Editor's note: Barry Alvarez will retire as the Wisconsin athletic director June 30. The State Journal asked some of those who have worked closely with him during his 31 years at the university as football coach and AD to share their thoughts about their time working together. This is part six in the eight-part series.
Troy Vincent learned to make split-second decisions on the football field.
The former University of Wisconsin cornerback (1988 to 1991) was an All-American before embarking on a 15-year NFL career, and is now the league’s executive vice president of football operations. Vincent calls Barry Alvarez, his former coach who is set to retire as the Badgers’ athletic director June 30, one of the most important men in his life and someone whose influence impacts the way he makes big decisions.
In part six of an eight-part series of conversations with those who have worked closely with Alvarez during his tenure at UW, Vincent shares stories of how Alvarez changed the culture of the UW football program and how he has been a mentor in Vincent’s life as an executive.
These are Vincent’s words from an interview conducted April 7.
Remember like it was yesterday. I was finishing up my sophomore year. It was a week after, I think coach Alvarez was hired one week after the national championship game, if I'm not mistaken. Notre Dame had just won a national championship. And coach came into a team meeting and called me to his office. And then we went to the McClain facility, we were inside the facility, and we were walking down the turf.
And he was sharing with me an individual that he had just coached the previous years, a gentleman by the name of Todd Lyght (a Notre Dame safety who was drafted in 1991) … he was just sharing with me some of the similarities and also said, “I think you have an opportunity if you work, if you buy into the program, you’ll have an opportunity to play on Sunday. And you can be better than someone that I just coached, who was pretty good, pretty good ballplayer.”
That was my very first interaction. And again, speaking life into, at the time, myself. I was a student-athlete, like the other football players, we didn’t have a lot of hope. We were at the bottom of the barrel, bottom of the Big Ten. We were competing against the Northwesterns of the world, the rivalry game was Iowa, and we didn't have a lot of hope. So we were just student-athletes just trying to make it, be respectable, be proud about being Badgers walking around on campus. And that first meeting, it was about, “Hey, we’ll do things a little differently.” And he spoke to the team about who we were, what kind of identity that he would like to instill and ingrain. And as he said, “We are who we are, and we're not going to be anybody else.” It's been that way for the three decades that he was in leadership.
Man, we were a bad football team. So we would just try to compete the best we can. So I'm not sure if I was a leader at that time, but having someone speak life into me? Speak life into the situation at that time? That, “We are going to be competitive, we'll get it right. I need you to believe me.”
“Look at me,” is what he’d say, “Look at me. We'll get it right. We’re going to get it right. We’ve just got to get everybody to buy in.” No problem. Yes, sir. So that was that first interaction, and ever since then, it was history. Everything that he said came to pass. What I loved about it: He brought the best out of not just myself, but every teammate.
Vincent and the Badgers went 1-10 in Alvarez’s first year, then 5-6 in Vincent’s senior season. Vincent didn’t get to experience the Rose Bowl win of the 1993 season as a player, but he said he knew it was coming with how Alvarez was recruiting. Alvarez’s advice was crucial when Vincent turned pro and eventually transitioned into his post-playing career.
I would just say he wasn’t just my coach, he was also my adviser. I leaned on him, on coach during the time of my whole process. What should I do? How do I interview agents? Coach, how should I approach being a pro? I call him about different decisions now. And now that we're both in the football world, we share information. I know this — even today at age of 50. I represent coach Alvarez. The five most influential men in my life were my grandfather, Jefferson Vincent; my godfather, James Bodley; Jim Dundula was my high school head coach; coach Alvarez and Don Shula.
I've had Andy Reid, a great coach, but those men that had that most influential part where I was still shaping and molding who I was, as an athlete, as a father, I had the best example. I'm watching him and Cindy, “OK, I can be a parent, I can do this, I can be a father. I can love the sport, I can be as intense as I need to be while I'm performing, and just as gentle as I need to be to my wife and my children.” I saw that with him and Cindy and the family. I saw what I could be through coach.
I called coach (Alvarez), coach Shula, called coach Reid at the time (when Vincent was moving into a role in the league office), coach Dungy, coaches are the greatest influences — my pastor and coaches. I said, “I’m thinking about this role,” and that's all you have to say.
“Well Troy, let's think about this.” You know, coach (Alvarez) is very methodical. “Well, let's think about this. What do you want to accomplish there? Why you? Is the position built for success? Why not you? What are the challenges that you see in front of you?”
And he's just taking you through these things. “Hey, you should think about this. There are a few other questions that you need to ask.” So it's like that wise counsel. “Hey, don't jump into it.” And then when you're in-person, you know, he always has the little (sweat) bubbling and a little sweat coming down his little nose a little bit, “I want you to think about this now, you need to think about it this way.” That transition was, as I thought about every stage of my life and making those critical decisions … “Coach, what do you think?” Coach knows you, he knows what makes you tick and he's the voice of reason. The trust that he knows that kid. He knows what makes that kid tick. He saw it, he developed it. So that counsel was critical to me.
Even this year, as we were going through the pandemic, we were on multiple calls together just thinking through how do we go testing to things that we should be looking at? What are things that we should be thinking about for the student-athletes? What are some things that we've learned here that could be instituted? So he was always that way. People don't talk about it, but he doesn't mind sharing.
In his role with the NFL, Vincent says he sees how the culture UW has maintained under Alvarez set his values and gave him structure.
It has not been the same since 1994, has not been the same. And the fabric of the institution … very seldom can you get the personality of an individual, the institution takes on the personality. That's what happened at Wisconsin, for Wisconsin athletics. Love Pat Richter, everything he’s done. But once coach Alvy got rolling as a coach, and then as an AD, it took on his personality.
No nonsense, discipline first, it’s a great campus, and we’re going to be proud of who we are and what we represent. And we’re going to show up; we’re going to show up every Saturday. And we’re going to make the people here in the state of Wisconsin proud that when they come into Camp Randall Stadium, they’re coming to watch you all perform. And we're not going to let them down.
There's a reputation that every college prospect has. Those that have an opportunity to play at the next level, their school precedes them. The reputation of the school precedes them. Well, let me tell you something: Coachable, blue-collar kids, tough as a nail, flexible, dependable. That's a Wisconsin football player. That's a Wisconsin Badger. That reputation, that's what he built.
Each of us that went and had an opportunity to play at the next level, before we went to one of those clubs, that reputation of, “You’re going to show up every single day, you’re going to chop your wood, you’re going to pack your wood, but you're smart, you have great football IQ, and you're coachable.” That's the reputation that every Wisconsin Badger has. And I've been able, frankly, to carry that on into every aspect of my life. Those traits, those started with coach Alvarez speaking that every day.
READ MORE ESSAYS ON BARRY ALVAREZ
In this Series
'There's one Barry Alvarez': Here's how former players, colleagues will remember Wisconsin's AD as he heads into retirement
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