This week, the hosts of Big Sports Saturday, Joel Finkelman and Jimmie Kaska count down the five most irreplaceable sports figures as of May 2017. On Saturday, May 13, the most irreplaceable Wisconsin sports figure (according to Big Sports Saturday) will be revealed. The order of the ranking is almost irrelevant: if any of these five Wisconsin sports figures left their current positions, there would be a huge void to fill. There's also no criteria for this list other than: if the team removed this person, how big of an impact would it be?
#4: Barry Alvarez, Director of Athletics at the University of Wisconsin and the former football coach who was the architect of that program's enduring success
Jimmie Kaska: We've continued the Badgers theme on the second day of... whatever we're doing. Today, we try to imagine what would happen if Wisconsin parted ways with Barry: it would be pretty shocking. UW is having a whole bunch of success in all sports. Top five in the Learfield Director’s Cup. It would be really hard to imagine Barry being told to take a hike.
Joel Finkelman: The Architect. I've never lived in a time when Badger athletics weren't competitive and that's largely due to him. The only reason he doesn't reach top three status is because UW has been so competitive for so long that he should be able to find a successor who can keep things rolling with relative ease. Worst case scenario he can always tab Bret Bielema as his successor... again.
Jimmie: Barry set the table for the football program, and is doing it with all of Wisconsin athletics. Look at any sport. Plus, it’s not just wins and losses—Wisconsin keeps racking up the academic awards too. Other than maybe finding a way to squeeze in better parking downtown—what else could Barry do? His legacy is cemented here. Although some cement for a huge parking ramp downtown would help maybe. Stupid city laws.
Joel: So there's some stupid city ordinance about making a building taller than the capitol... So if there was anyone who had the 'political capital' to skirt the rule it would be Barry. Hows that for word play? As for legacy he probably goes down as the most influential Badger ever. On top of that, are Iowa fans at all annoyed at how things played out? He was a coach there for seven years before heading off to Notre Dame and then UW where he turned around a dead program, invigorated an entire athletic program, won multiple Rose Bowls etc etc... Way to go Iowa. Good on ya.
Jimmie: I don't think Iowa fans are annoyed (or Nebraska, or Notre Dame, or Miami). Barry was the first real "godfather" of a major D-1 institution. When you hear about AD hires these days, Barry's name is tossed around as the ideal--you want to take a struggling program, flip it to a beacon of athletic (and academic) success, and have your name carved into the side of a few buildings. Alvarez ended up owning his success--first as a football coach, then as a mentor, and now as the face of one of the premiere athletic departments in the nation.
Joel: Curious question here about Alvarez. Let's move his coaching career ahead to right now. With the success that he had, Rose Bowl's etc... do you think he would have stayed at UW like he did? Or do you think some big national team would have given him the godfather offer? Part of the legacy of Alvarez is simply the fact that he just has always been here. I'm sure he had countless offers to leave for bigger named schools.
Jimmie: This is Mike Lucas territory. He probably had offers. I vaguely remember Miami coming strong for him at some point. Anything that happened before 2003, I was too busy putting glue in my hair to spike it because I was a punk rocker. The longevity at an institution is certainly part of why Barry’s Barry probably, but I think his best achievement remains the state of the athletic department today. Look at the head coaches. Virtually every single one in all sports are pretty successful, or at least well-renowned. Look at the academics. Look at how late into the year we’re doing sports—football in January, volleyball in December, basketball into late March and sometimes April. For everything he did on the field, turning around a moribund program and putting Madison on the map for college football, I think there’s a safe argument that he’s done as good of a job as an athletic director. Like anyone, he’s made some missteps in coaching hires, but up and down the programs now, there’s not one that doesn’t fit what the Badgers are trying to do.
Joel: Nobody is going to bat a thousand in a career that lasts as long as his, but he may have the highest batting average of any longtime athletic director at ANY institution in the country. The more I think about it, it's hard to even comprehend someone who has built a program from the ashes, implanted that level of success into other programs, had the academic success to back it up, and avoided any MAJOR violations (see University, Baylor... University of, Oregon... every SEC program... etc) throughout the college landscape like he has. All of that AND he was in an episode of Entourage that one time. You want to know what's nice about Alvarez that he doesn't get credit for (mostly because it's not something people give credit for)? He keeps his mouth shut about opponents and hands out nothing but respect. We see so often teams coaches and AD's taking pot shots at teams in their own conference, their commissioners, or other AD's and it's all about as useful as the Ja Rule/50 Cent beef. So here I am, giving Barry credit for something that shouldn't need mentioning. Good work, Godfather.
