Back in the 1960s as I was growing up a football fan in Tennessee, we thought the college football world was the SEC. Sure, there was Notre Dame, Michigan and even USC for some west coast flavor.
But these teams were looked on as afterthoughts. And when one of them was voted national champs, we always had a team in mind that we felt were better. Know what that made us? Typical football fans, nothing more or less.
I have grown older and wiser and now I understand, it's not just all about the SEC anymore. Now it's all about the SEC and the Big Ten. Then, throw in Notre Dame, maybe Oklahoma and USC for that west coast thing.
Back in my youth, teams like Indiana, Iowa or Wisconsin were the also-ran of the Big Ten. Much as Vanderbilt was for the SEC, these were the bottom-dwellers of their respected division.
Even in the early 1980s when Wisconsin had a few years of relative success, they still were not considered in the elite of the Big Ten conference, let alone college football. In the latter part of the 1980s, Wisconsin Football seemed to fall off the tracks.
From 1986 through 1989, the Badgers won a total of nine games! In 1990, Wisconsin hired Barry Alvarez, a former assistant with Iowa and Notre Dame, to change their fortunes.
The following is a list of five major developments that have transformed the University of Wisconsin into one of the most successful college football teams in the Big Ten for the past 18 years. Read on and see why!
Here are a few interesting facts for those of you who think college football has become all about recruiting. The following recruiting information was taken directly from a compilation provided by USA Today reporter Jack Carey.
This information contradicts those who say that to have upper-tier seasons you must successfully recruit upper-tier national classes. The players recruited in the following rankings have led Wisconsin to a 32-8 overall record, two Big Ten Championships and a Big Ten Leaders Division championship since 2009.
Wisconsin's recruiting ratings for the last five years from recruiting services Rivals.com, Scout.com and SuperPrep:
|2010||Not in top 50||33||40|
Wisconsin's best recruiting ranking for any year is No. 26 by Scout.com for 2008. On average, the Wisconsin recruiting class ranks in the low-to-mid 40s in the nation per year. Yet, they are consistently finishing with high national rankings, conference championships and often double-digit win seasons.
In Mr. Carey's article, he sought comment from Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com. He asked Mr. Wallace to explain why Wisconsin seems to be able to do what no one else does in going against the grain in national recruiting rankings. Mr. Wallace described it the following way:
"It's an example of great coaching and recruiting well to fit their needs. They don't get a lot of headline players or five-star guys. But they play hard-core football, dominate in the trenches and on the offensive line, and they know their identity exceptionally well."
In the past five years, recruiting coverage has transformed into a 24-hour-a-day, news-media coverage machine, with cameras and reporters surrounding these highly-ranked, rather immature high school athletes and asking them who they will play for six months before signing day. In my opinion, this creates too much hype for a high school kid to deal with. But, all the changing around apparently makes for good TV and radio.
It is refreshing to see a program that is in no way allowing the tail to wag the dog when it comes to recruiting. I am not accustomed to seeing these types of results year in and year out on the field with recruiting classes ranked this low.
The following quote from Bret Bielema was taken from the same USA Today article I referred to previously. It is the coach's answer to what type player they look to recruit to come to Wisconsin and play:
"What we talk about is finding a Wisconsin guy, even if he's in Florida or Ohio or anywhere in the country," Bielema says. "We try to find a kid that fits here academically, athletically and socially. And what I've really learned is kids have to like to play football here. We drill it in them, and they experience it 365 days a year. You can't be tough players just on game days. You have to do it all year-round, and you have to like to practice, too."
That is the type player they look for to play in Wisconsin. If they have a 5-star prospect from a school in South Florida who says he just isn't built for playing in cold weather, my guess is they spend little to no time on that athlete. Instead, they are talking to the muscular, 300-pound kid who can move a line forward and says he likes it cool.
More than that, it is about attitude. The players coming to Wisconsin nowadays don't bring a posse, a rap sheet or an attitude—except about playing hard-nosed football.
