MADISON, Wis. — As he announced his retirement, longtime Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez summed up his career by referencing the advice he often gives students.
“Find something that you love to do, do it well enough that someone will pay you to do it, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” Alvarez said Tuesday. “That’s what I believe that I’ve been able to do. I love going to work. I love going to the office. It was never a chore for me to get there. I enjoyed every minute.”
Alvarez is ending a three-decade run in which he transformed the university’s football team and later guided the Badgers to their greatest all-around sports success in school history.
The 74-year-old Alvarez said his retirement would take effect at the beginning of July. Alvarez indicated he initially planned to step down earlier, but wanted to remain in charge while the athletic department dealt with the challenges brought about by the pandemic.
“I’ve had a good run,” Alvarez said. “It’s just time to pass the baton. I’m healthy. I have some things that I want to do. My wife and I want to travel. I have grandkids I want to follow and support. It was just time.”
He was honored Tuesday at a ceremony featuring Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who called Alvarez “a man whose name is synonymous with Wisconsin athletics.”
Alvarez arrived at Wisconsin in 1990 as football coach and turned one of the Big Ten’s weakest programs into one of its strongest. He became athletic director in 2004 and briefly served in a dual role before stepping down as football coach after the 2005 season.
Wisconsin’s football team went a combined 9-36 in the four seasons before his arrival from Notre Dame, where he had worked as defensive coordinator for the Fighting Irish’s 1988 national championship team.
“They’d better get season tickets right now because before long, they probably won’t be able to,” Alvarez boasted at his introductory news conference.
Sure enough, Alvarez led the Badgers to three Rose Bowl titles and made them regular Big Ten contenders by emphasizing a strong defense and rushing attack.
Alvarez coached Wisconsin from 1990-2005 and set a program record for career coaching victories. His 119-74-4 mark includes his record over 16 years, plus a 1-1 mark as an interim coach in bowl games that capped the 2012 and 2014 seasons.
Once he got that head coaching opportunity, Alvarez stayed at Wisconsin the remainder of his career.
“We wanted to go someplace and wanted to establish roots,” Alvarez said as he mentioned the goal he and his wife, Cindy, had set for themselves. “We did not want to be coaching vagabonds. We wanted to have a place we could call home.”
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
Other Wisconsin programs had similar success during his stint as the Badgers’ athletic director.
Alvarez, who played football at Nebraska during Bob Devaney’s coaching tenure, said he patterned his career after his former college coach. Devaney coached Nebraska from 1962-72 and served as the school’s athletic director from 1967-93.
“The thing you learn in coaching is you learn how to make decisions,” Alvarez said. “They may be different decisions, but you learn to be a decision-maker and have to be a decision-maker not afraid to make decisions.
“I always felt being a former coach and being able to relate to your coaches, the 23 coaches that I have, I might have an advantage over (other) athletic directors. I can get someone to handle finances and I can get people to do some other things – the business part of it. But I can manage people. I can manage the coaches. I can support the coaches.”
Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst said it was beneficial to work for an athletic director with a coaching background.
“How fortunate was I, for the time that I did have, to be able to have so many conversations with your athletic director, but at the same time, a guy that’s been in the exact same shoes you’re in,” Chryst said.
Wisconsin teams won 16 national titles while Alvarez was athletic director, though five of those came in women’s lightweight rowing, a sport whose championships aren’t sanctioned by the NCAA.
Those national titles were in six different sports (women’s lightweight rowing, men’s cross country, men’s hockey, women’s hockey, men’s indoor track, men’s rowing). Wisconsin’s most recent national title came in women’s hockey this year.
The Badgers also have won a total of 74 conference, regular-season or tournament championships with Alvarez as athletic director. Fourteen different teams have won conference titles during his regime.
Wisconsin finished in the top 30 in the Directors’ Cup 15 times in his first 18 seasons as athletic director.
As Alvarez conducted his farewell news conference at the Kohl Center, he only needed to look to his left to see a collection of various trophies and plaques that Wisconsin sports teams had won during his tenure.
“To see that much success, it just makes me feel proud,” Alvarez said. “I just want to bust my buttons, I’m so proud of what my people have accomplished.”