Jimmie: Not only that, but he was at the forefront of the college football playoff discussion. He was in the room for putting together the lists they make to determine who is going to be in the four-team playoff. That’s an incredible amount of insight (and influence) you can bring back to Madison, and now has the insider look at how to put together a football schedule going forward. If anyone knows what will be best for Badgers football, it’s going to be Barry. Name a phase he’s not qualified to lead in football operations. Trick question: you can’t.
On a side note, two years after Jim Leonhard went from Flambeau High School (which looks exactly like a barn) to All-American, I jokingly set a recruiting “tape” to the football office, saying the next big thing from Flambeau was waiting for Barry’s call. The tape was a JV game from my junior year, when I got six sacks and did The Worm in celebration of the fourth one (or at least, I tried to do The Worm. It more resembled a dying fish on a dock lakeside). The athletic department sent me a standard reply (with a brochure and everything), probably sifting through thousands of these tapes, some of them very serious inquiries. The point is, they don’t miss details either. Everything that is done in that department is done with a purpose. They wasted postage on a 17-year-old with a 40 time in the 5.0’s, but they at least responded. Whether I was serious or not, it’s evidence that there are few (if any) corners ignored inside the UW athletic department.
Joel: Turf maintenance... that may be the only thing I can think of! But that's an interesting point about turning over every stone. The Badgers have to because of program size (even though it's big it isn't... BIG) which makes you wonder. How can someone who has led the program to the heights that it has gotten to never 'bought into the hype'? Well, having a steady hand lead the way who understands exactly where the program is at all times is how they have avoided that. Another one of Barry's biggest positives is the fact that he is hyper-aware of what the Badgers are. He knows that no matter how many Big 6 bowls they go to or win, the program simply isn't Alabama. They aren't like most SEC programs who have to beat away four-star recruits with a broom because they've already filled all their scholarships on five-stars. He simultaneously is aware of this while also maximizing on the programs strengths. The coaches that have followed him (minus Gary Andersen) have understood that they need to focus on the offensive line and running backs. This has created a scenario in which the Badgers have become a hotbed for talented offensive linemen and running backs who end up in the NFL, thus making recruiting those positions even easier. Continuity man... it helps in all facets of life.
Jimmie: It’s not just an offensive line factory. Wisconsin routinely develops their prospects into stars. Guys who normally get overlooked elsewhere find their niche in Madison and thrive. Wisconsin’s also followed the Nebraska model of allowing walk-ons a real chance to play. I don’t need to name names here, but as I mentioned above, Jim Leonhard did pretty well, walking on at Wisconsin rather than taking a scholarship to Minnesota-Duluth.
That’s the real key for me. Alvarez took the successful Nebraska walk-on model (in which like Nebraska, Wisconsin is the only D1 football program in the state) and applied it to incredible success here. Not only that, he can boast a program that turns half-star recruits and turn them into future Pro Football Hall of Famers (Joe Thomas). The whole point of college is to develop, socially, academically, and if you’re an athlete, physically. Not many other programs, if any other programs, are routinely as great as Wisconsin is at doing this. It all started with Barry.
Joel: The walk-on thing is real. Sure other schools have them on the roster, but few have them make as much of an impact as they do in Madison. All you have to do is look at the last four years, and even that is just the tip of the iceberg. Finally I will say one more thing. Alvarez has one move he can make to solidify the title of 'Best AD In The Nation' in my book. If he replaced the weird corn-cob football statue with literally anything else... He would take the title. For crying out loud replace it with a statue of himself and I would still hand him the title. Other then that, his run has been pretty massive for the school, the city, and the state.
Jimmie: I think we've covered it. Hard to imagine anyone else at this juncture as the face of Wisconsin athletics. Whoever comes next has Camp Randall-sized shoes to fill... right next to the Nails Tails statue outside of the stadium of course. Maybe Barry will get his own statue someday.
Tomorrow, we're on to a player that is integral to his team's present and future for a professional team in Wisconsin, a guy that if the franchise somehow lost him would be set back years by his departure.
This is part two of a five-part series. Coming Thursday: part three! On Saturday, Joel and Jimmie reveal their most irreplaceable Wisconsin sports figure as of 2017.
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