From Barry to Bret to Barry to …?

The least surprising news in Coacharama 2012, I think, is this (from Madison.com):

For most of the evening Tuesday, University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez ignored the phone calls from the mysterious number with the 920 area code.

“I didn’t think there was anyone in Green Bay I needed to talk to,” he explained.

But when Alvarez checked his messages, he learned that the caller was standout linebacker and co-captain Mike Taylor.

The former Ashwaubenon athlete had a request: With coach Bret Bielema having bolted for Arkansas earlier in the day, the senior class wanted Alvarez to lead them in the Rose Bowl.

Alvarez was honored but had one condition for returning to the sidelines.

“I told him I would be honored to coach them,” Alvarez said. “I wanted them to understand, if I was going to coach them, we weren’t going to screw around — we were going to go out there to win.”

At a press conference Thursday morning at the Kohl Center, Alvarez made official what the Wisconsin State Journal reported Wednesday evening on its website — that the Badgers’ all-time winningest coach will look to build on his 118 career victories against Stanford on Jan. 1 in Pasadena.

There is a long tradition in football of blaming losses on how the losing team treated the bowl game or the Super Bowl. Every bowl game now has various social events around it, such as, in the Rose Bowl’s case, trips to Disneyland and the annual Beef Bowl, an eating competition between the participating teams. (Insert curse about how I had no football skills and Wisconsin wasn’t very good when I was at the UW.)

The phrase “business trip” is inevitably used by the coach of the non-California Pac-12 team and whoever is representing the Big Ten. The teams that lose the Rose Bowl and the Super Bowl have been accused for decades of either taking the game too seriously or not seriously enough due to the pregame social schedule, instead of the more obvious answer that one team played better than the other. (Before one Rose Bowl, according to former Ohio State Player Jack Tatum, coach Woody Hayes banned his players from participating in any pre-Rose Bowl social activity. Before Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, Philadelphia coach Dick Vermeil said any Eagle who broke curfew would be sent home. Oakland players responded by saying if that had been the Raiders’ policy, coach Tom Flores would have been standing on the sidelines by himself. The Buckeyes and Eagles both lost.)

Alvarez claims he is coaching only the Rose Bowl. For those interested beyond that, the job description is here.

The first thought the headline generates is to search the lists of potential candidates and see which have first names starting in B. (The Packers now refuse to hire head coaches with first names other than Mike, as Holmgren, Sherman and McCarthy can attest.) That criterion brings us Cincinnati coach Butch Jones (which would give Bucky Barry, Bo and Butch), and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. (Who would ever think Notre Dame defensive coordinators could be head coaches?)

(8 a.m. news flash: Scratch Jones. Hired by Tennessee.)

Nor, given Alvarez’s personality, is this surprising:

Alvarez said he will not use a search committee to vet candidates.

“I won’t use a search committee,” he said. “Most search committees use me.”

It’s a bit interesting, though easily explainable, why this bit of arrogance on Alvarez’s part gets a pass and similar aspects of Bielema’s personality did not. If you take a program from six wins in three years to three Rose Bowl wins, you get the personality pass.

Some of Bielema’s personality comes through in this poorly reasoned piece from Yahoo.com’s Dan Wetzel:

Arkansas doesn’t get to steal Wisconsin’s coach. At least, that isn’t how the old pecking order went. Bielema had the third-best job in the league, one that was going to get even easier based on expansion, where he was staring at a cake division with only Ohio State a worthy opponent.

Instead, he left for a region he’s never recruited, for a cut-throat culture he’s previously railed against, to take an Arkansas job that might be the fifth best in its division, one ruled by no less than Alabama and LSU.

The truth is, he has a better chance of winning it all in Fayetteville than Madison. And he’ll win games. He’s a good enough coach to win anywhere. And, really, how couldn’t he go? There’s better facilities, richer budgets, closer proximity to talent, the thrill of the big time, huge exposure, monster challenges, fresh rivals, and, of course, more money.

