program speaks volumes. And the thing that I think is pretty neat is he’s done it his own way.”
Nobody can argue that point with Chryst, who is in his second stint coaching with Alvarez.
After years of football misery, Alvarez brought Badger football to a national stage. He will be looking for his 118th victory Monday when Wisconsin plays in its 11th bowl in the last 13 years.
Before Alvarez took over as head coach, UW had appeared in just six bowls in the previous 100 years.
“I saw it from the outside world at first. I saw the transition and turnaround and I saw the things that developed,” said defensive coordinator and future head coach Bret Bielema, who was previously an assistant coach at Iowa and Kansas State. “Then I came back and was on the inside and was able to see the day-to-day routine that our guys go through.”
Bielema will officially take over for Alvarez Jan. 30, but is already in the process of lining up new members for his future staff and will sprint into a recruiting contact period, which begins Monday, right after the Capital One Bowl is over.
He maintains, however, that his number one priority has been to prepare his defensive unit for the tough Auburn offense.
As for Alvarez, who is trying to view Monday’s contest as just another game and not his last effort, he says he will probably not even realize his run is over until he is relaxing in Naples, Fla. next week, where he will take a week off before returning to Madison to resume his role as UW’s Athletic Director.
“[It will probably hit me] after the game when I realize that I don’t have to jump on an airplane and go out and recruit, that I can kick back and not worry about verbal commitments and who’s going where and how many we have lined up… I’m looking forward to that,” Alvarez said.
“[But] I think I’ll keep pretty busy, being the Athletic Director,” Alvarez added. “I think I’ll have plenty to do to keep on top of that program.”