It is obvious to me that the mentality of this team is the same as the current head coach and Barry Alvarez before him. It is a blue collar, pack the lunch pail and go to work to get things done type. It's also the type of team that doesn't have time for anyone with a "me first" attitude about anything.
There is a new momentum that started in the early 1990's with the football program at the University of Wisconsin. Certainly, it shows in terms of wins and losses. They have enjoyed a 94-38 win/loss record over the past 10 years.
More importantly, there was no drop-off when the head coach changed in 2006. Bret Bielema is 60-19 in his first six years as head coach. Barry Alvarez, the previous coach, had the unique opportunity of picking his own successor after he accepted the Athletic Director's job with the school in 2005.
These two individuals are teaming up to continue the success that was started in the early years of Barry Alvarez's head coaching career. It is obvious they are like-minded in how the program should be handled now and moving forward.
Changing head coaches without disrupting a team's continuity is a thing that is difficult to accomplish. As a matter of fact, it seldom is accomplished. The successful transition between Coach Bielema and Alvarez saved what often turns out to be years of disruption to a program on the rise.
Coach Bielema played football at Iowa and served as an assistant there from 1994 through 2001. He also worked at Kansas State as a co-defensive coordinator from 2002 through 2003. He then came to Wisconsin to work on Coach Alvarez's team as co-defensive coordinator in 2004.
When the coaching position was offered by Barry Alvarez in 2006, he accepted and has been head coach since. Both he and his boss, Barry Alvarez, now Athletic Director, are Big Ten players and coaches.
As a result, they have the typical Big Ten mantra that says play hardcore football, dominate in the trenches and know who you are as a team.
Bielema believes in taking high quality young men, teaching them toughness and instilling an attitude that says they are ready to play anywhere, anytime, including right now in the parking lot.
The most important thing I feel that coach Bielema has brought to this program is continuing the transformation that was begun by Barry Alvarez. Through the actions of both coaches, Wisconsin has continued its climb to the top of the Big Ten from an also ran in the 70's and 80's to the collegiate football national elite that it is today.
Back in 1990, Barry Alvarez became the head coach of Wisconsin, a football team that had not seen a winning season since 1984 and only had seven conference wins through that same period of time.
The 1990 season did not produce any better results than several of the recent teams just prior to Alvarez's arrival. In 1989, the year before Alvarez arrived, Wisconsin finished 2-10. His 1990 team finished the year at 1-10. Then, In years two and three, his teams began to show some improvement, going 5-6 each season.
In 1993, Coach Alvarez's Badgers had a breakout season, finishing the year 10-1-1, winning the Big Ten championship and appearing in the school's first Rose Bowl since 1963. They would go on to defeat UCLA 21-16, only the second bowl win in the school's history.
Alvarez went on to win two more Big Ten Championships (1998, 1999) and two more Rose Bowls. His 3-0 record in the Rose Bowl is matched only by John Robinson of USC.
Alvarez also won 11 bowl games and finished with a record of 118-73-4. If you take out the team building of the first three seasons during the turnaround, his overall record would read 107-51-4, and his only losing season would be in 1995 (4-5-2).
Coach Alvarez continues to work to build on a successful football program in Wisconsin. The Badgers have won the last two Big Ten championships and are looking to go for three this year.
The accomplishments that have been made by Wisconsin since 1990 is a road map towards building a modern day football dynasty. The two teammates that put a face on this accomplishment daily are Bret Bielema and Barry Alvarez. Fans of Wisconsin football should be very appreciative for all they have done to turn and lead this program to its current state of greatness.
As a person who grew up in the SEC, my perspective of Wisconsin Football has always been that of an outsider looking in. However, my chosen profession has allowed me to be blessed to witness, and understand why some things work in college sports while others don't.
In my humble opinion, your Wisconsin Badgers system works. As a result, I think they will get an opportunity to participate in the national championship playoff sometime within the next few years.
Wisconsin fans, I wish your team good health in the upcoming season. Also, I hope you enjoy watching the Badgers play as much as I do.