No, Bielema does not have a better chance of winning it all in Fayetteville. The Southeastern Conference includes defending national champion Alabama, former national champion LSU, twice-national-champion Florida, perennial Georgia, and up-and-coming Texas A&M. The states Bielema needs to successfully recruit in, Texas and Florida, have previously established programs and coaches recruiting there. I predict Bielema won’t even get to the SEC championship game, step number one of getting to the national championship game.

This, however, is surprising, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Don Walker:

According to data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, Arkansas football generated $64,193,826 in revenue for the period July 1, 2011 through June 30 of this year. Total revenue for men’s and women’s team in the athletic program: $99,757,483.

Football was also the most expensive athletic program at Arkansas. The school said football expenses for the same time period totaled $24,325,173.

Now Wisconsin. In the same time period, Wisconsin reported football revenue totaled $48,416,449. Total revenue at Wisconsin for both men’s and women’s athletic teams was $101,490,339.

Football is expensive at Wisconsin, too. The school reported that football expenses totaled $24,231,297, about the same as Arkansas.

Assuming expenses aren’t hidden somewhere else, Arkansas’ rate of return (revenues minus expenses) on its football program is 163.9 percent, whereas Wisconsin’s is 99.8 percent. That’s a big assumption, because often capital expenses (for instance, stadium expenses) aren’t included in even athletic department budgets.

Bielema played for Iowa under Hayden Fry when Fry was using UW as his personal punching bag. Bielema coached for Kansas State when former Iowa assistant Bill Snyder was making the Wildcats an actual football program. And then Alvarez brought him to Madison. Bielema wasn’t part of Alvarez’s rebuilding of the football program; what does he know about rebuilding a football program?

One way to tell how good a coach is is to see how many of his assistants went on to coaching jobs. Holmgren‘s is too long to list. Alvarez’s includes, besides Bielema, two NFL coaches, Oakland’s Bill Callahan and Minnesota’s Brad Childress (offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, of Wisconsin’s first Rose Bowl winner), plus Chryst.

The Wisconsin State Journal’s Tom Oates makes, as usual, good points for the search committee Alvarez sees in the mirror:

That doesn’t mean he should use this opportunity to develop an entirely new program. He can’t stray too far from UW’s roots as a power running team with massive linemen. For proof, look at what happened when Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez and his spread offense a few years ago.

“You want to hire somebody that understands the culture here, understands Big Ten football,” Alvarez said. “You always want to bring somebody in that brings a little something more to the table, whether it be recruiting or (scheme). I don’t have any problem with our scheme. I don’t perceive us as a spread-’em-out, fast-paced, no-huddle, one-back, five-wides (offense). I don’t see us doing that because that’s not the type of kid we can consistently recruit and we have to remember that. You know what the plan is, it starts with those big palookas up front.”

Mostly, Alvarez can’t sell UW short in this search. If Boise State’s Chris Petersen or Miami’s Al Golden is a decent fit, Alvarez should go after him hard. Or he could go off the board and make a run at, say, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald.

The current style of play — run first on offense and play stern defense — is what Wisconsin has recruited to do since Alvarez arrived in Madison. To think someone like Petersen will come in and be able to make UW pass-wacky is unrealistic at best.

But notice that point, “You always want to bring somebody in that brings a little something more to the table.” That’s what Chryst did with the UW offense. There’s a graph on which one axis is number of plays and the other is number of formations. The upper left corner is running a lot of plays out of a few formations; the lower right corner is running a few plays out of a lot of formations. That’s what Chryst did to great success — disguising what UW was going to do. (Of course, having a competent quarterback, which UW hasn’t always had, helps tremendously.)

Comparing the 2010–11 and 2012 teams shows the real dropoff in production at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end. Part of that is the injury to quarterback number two, freshman Joel Stave, and the ineffectiveness of quarterback number one, transfer Danny O’Brien. Part, however, is the inability to recruit and/or develop more than one wide receiver at a time, something that has seem to plague Wisconsin for the past two decades. This season’s leading  receiver, Jared Abbrederis, is a walk-on (he got a track scholarship) who was recruited to be the scout-team quarterback.

