LOS ANGELES - It was such a long time ago, but junior defensive tackle and Medford, Wis., native Ethan Hemer remembers watching Wisconsin’s last two Rose Bowl triumphs.
He’s reminded of the physicality of Ron Dayne running through UCLA’s and Stanford’s front sevens, the dominance of Wendell Bryant, Tom Burke and Ross Kolodziej on UW’s defensive lines and how the Badgers played with a purpose, an aggressiveness and a swagger to succeed on college football’s grandest stage.
But the more he watched and the older he grew, the more Hemer recognized that those Wisconsin teams played with the same characteristics as the man orchestrating the shots - head coach Barry Alvarez.
“That’s something that has stuck with everyone,” said Hemer. “We’ve seen the success this man has had. To have an opportunity to play for him is a great honor; something a lot of guys, especially from this state, are taking very seriously.”
After originally saying it was enough to just see Alvarez at practice to know that he was around, Hemer said seeing Wisconsin’s legendary figure putting his unblemished Rose Bowl record on the line for them has made Alvarez, whether he likes it or not, the rallying point for Wisconsin.
“He’s excited to be able to get back on the sidelines and coach another game and we’re ecstatic to get a coach as great as he is,” said Hemer. “He has a track record where he is able to input some knowledge on us and give us an opportunity to get a win.”
Alvarez’s marks are well known around Wisconsin but they warrant repeating. The winningest coach in program history, Alvarez is the only Big Ten coach to win back-to-back Rose Bowls and joins Ohio State’s Woody Hayes (4) as the only Big Ten coach with at least three Rose Bowl Game wins.
A 2009 inductee of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, Alvarez is 3-0 in Pasadena, guiding Wisconsin to Rose Bowl wins in 1994, 1999 and 2000. Overall Alvarez owns an 8-3 (.727) mark in bowl games, the best winning percentage of any coach in college football history, and a history that Wisconsin’s current roster is well versed in.
“You just want to play for him,” said junior tailback James White, who first got educated about Alvarez’s legacy when he got to Madison. “He’s a great coach, one of the great coaches of all time, and we’re honored to have him coach us. We just want to get him a win.
“He knows how to win. He knows what he’s doing. We just have to follow the plan he lays out for us.”
The game plan Alvarez has laid out has been one of management rather than micromanagement. Dealing with all the media requirements in addition to spending the previous two weeks looking for a head football and volleyball coach, Alvarez has let the coaches install their game plan without distraction.
The only thing Alvarez has done is bring his practice formula to the table. Utilizing shorter practice times while demanding full attention of his players with a little bit of contact, Alvarez’s decisions have resulted in his players praising the practices as some of the best of the year and the hitting a help in getting the rust off.
“He trusts that you are going to go out and execute and not go overboard,” said White. “Go out there and pay attention to details.”
“I think we're very far ahead of where we were at this point last year,” added senior Shelton Johnson. “I know coming in last year we didn't start having most of the game plan down. By the time we got up here, we had 95 percent of our game plan already set in. So I think it was a lot more front-loaded. It was a business mentality.”
Hemer called the meeting with Bret Bielema telling the team his decision to leave for Arkansas’ head coaching job “strange” and one that had “a lot of anger in the room” initially, but the meetings and ensuing practices with Alvarez were calm and organized, especially when he said he was coming out of retirement for them.
“With the momentum we built with the Nebraska win coupled with the addition of Coach Alvarez, we feel that gives us a little bit of an edge,” said Hemer. “We have guys that have been there before and experienced everything the Rose Bowl has to offer.
Although Alvarez insisted the game is about the players and not him, Hemer spoke for his teammates when he said that Wisconsin’s 2012 team doesn’t want to be known as the team that lost Alvarez’s first Rose Bowl.
“I committed to the program, not the coaches,” said Hemer. “I love our coaches and everything they’ve done, but this team is made up of players that are talented and have experienced success. We can talking coaching from whomever and be successful … Having Coach Alvarez come in has boosted everyone’s confidence and this team is more ready to represent the Big Ten than a couple weeks ago.”