When Barry Alvarez was hired as linebacker coach on the staff of Lou Holtz at Notre Dame in 1987, he had already honed his football acumen under two Hall of Fame coaches. The western Pennsylvania native had played linebacker at Nebraska in 1965-67 under Bob Devaney, and later coached at Iowa in 1979-86 under Hayden Fry.
After one season coaching Irish linebackers, Alvarez was elevated to defensive coordinator, and in the next two seasons (1988-89) guided one of the nation’s top units. The Irish defense allowed just 13.8 points per game under his leadership, driving ND to a 24-1 record and the 1988 national championship. In 15 of those 25 games, the Irish allowed 14 or fewer points.
Ned Bolcar, Frank Stams, Michael Stonebreaker, Chris Zorich, Wes Peritchett and Todd Lyght all gained All-American recognition under the tutelage of Alvarez.
Holtz had told Alvarez that, with his experience as a coordinator, he would be a prime head coaching candidate, despite only having been a head coach at high schools in Nebraska and Iowa early in his career.
And when the University of Wisconsin came calling in 1990, Alvarez took the job with ND’s blessing.
“I was fortunate for my whole career playing and as an assistant to be involved with some really outstanding coaches,” Alvarez said. “Guys that I really looked up to, guys that were good teachers, guys that really understood the game well, and guys that really got other people to really want to play for them.”
Alvarez took those qualities to Madison, where the football outlook was bleak indeed. The Badgers were coming off back-to-back 1-10 seasons and had won only seven Big 10 games in five seasons. Even in lean years, Wisconsin football usually drew substantial crowds to 77,000-seat Camp Randall Stadium; but at the 1989 season finale, there were estimated to be fewer than 25,000 actual bodies in the seats.
Alvarez and his staff got to work, with the backing of athletic director Pat Richter and chancellor Donna Shalala. They put a strong emphasis on keeping the state’s top prospects from leaving, and made steady gains after another 1-10 mark in 1990.
The breakthrough came in year four (1993), when his first class of recruits were experienced seniors, and fully invested in the coaching staff’s efforts to turn around the program. The Badgers upset Michigan, 13-10, tied number 3 Ohio State and won a trip to the Rose Bowl by thrashing Michigan State, 41-20. In Wisconsin’s first Rose Bowl in 31 years, the Badgers downed UCLA, 21-16, to finish 10-1-1 and No. 5 in the nation.
Alvarez received numerous Big 10 and national coach of the year honors, as he set the Badgers onto a course of consistent winning. He led UW to Big 10 championships and Rose Bowl victories twice more, in 1998 and 1999. In 16 seasons (1990-2005), he compiled a record of 120–73–4 to become the winningest coach in school history.
Alvarez has been Wisconsin’s athletic director since 2004, guiding the department through a period of major facility improvement, and unprecedented success, including several more Big 10 and Western Division football titles and a runner-up finish in the 2015 men’s basketball Final Four. His guidance is valued within college athletics, and he served on the inaugural College Football Playoff committee. He was named Under Armour’s 2017-18 Athletic Director of the Year
Alvarez was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
He characterizes his career with the simple motto: Never be satisfied.
“Whether it’s your team, your staff, your facilities, or yourself, you should always be looking for ways to improve,” he says. “Lou Holtz taught me this. You either get better or you get worse, but you never stay the same.”