(Here’s a challenge for Badger football nerds: Name the other starting wide receiver beyond, in chronological order, Lee DeRamus, Tony Simmons, Donald Hayes, Chris Chambers, Nick Davis, Lee Evans and Brandon Williams, all of whom played for Alvarez and then in the NFL.)

At times this season, the Badgers seemed to be devolving to the third and fourth verses of the derisive version of “On Wisconsin” from my 1980s UW days:

Run the ball three times a series,
Punt on fourth and nine!

If Chryst is indeed not coming, and if Petersen is interested, he’d be the guy to get by far. Like Bielema, he took an already-successful program at Boise State, but made it better, including two undefeated seasons. (Petersen’s predecessor, Dan Hawkins, went to Colorado, and got fired.)

More to the point, though, Wisconsin should not look for a coach based on his system. Wisconsin did that once. His name was Don Mor(t)on, and the veer offense produced six wins in three seasons, one of those wins in a game in which the Badger offense, if that’s what you want to call it, was shut out.

I’ve witnessed both successful and unsuccessful sports. The closest thing I came to a sports experience was five years in the UW Marching Band (which had a football team better than the football team at whose games we played). So I base much of what I think goes into a good coach based on my experience with UW Band director Mike Leckrone, who had about 2½ times as many players to deal with as a football coach, with no scholarship money and little in the way of facilities.

The head football coach’s job is to (1) recruit and (2) develop players, and (3) create a game plan where the players can play to their maximum potential. None of that happens by himself, which is why you have to evaluate a coach as the head coach and his staff, not just the head coach. Badger coach Dave McClain was not considered a good game-day coach, but the quality of players jumped quite a bit when he was in Madison, as demonstrated by the number of Badger players who played on Sundays.

Truth is, being a head coach is similar to running a business. (Though not similar enough for sports coaches to write management books.) Among other things, you have to be ready to replace your people if they choose to leave. That is why I did not give Bielema a pass for having to replace Chryst and five other assistant coaches. A good leader has people he can contact if he needs new people to work for him.

The best coaches, I think, are flexible within a firm framework of principles. Whoever replaces Bielema will have to work with mostly Bielema’s players for the first couple of seasons. The offense needs to be improved, not merely changed for change’s sake. Regardless of schemes and statistics, football coaches should have two main goals — winning your conference and getting to the championship game of whatever league or association you’re in — and two goals leading to those goals — leading your conference in scoring offense, and leading your conference in scoring defense.

There is also the matter of how you treat your players and assistant coaches. The best coaches, such as Paul “Bear” Bryant, credit players for their wins, and blame themselves for their losses. Baseball manager Chuck Tanner said he didn’t have one set of rules; he had 25 sets of rules for his 25 players. People are different, and each person’s motivation is different.

(My favorite personal example: During my second year in the band, my father ran into Leckrone at a Mendota Gridiron Club event and introduced himself. Leckrone’s response was that he wished he had more people in the band who worked as hard as I did. I was never a very good player, there were better marchers in the band, and I never showed up for Registration Week rehearsals in very good shape, but hearing that motivated me to live up to those words once the season started, for the remaining 3½ years.)

The other quality I like to see, largely because it seems so rare in football coaches, is a coach who does not whine about distractions, or things not going exactly as planned. (The best game I ever marched, I think, was at Illinois in 1984. We got there late because one of our fleet of buses got a flat tire. We had time to run through pregame once and halftime once before the game. That was it. Leckrone didn’t bitch about not having enough time to practice; he said we had time for one pregame and one halftime run-through, and we went out and did it.) Some coaches can create an exquisite game plan, and win the game if the team can execute that game plan and not be bothered by, say, the other team’s adjusting to your game plan. Other coaches create a game plan, realizing that, as someone once put it, battle plans fall apart after the first shot is fired. Holmgren’s staffs seemed to master fixing what was broken at the half.

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