Commentary

Alvarez emotional about HOF entry

Originally Published: May 27, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Another meeting, another batch of paperwork. Barry Alvarez sat among Big Ten athletic directors, coaches, faculty reps and other administrators in Chicago last week, one eye on the lectern, the other on the stuff he brought with him.

The speakers took their turns. National Football Foundation president Steve Hatchell reminded everyone what his organization does, including its stewardship of the College Football Hall of Fame. He explained the criteria for being eligible for the Hall -- a consensus All-American as a player, a .600 winning percentage over a minimum 10-year coaching career.

[+] EnlargeBarry Alvarez
Vincent Laforet/Allsport Barry Alvarez guided Wisconsin to a 3-0 record in the Rose Bowl.

Hatchell explained that a candidate had been elected unanimously this spring. The NFF notifies the new Hall of Fame members by delivering a football painted with the news to their door. The electees are asked to keep the news to themselves until a formal announcement.

In this case, however, since the candidate sat right there in the room, Hatchell decided to deliver the football himself in front of the man's peers.

And then he called Barry Alvarez to the microphone.

"[Wisconsin coach] Bret Bielema said to me afterward, 'He's saying you're in the Hall of Fame and you're not even looking at him,'" Alvarez said, laughing.

When Alvarez processed the news, "I was very emotional. I teared up. It was like somebody sucker-punched me. Somebody took my breath away."

Alvarez and 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, a member of the ESPN "College GameDay" crew, appeared at a news conference in New York on Thursday as the headliners of the 2010 class of the College Football Hall of Fame.

The inductees covered nearly four decades of the sport, from Jerry Stovall of LSU, the 1962 Heisman runner-up and former Tigers head coach, to linebacker Alfred Williams, who helped take Colorado to a share of the 1990 national championship, to coaches Gene Stallings of Texas A&M and Alabama and Alvarez, who retired after the 2005 season.

"I really never thought about it until I saw my name on the ballot," Alvarez said.

It was never a question of whether Alvarez would be inducted, only when. The Badgers had won six games in the three seasons prior to his arrival in Madison in 1990. They went 1-10 in his first season. More than 50 players quit.

Oh, but the guys who stayed.

Even when a 3-0 start in 1991 dissolved into six consecutive losses, a sleepless, stressed Alvarez didn't waver.

"I felt like we were always getting better," he said. "Even that 1-10 year. Our guys were competitors. We would have won our last game, against Michigan State [a 14-9 loss], but the kid dropped a touchdown pass. I knew we were getting better. We were recruiting better. The kids weren't buying into losing. They weren't intimidated. I knew I had a good staff."

Alvarez served on Hayden Fry's staff at Iowa, the one that produced so many head coaches (Bill Snyder, Kirk Ferentz, Bob Stoops, Dan McCarney …). He learned well. His staff at Wisconsin included Bielema, McCarney, Brad Childress, Bill Callahan and Rob Ianello -- future head coaches all.

In 1992, the Freedom and Independence Bowls prepared to duke it out over the 6-5 Badgers. However, they lost their season finale to Northwestern 27-25 and stayed home.

The next season, Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 30 years. The 1993 Badgers will reside in the hearts of Badgers fans for as long as the band plays a fifth quarter.

[+] EnlargeBarry Alvarez
John Reed/US PresswireBarry Alvarez recorded a 118-73-4 record during his 16-year tenure as the Badgers' coach.

In the days since he learned he is a Hall of Fame coach, Alvarez said he has thought of players such as Joe Panos, the co-captain and offensive right tackle on that '93 team. When the Badgers began the season 6-0, a writer asked Panos whether his team could win the Big Ten.

"Why not Wisconsin?" Panos asked. "Someone has to win the Big Ten Conference title. It might as well be us."

"I wouldn't let anybody talk about anything but the next game," Alvarez said. "Joe took a weight off our players. He was saying, 'We're pretty good. We can play with anyone.'"

The Badgers finished the regular season 9-1-1 and won the Rose Bowl. The stars of that team -- players like Panos, quarterback Darrell Bevell (hired by Childress as the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings) and tailback Terrell Fletcher -- have been flashing through Alvarez's mind in the last week. So have guys like Ron Dayne, who won the 1999 Heisman Trophy, and defensive lineman Chris McIntosh, stalwarts of the teams that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl again in 1998 and 1999.

Alvarez retired after the 2005 season with a record of 118-73-4. After he laid the foundation in those first three seasons, Alvarez went 107-51-4. But the rest of his career wouldn't have happened without the troubles of the first three.

In 1990, I was a young national college football writer for The Dallas Morning News, and my editor asked me to select a "Team of the '90s" for the preview section. Defending national champion Miami would have been an obvious choice, if not Colorado or Washington.

Looking for an angle, looking to make a splash, I selected Wisconsin. Alvarez had been Lou Holtz's top assistant at Notre Dame, which had lost just one game in the past two seasons (1988 and '89). And the Badgers' program had fallen so far, anything would be an improvement. The story would be fun to write.

In three years, Alvarez made me look very smart. You can look at the Rose Bowls and the turnaround and the consistent winning as reasons to put him in the Hall of Fame. I had my own.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com