Wednesday, January 02, 2013 4:37 am
Column: Badgers make best of a bad situation
By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
Wisconsin was one of two schools playing Tuesday - Northern Illinois was the other - whose head coach bailed out on the team between the end of the regular season and a bowl game. That's becoming such a regular occurrence, even when big-time BCS bowls like the Rose and Orange are involved, that it hardly qualifies as news. At least a half-dozen other teams found themselves in the same position during the current bowl season, and five more had to make do without one of their coordinators in the fold, which can be every bit as disruptive.
We even have a repeat offender this time around: Butch Jones, who left Cincinnati on Dec. 7 - a day after promising the athletic director he would return - to take the head-coaching job at Tennessee. He did the same thing to Central Michigan two years ago, and in both cases left the bowl mop-up work to assistant Steve Stripling, who followed Jones to Cincinnati and is already set to join his new staff at Tennessee. Nobody gets mad at shenanigans like that anymore, especially when the coach, like Jones, is an up-and-comer. There's too much money at stake now for either side to take it personally.
Even so, a few things made the Swap-O-Rama at Wisconsin more interesting than most. First off, running a Big 10 program used to be viewed as a destination job, but when Bret Bielema traded the Badgers for the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Southeastern Conference, it reinforced the perception that for any coach with serious championship ambitions, the SEC is the only place to be. Second, even though six of Bielema's assistants have already lined up jobs elsewhere next season, they all decided to work the Rose Bowl alongside Alvarez, which only seemed fair considering how well he treated every one of them in the past. And then there was Alvarez himself.
The Wisconsin seniors essentially "drafted" him after Bielema ditched them, and sweet as it was that he agreed to come out of retirement for this one game, his motives weren't entirely charitable. Alvarez makes $1 million a year as AD, and his deal includes a $118,000 bonus for coaching in the Rose and $50,000 more for winning it.
Even though Wisconsin lost 20-14, most still looked at the temporary measure as money well spent.
"I think it served as a unifying factor," junior linebacker Chris Borland said. "Not that this team would ever experience any dissension, we've got a bunch of character guys. But to have Coach Alvarez come back ... I think it calmed guys' nerves. Initially, I think there was a little anxiety about the situation, at least from the younger guys, and to have Coach Alvarez step back and come back and coach, it brought everybody together."
For his part, Alvarez said the seven years watching games from a booth upstairs hadn't dulled his competitive instincts, even though the loss snapped his personal 3-0 Rose Bowl streak. An interception by Stanford's Usua Amanam as Wisconsin was driving late also ensured the Badgers a third consecutive heartbreaking loss in Pasadena.
"You know what? Every game we had out here was very competitive," he said. "We were fortunate to come out on top in my (previous) games. This game, the only thing that's different than the other teams that I coached is somehow we found a way to win, and we weren't fortunate enough to get a win today."
Considering the way the regular season went in Madison, though, you could argue Wisconsin was playing the Rose Bowl with house money. The Badgers nearly lost star running back Montee Ball after he was attacked in August and suffered a concussion, only one reason they had trouble scoring points. They lost three games in overtime and two others by a total of three points, then wound up with the conference's Rose Bowl slot because the two teams ahead of them - Ohio State and Penn State - were ineligible for postseason play.
As an added bonus, Gary Andersen, the former Utah State coach Alvarez hired to replace Bielema, had the chance to watch the bowl practices with some of his incoming staff and was on the sideline Tuesday night to observe the players he'll inherit go through the ringer in a big game.
"The advantages are they had a chance to evaluate the players and have an idea in their minds when they get here, what they have and what they have to recruit, the strengths and weaknesses of the team," Alvarez said. "As I told the team, we have a very good nucleus coming back next year, a lot of juniors, and they have a chance to be an outstanding squad again next year."
By then, Alvarez, who turned 66 a few days ago, will be back in his office and probably glad of it. So credit him with making the best of a bad situation. But if you watched Alvarez come out of the tunnel at the start of the game, taking two quick steps before veering sharply left to get out of the way of his onrushing players, you know he hardly needed reminding that coaching is a young man's game.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.