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 one in the eight-part series.
Three men were at the center of the Big Ten Conference’s biggest decisions for more than 15 years. Conference commissioner Jim Delany, University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and Ohio State AD Gene Smith helped guide the Big Ten through expansion, the launch of the Big Ten Network and other moves that changed the landscape of college athletics. Alvarez started his post as UW’s AD in 2004 and Smith took over the Buckeyes’ department in 2005. These are Smith’s words from an April 16 interview.
Fortunately we knew each other prior to him becoming an athletic director at Wisconsin and prior to me becoming an athletic director at Ohio State. I knew him when I was the athletic director at Iowa State.
So he and I knew each other, spent some time together periodically at different events over the years. But when he became the athletic director at Wisconsin, it was easy. We both have football backgrounds, so that strengthened our relationship. When we became the athletic director(s), then obviously we worked together more frequently as colleagues and it was enjoyable because he shared the same philosophies about a lot of things in life. So it was an easy relationship.
First and foremost, philosophies around student-athlete welfare. He and I were usually always aligned — I can’t remember a time where we weren’t — about how to ensure that student-athletes were taken care of. I remember in the battle to get cost of attendance (benefits for student-athletes), he was very supportive and involved in that process. He’s always been on the same page relative to student-athlete health and safety and student-athlete welfare and extra benefits.
With scheduling, you’ll see in our league, we focus a lot on television schedules and all this type of stuff. He and I were pretty much of like mind relative to scheduling and those conversations around television and how games should be scheduled and those types of things. With the regulations around sports, obviously football, we’re pretty much in line.
I can’t think of anything where we weren’t aligned. Probably because we both coached football, it kind of happened that way. Almost every single kind of topic around sport operations and things of that nature, we’re pretty much in line on everything. Many times he and I would decide who was going to bring up a topic together when we needed to.
Early in Alvarez’s and Smith’s tenures, they were at the forefront of the launch of the Big Ten Network, a move that changed how college leagues crafted media contracts and increased fans’ access to televised events of a number of sports.
When we came in, obviously there had been some discussions but nothing really formulated. And so we were blessed to be a part of that with Jim Delany, and he had such a great vision for it. There were so many meetings that were just athletic directors and Jim Delany and maybe a lawyer … Pretty much a lot of whiteboard work or just mapping things out, and talking about the structure, talking about the games and how picks would be aligned relative to you know, Big Ten Network, Fox, ESPN, etc.
It was a lot of sessions. I can just see us in the room with a whiteboard at the end of the table and coffee and everything. It was really cool to have someone like Barry, who coached at the highest level, have his input in the room. It was really a great experience to get a chance to brainstorm with great minds like that on the ground floor of something that ultimately became revolutionary. Barry was a huge, huge leader in that space.
He was so easy to work with, always was easy to work with. We enjoyed it, it was a great experience. I guess maybe because of COVID, I miss being locked in the room with my colleagues.
Over the years, as Big Ten institutions were added and leadership changed at others, Alvarez’s and Smith’s influence in the room grew. They were able to play off one another when discussing league matters.
I think Barry and I come from similar backgrounds. We had great parents, but you know, we came from basically trying to survive to having these lives that we ultimately were able to enjoy as football players, him at Nebraska, me at Notre Dame. And being mentored by outstanding coaches. He had Bob Devaney, he had Lou Holtz, he had some great mentors and some great environments, Iowa with Hayden Fry, etc.
So I think we both have come up in a situation where we understand that relationships matter a lot. He was great with all of our colleagues, I was great with all of our colleagues. We’re both great listeners. The great thing about our league is we’re a collaborative league. When an AD has a thought or an idea, let’s listen to it, let’s respect it. We hash things out. Barry was probably a better listener than me. He was more cerebral that way.
But I think when you pay the people respect that they deserve, which he did and I do, then you have the ability to hopefully move people in a direction. In everything that we, he or I, everything we’re trying to do, was not just our thoughts, it was the collective thoughts and trying to respect that. I don’t know, I just think he was such a good listener, a great collaborator. I try to always be that way myself. And if what we were proposing makes sense, it was pretty easy, but sometimes you’ve got to battle. It’s how you battle with respect. And he did that. I mean, I really admire that about him. He was always measured. So I really, really will miss that in the room.
I was the one that got fired up. He was forceful, but never fired up. Last year, obviously when we’re trying to play, he was always measured, but you knew when he was strong about something because the tenor in his voice might … the octave might change. I don’t ever recall him being really fired up because he was so thoughtful. He was deliberate. But you kind of knew like, “OK, he’s got a little passion around this one right here now.” Because just his voice will change a little bit, it’ll go up a little bit. But the respect that he commanded, just tremendous. A lot of times, we wouldn’t say anything, we would just say, “Barry, what do you think?”
Alvarez and Smith bonded over their shared football pasts, but Smith says Alvarez never brought the football coach mentality into Big Ten meetings.
When you get into the room with your colleagues, it’s business. It’s business, it’s a whole new world. Your colleagues have more backgrounds — we’re all the total sum of our experiences in life — everybody’s got backgrounds where they’ve come up and been through things and been through some battles. The worst thing we could do is get mad at one another, or get so fired up that you disrespect someone. So you have to be measured.
When you’re in a room and you’re doing business, you’ve got to maintain your cool, you can’t make emotional decisions. So as for me, it’s hard for me to say that he changed over time. You know, like me and others, you became more thoughtful, you became more aware. You learn more about different things. But, you know, I didn’t see the swing that players talked about. And that would make sense because you move into a different leadership role.
I imagine he probably had some American Football Coaches Association meetings where maybe he got fired up about a rule change or something of that nature. But when you come into a boardroom, it’s a different environment when you come in a meeting with the athletic directors. Now some of us have lost our cool over time and we end up apologizing, but I don’t ever recall him doing that.
I’m going to miss him. There’s always these events where our wives go — his wife, Cindy, my wife, Sheila — we always seem to end up sitting together and having some Diet Cokes. I’m going to miss that.
READ MORE ESSAYS TO 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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