Aaron Rodgers has Brett Favre. Drew Carey has Bob Barker. Steven Tyler will have Simon Cowell. And Bret Bielema has Barry Alvarez.
Rodgers, Carey, Tyler and Bielema are all men who, while very successful at face value, have predecessors who loom excessively large in how they are perceived.
Despite his success, which includes a 49-15 record and this season’s first Badgers victory over a No. 1-ranked team in nearly 30 years, for many Wisconsin head football coach Bret Bielema still toils in the shadows of former coach Barry Alvarez.
It’s not surprising. Even more so than Favre revitalized the Packers franchise, Alvarez brought Wisconsin football back from the dead and kept it very much alive for 16 years, compiling the longest and most impressive coaching résumé in Badgers football history.
As well, just like Rodgers has had to deal with Favre still being active (though No. 4′s days finally seem to be running out), Bielema has also had to deal with Alvarez’s continued presence, thanks to his high-profile role as UW athletic director (to say nothing of that thunderous Alvarez-heavy highlight reel that runs before each Badger home game).
There’s also the not insignificant fact that Alvarez remains the only Badgers coach in history to win a Rose Bowl.
Well, actually three of them.
Now Bielema, to top off his fifth and most successful season, has his chance to win the bowl game affectionately known as the “Granddaddy of Them All.”
Will a No. 4 Badgers victory over No. 3 TCU this New Year’s Day finally be enough for Bielema to escape Alvarez’s shadow?
Or, perhaps more to the point, will a 2011 Rose Bowl loss trigger unfairly negative comparisons to his former boss, who has never left Pasadena without a Rose Bowl victory under his ample belt?
After all, it was only two years ago during an uncharacteristic four-game conference losing streak that Bielema was widely accused of losing control of his team. During that stretch he was labeled as inferior not only to Alvarez but also to UW men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan (who, for all of his accolades, has gotten the Badgers out of the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend just once since Bielema took over the football program).
For Bielema to truly create his own coaching legacy, he has some advantage to coaching a collegiate team. Part of his fanbase—namely the students, who are passionate about the team as long as the games don’t start at 11 a.m.—has little or no memory of the Alvarez glory years, just like UW students during those years had no memory of the nadir of the Don Morton era.
But since much of the Badgers fanbase is made of alumni that continue to follow the team years and decades after they stopped attending house parties on Breese Terrace, there still exists a shadow from which Bielema would like to escape.
But of course, even if Bielema pulls off the victory on January 1—and the Badgers as of this writing are a minor underdog—he will still face the daunting task of needing to win two more Rose Bowls just to match Alvarez’s total.
Fortunately for Bielema, he’s young enough—rumor has it that Joe Paterno has great-grandchildren younger than Bielema—that he should be afforded plenty of time to match it.
But he can’t squander this golden opportunity to start collecting Rose Bowl wins, or people throughout Badger Nation will be muttering, “He’s no Barry.”
And they won’t be talking about Manilow.