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 five in the eight-part series.
Barry Alvarez didn’t know it at the time, but his recruiting pitch to build something new with the University of Wisconsin resonated deeply with Mel Tucker.
Tucker was a young defensive back from Ohio when Alvarez, getting his first chance as a head coach after a successful run as an assistant at Iowa and Notre Dame, urged him to join him in Madison. Tucker had helped build a winning team at Cleveland Heights High School despite opportunities to enroll at well-established programs in the area. Tucker was part of Alvarez’s first recruiting class and helped get the Badgers turned around in the early years.
Tucker entered the coaching ranks not long after graduating in 1995 and is now the coach at Michigan State. He shares stories from those initial years of Alvarez’s run with the Badgers and what parts of Alvarez’s style he carries into his coaching. These are Tucker’s words, edited for clarity, from an April 9 interview.
A lot of us were playing as true freshmen. I don't think we were necessarily ready to play, but we're out there playing special teams, running around playing some on defense, some of us. … We had played Michigan at home, got beat, and then we went to Iowa. It was a big game because there were so many of our coaching staff that had Iowa ties. Barry had Iowa ties, Jay Norvell played at Iowa, Bernie Wyatt had come from that staff. And I could feel that during that week of preparation, like going into a game, you could really see the fire and the grit and the determination of the staff.
They had some good players … but I remember how passionate that coaches were on the sidelines of that game. I don't know if it was in the offseason or maybe that next week in office — I can't remember when — but there was a picture. A big color photo of something happening in the game and our entire coaching staff was like in a pack, like out there halfway between the sideline and the numbers, out there yelling at the refs or whatever. Dan McCarney, Barry, all those guys. All those guys were just going ballistic. We lost, the picture symbolized the passion, the fight of the staff, because they were real. There was a group of guys out on the field just yelling and screaming. … I can look at that and say these guys are freaking relentless, man. At some point, you know what's going happen.
Alvarez has spoken about Tucker and the first recruiting class’s role in convincing the second class to commit to UW, and those two groups formed the basis of the 1993 Big Ten champions and eventual Rose Bowl winners.
We were just trying to get some players in there and just have some fun and win some games, you know? Because when I got there, hockey was the main event. You went to a hockey game and they had the beer garden and that place was going nuts.
Looking back on it now, this is my 25th year of coaching, I know exactly what Barry and Dan McCarney and those guys were doing. … I can see clearly now what it was. Barry came in with his core of guys, and then once some other guys became available, they came in. By like Year 3, he had (John) Palermo, he had (Jim) Huber, he had (Brad) Childress. He had his staff and by that time, you know, we had kind of recruited at a high level and the weight room had actually kind of kicked in, too.
Everybody started getting bigger and stronger and faster. The summer school thing kicked in where they’re paying for guys to go to summer school so we could stay there and work out in the summer. The program … it was picking up steam. He was getting the pieces in there. We opened up St. Louis, opened up Indianapolis. … Bernie Wyatt got New York and New Jersey going, and then obviously we were killing it in the state and getting linemen in there.
But the first year, 1-10, was really tough. We were getting beat, but it wasn't as bad as the record said.
One of Tucker’s fondest memories in a Badgers uniform comes from his sophomore season (1991), when the Badgers beat Minnesota 19-16 in Minneapolis. It was UW’s first Big Ten road win in five seasons.
(Minnesota tight end) Pat “Magic Hands” Evans or whatever goes to catch a ball, I hit the guy, we get (the fumble) and end up winning the game. That was the first time that I had been a part of a trophy game. It was the Axe. I didn't really quite understand what's going on yet, but everybody's going over there and getting the Axe, bringing it back, running around the field with the Axe, showing the fans and everything. And I remember all the coaches in the locker room after the game were like, ‘That's why we brought you guys here. And this is what we're talking about. This is what we can do. We play offense, we play defense, we play special teams, we can go on the road and win games in this league.”
It was almost kind of like a turning point. We didn't go to a bowl game that year, but it was a thing that we could actually win a Big Ten game on the road, win a Big Ten game period.
Tucker broke his leg in training camp the following season and couldn’t play during UW’s run to the Rose Bowl. As he rose through the ranks of coaching and now as he runs his own program, Tucker said something about Alvarez and his time at UW often crosses his mind.
Every day. I’ll call coach Alvarez, and I told him this, there's not a day that goes by that I don't reflect back on something, some experience I had when I was playing. It was awesome.
Going to programs, I've been in on the first year of a lot of coaching staffs, the first year of a program, so that experience has been invaluable. Because as a player, even though I was a young kid, I was keenly aware Barry was building a program and it was not easy.
I remember the first banquet that we had after the 1-10 season. I remember Barry up talking. There was players and their families, but there were alumni and boosters out there. … I remember him telling them, “We will win. We will get this done.” I remember a little sweat beating on his forehead right there. I remember Cindy handing him a napkin or a handkerchief and he was wiping his (head). We're all sitting there like, “Man, we’ve got to get this done. We’ve got to get it turned around.”
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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