Thanks to a Great Coach and a Great Leader

As the world knows at this point, Barry Alvarez has announced that he will retire in June, stepping down from the Athletic Director position he has filled so spectacularly for the last 17 years.

To say he’s has been a transformative figure in Wisconsin athletics history is a vast understatement. He created a powerhouse football team and then went on as AD to lead Badger teams through some of their best decades ever.  He is a legend here in the state.

The story of his hiring by Donna Shalala and Pat Richter and his subsequent football success has been told many times and is widely known. What has always intrigued me more is how he made the move in 2004 from the playing field to the conference room…from being a top-ranked and talented coach to leading the entire program and navigating the increasingly complex world of college athletics.

During Barry’s 18-year tenure as athletic director, the Badgers have won 16 national and 73 Big Ten team titles; another 25  student-athletes have won individual national titles. While this on-the-field success is important, that’s not the most important metric of how athletic directors are evaluated.  For the ADs, there’s a more complex set of criteria:

  • Most important, are student-athletes thriving, healthy and successful, both in the classroom as well as on the field?
  • Are the coaches, who are hired by the AD, mentoring, training, and encouraging student-athlete success on all dimensions?
  • Is the program managing its budgets and expenses, while also successfully fundraising?
  • Are fans excited about the direction of the program?
  • Do all coaches and sports feel supported, from the revenue-generating ones through the Olympic sports?
  • Does the program have facilities that allow it to competitively recruit for top talent?
  • Does the program live UW’s values around diversity, inclusion and equity?
  • Above all, does the program generate pride, on campus and off, because it “does things the right way?”

If you ask these questions about Wisconsin athletics, most people will answer a resounding ‘yes’ in almost all categories. That success is Barry’s legacy.

We all reveled in the Rose Bowls, Final Fours and hockey titles, but we also loved to see swimming champions, volleyball and softball success and cross-country stars. While being a shrewd steward of finances, Barry has overseen the creation of facilities like LaBahn Arena, Porter Boathouse, the Bennett Student Athlete Performance Center, renovations to the Field House and plans for new updates to Camp Randall and the Kohl Center. He championed the Big Ten Network that helped give greater visibility and increased revenue for the entire conference.

At the same time, he has maintained a high level of integrity in the program, in the classroom, and in the community. More than 3,500 Academic All-Big Ten honors have been earned by Wisconsin student-athletes, along with tens of thousands of hours of community service through the Badgers Give Back program.

Back to the question: How did he do it?

First, we know that he had a mentor and model from his own college coach, Nebraska’s legendary Bob Devaney, who himself transitioned from football coach to athletic director.  Second, he became AD as the program was headed in the right direction; the renaissance of Wisconsin Athletics started under his predecessor, Pat Richter.

But Barry furthered the culture of success through his own leadership skills. His book is titled “Don’t Flinch,” and it’s an accurate way to describe his philosophy. Those of us who have worked with Barry in Big Ten and NCAA circles have seen him lead with confidence and conviction…even when his positions weren’t in the majority. I’ve seen how others listen to him and the respect he has from other coaches and athletic directors.

I am in complete agreement with his mantra, namely, to hire extremely capable and qualified people and then “get out of the way.” He has shown a remarkable ability to attract and develop talented coaches who have deep connections to our university, city and state.

Barry has always believed in the state of Wisconsin. When he was coaching, his goal was to recruit the state’s best football talent to UW — and he demonstrated that this talent would take the program to new heights. But his belief in the state goes beyond the field. Barry built long-lasting friendships with coaches, leaders, and supporters across the state. Barry generously gives his time to businesses, families, and communities. He loves the state, has pride in the state, and has made it his home.

Lastly and most importantly, Barry had fun and he made it fun for all of us. He brought his family and friends along for the ride. He celebrated after a big bowl game. He traded jokes with fans at local restaurants. He always embraced the joy in the sports we play and encouraged all of us to do the same. I know that watching his grandsons, Joe and Jake, play football for the Badgers were among his happiest moments.

Thank you, Barry, for all your hard work, your devotion to UW-Madison, and the standard of excellence you have set for our athletic program. Your work here has positively impacted the lives of countless student athletes who have come through our doors. Your leadership has lifted athletic programs, but in doing that you have also lifted our university and our state. You will be missed, bur your legacy will live on whenever Badgers take the field.