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Alvarez stresses teamwork, discipline

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THOMAS J. MILLER
October 10, 2007

Sometimes, even the best motivational plot gets sidetracked.


Barry Alvarez, the former head football coach who turned around a once-morbid University of Wisconsin program, once brought in Jesse Jackson to speak to his Badger team before a game with Ohio State.


Alvarez told the audience at the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville’s fund-raiser banquet Tuesday night that Jackson spoke to the Badgers just days before the team was to play the No. 5-ranked Buckeyes in 1992.


In the front row of players was freshman Jerry Wunsch.


“Wunsch is about 6-6, 320 pounds and has a head that fits inside of a bushel basket,” Alvarez told the group of business leaders and members of the club. “He’s 18 years old, and he’s listening to everything.”


At the end of his address, Jackson asked the Badgers if they had any questions.


“Wunsch says, ‘What’s it feel like, how does it feel, to hit that home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in the World Series, Mr. October?’


“He thought he was Reggie Jackson.”


Despite the recognition lapse, the talk worked. The Badgers beat the Buckeyes that Saturday in what Alvarez called the first major win for his coaching staff.


In his 40-minute speech at the annual Steak & Burger Banquet at the Pontiac Convention Center, Alvarez went through the things his staff did to make the Badgers one of the Big Ten’s most successful teams.


Now the school’s athletic director, Alvarez said he didn’t see many differences between the athletes when he started coaching in high school in the 1970s and today. He said he looked for assistants who could relate to young players.


Alvarez wanted his players to like him and his coaches.


“Do you know how many hours and effort and work you’re asking them to put forward?” Alvarez said. “If they don’t like you, they won’t do it, and they won’t do it with the effort you like.”


When he took over the UW program in 1990, he had to find a way to get quality players to commit to Wisconsin, despite its dismal record. Alvarez stressed to parents that he would care for their kids as much as they did.


“Nobody else was selling that. They were talking about bowl wins and how big their weight room is, but it’s all about caring.”


Alvarez said kids want leadership, discipline and someone to help them succeed.


At his first team meeting, Alvarez walked into the conference room to find players slumped in their seats, wearing hats and with toothpicks in their mouths. That stopped immediately.


From then on, Alvarez started each season by telling players to sit up, take off their caps, put their feet on the ground, and look him in the eye. Caps still are prohibited in athletic buildings.


“I learned,” Alvarez said. “If I walked into our house with a hat on or sat at the table with a hat on, my grandmother used to whack me.”


Alvarez also banned earrings during meetings and facial hair.


“Young people want direction,” Alvarez said. “They want to improve. They want to know they’re getting better, and they want discipline. I believe that.”


Athletics are more important than ever in teaching youngsters the importance of teamwork to accomplish a common goal.


Alvarez’s three Rose Bowl championships and an overall record of 118-73-4 show his success at motivating players on the field. But even more satisfying are the letters he receives from former players who now are managers in the business world.


“I get letters all the time saying, ‘Coach, we have all these people working (for us). What do we do? We go back to the things you told us at our meetings. Talking about counting on one another, winning for the team, all of us know our roles to be successful as a team … Ten years ago or eight years ago, we didn’t know why you were telling us this. Now, all of sudden, it sinks in.’”


And it seems to sink in whether or not you know Jesse Jackson from Reggie Jackson.


Influences on Alvarez

Barry Alvarez coached at Iowa under Hayden Fry and at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz. Both gave Alvarez motivational tools.


On Fry: “He always used to say, ‘When you put yourself in a situation, just ask yourself the question, “Is this going to help me win, or is this going to help me be a better person?” If the answer is no, get out of there. If the answer is yes, then do it, and do it with great enthusiasm.’”


On Holtz: “Lou coached by crisis. If there wasn’t a crisis, he created one. He thought that if his team was a strong team, and he dealt with things in a positive manner, what you do is make your team focus.


I would spend time with my team every year before the season, and say, ‘Guys, we’re going to have some type of adversity. How we deal with it will determine how good a year we’re going to have.’”



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