Before the Nebraska Cornhuskers even made it to the Big Ten, their spirit was already deeply entrenched in the conference’s culture. For years, the Wisconsin Badgers exhibited the same type of grittiness, toughness and dedication to playing football the right way that the Huskers made famous throughout their championship runs.
Surprising as it may be to some, this was no coincidence.
Barry Alvarez, the current athletic director for Wisconsin has reserved a special place for himself in both Husker and Badger lore, playing an instrumental role in the successes of both programs. A former linebacker for one of Nebraska’s infamously fierce defenses -- leading the team in tackles in 1967, no less -- he soaked up the teachings and wisdom imparted by Bob Devaney, lessons that he would later take him when he was named Wisconsin's head coach in 1990.
It was there in Madison that Alvarez began what would ultimately become a career long mission – using the Nebraska blueprint to build something special out of the Badgers passé program. The dedication to good recruiting, emphasis on a strong rushing game and hard-nosed defense that is now synonymous with Wisconsin football all stemmed from pieces of Devaney’s playbook that Alvarez took, and made his own.
"A lot of my philosophy was based upon the foundation I had starting at Nebraska," he recently said.
And Alvarez didn’t stop copying Devaney when he became coach. The lifelong respect that he had for the coach manifested itself in Alvarez’s style so much so that, even when he moved up to athletic director later in his career, he laid out the groundwork to be succeeded by a trusted associate in Bret Bielema – something Devaney famously did with Tom Osborne.
Without a doubt, though, the main, vital lesson that Alvarez took from Nebraska was the importance of a legitimate walk-on program. Much like the Huskers built layers upon layers of depth up as a result of players who didn’t need scholarships to motivate them to join the ranks, Alvarez’s Badgers began to bring in 20 to 25 walk-ons per year. This approach has led to a certain style of player becoming prevalent among the Wisconsin ranks.
"When you take a look at the type of kids we can recruit, we will consistently have big kids here," Alvarez told reporters. "We're not going to have a lot of speed, per se, in the state and not an overabundance of Division I players. But we will have linemen."
Wisconsin’s implementation of Nebraska principles have worked out well, so far. A year after a successful Rose Bowl run, the Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring with nearly 49 points per outing. They’re also 13th in the country in rushing yards, with almost 246 per game.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini sees what Alvarez has managed to achieve in Madison, and he respects it.
"Obviously, Coach Alvarez got that place going at Wisconsin," Pelini said. "I think it worked for him, and it sets up the formula for what they do now."
So, with so much of his success being the direct byproduct of lessons that he picked up from Nebraska, is there any shot that Alvarez will secretly be rooting for his old squad this Saturday?
Not according to his head coach.
"No, no I know where coach's loyalties are," Bielema told reporters with a grin.