CHICAGO – Mildly surprised, certainly not shocked and quickly aware of the enormous loss.
That's how other Big Ten football coaches felt when the elder statesmen of their club – Wisconsin's longtime coach Barry Alvarez – announced he would be retiring at the end of the season next week.
"Initially, I was a little surprised, but I knew he was heading in that direction," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I think it's a great loss to our conference. He did an absolutely phenomenal job."
When Alvarez arrived at Wisconsin in 1990, the program had won nine games in the previous four years. Over the next four years, they would win 21 games, capture a share of the Big Ten title and win a Rose Bowl. He would go on to become the winningest coach in school history and just the 10th coach in league history with over 100 wins at one school.
"Barry is a tremendous football coach what he has accomplished is special," Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. "The folks at Madison should be really thankful he showed up there."
Folks around Madison are really concerned with how Alavrez will finish there at the moment. The Badgers are returning a league-low 11 starters from a 9-3 team in 2004 and this is not the year to rely on newcomers in the Big Ten. Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue are all considered legitimate threats to win the league title and Penn State and Minnesota return a combined 34 starters.
Still, Alvarez remains confident he can end his coaching career with his ninth winning season in the last 10 years.
"I really like the make up of this team," said Alvarez, who will remain Wisconsin's athletic director. "We have a number of productive veterans back and quite frankly I feel like the team is hungry to prove itself."
Alvarez's optimism stems in large part from the return of junior quarterback John Stocco, junior left tackle Joe Thomas and senior center Donovan Raiola. Stocco became the starter last year and passed for 1,999 yards.
"John got better as the season went along last year and it's always good to have a veteran quarterback back," Alvarez said. "Offensive line has always been the strength of this program and it will remain that way. We have two elite guys in Thomas and Raiola. I think Thomas is one of the best lineman I have ever had."
The offense will also get a boost from Colorado transfer Brian Calhoun, a first-team tailback who led the Buffaloes in rushing two seasons ago.
The biggest questions lie on defense where under defensive coordinator Bert Bielema, who will take over for Alvarez, the Badgers finished in the top 10 in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense last season. But, most of the key starters from that unit are gone, including 2004 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Erasmus Jones.
A favorable schedule should also help. There is no game against Ohio State and Michigan (Sept. 24), Purdue (Oct. 22) and Iowa (Nov. 12) all have to come to Camp Randall. The season opener is against Bowling Green, the heavy favorite to win the MAC, but all of the other non-conference games – Hawaii, North Carolina and Temple – appear to be very winnable.
Still, regardless of how Alvarez's final season plays out, expect him to leave without any regrets about how and when he decided to bow out. Bowl game or no bowl game, he truly felt this was the right time to go.
"The timing was there," Alvarez said. "I felt comfortable with my successor, with the timing he didn't lose a year of recruiting, and I got chance to talk to the players and make it an easy transition for them," Alvarez said. Right now we have eight commitments and a good board up. If I retire at the end of the season we might as well throw that all away."
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