I won’t take credit for Barry Alvarez being hired as football coach at Wisconsin and turning the program around, after first going 1-10 in his first season after being hired by athletic director Pat Richter in 1990.
At the time that Alvarez was offered the job, I was in Miami covering the 1990 Orange Bowl between Colorado and Notre Dame. Alvarez at the time was Lou Holtz’s No. 1 assistant on the Notre Dame staff.
A group of us, including Alvarez and Holtz, were going out to dinner one night, and early in the afternoon I got a call from Holtz to come to his suite. When I got there, Alvarez was there and Holtz said, “Barry has just been offered the Wisconsin job. You’ve been around the Big Ten for a long time, what do you think of the Wisconsin job?”
Wisconsin had struggled for a long time, hiring a number of coaches and not being able to put a consistent winning program on the field. When Alvarez asked me about the position, I told him “You have to have a hole in your head to take that job.”
I called the Star Tribune office to find out the records of the previous coaches. They were 9-36 combined the previous four seasons under Jim Hilles (one year) and Don Morton, who had just been fired after three seasons.
Alvarez didn’t listen to me, of course. He made the right decision, even though he was 1-10 his first season, he then took the team to three Big Ten titles and three Rose Bowls before retiring after the 2005 season.
The Gophers and Badgers have played a lot of crucial football games over the years, just like this Saturday’s meeting where the winner will go to the Big Ten title game.
The teams met in 1962 when Murray Warmath had one of his best teams, and the Gophers were headed for the Rose Bowl – at least until they lost to Wisconsin 14-9 in Madison. There were two crucial 15-yard penalties on the Gophers in that game – one on Bobby Bell for roughing the passer, and the other on Warmath. The Badgers, ranked No. 3 at the time, went to the Rose Bowl ahead of the Gophers, who were ranked No. 5.
Bell was called for roughing Wisconsin quarterback Ron VanderKelen on a play late in the game, with the Gophers leading 9-7. Bell hit VanderKelen to cause a fumble, which the Gophers recovered in midair. The referees penalized Bell for some unexplainable reason, and Warmath protested the call and got another penalty, giving the Badgers the ball on the Gophers’ 13. The Badgers scored with two minutes left in the game for the victory.
Then you have probably the biggest upset by the Gophers in the series when they beat Wisconsin in Madison 17-14 in 1984, when Lou Holtz was coaching the Gophers. The Badgers that year had three first-round draft choices in wide receiver Al Toon, defensive end Daryl Sims and cornerback Richard Johnson, and a second rounder in lineman Scott Bergold. In all, they had 11 players who would be taken in the 1985 NFL Draft – and 14 others who would drafted over the next three years.
During a practice the week before the game, Holtz called me to the middle of the field and said, “I’m going to give you a little scoop, just between us. Minnesota is going to beat Wisconsin, and Doug Mueller, one of our defensive tackles, is going to make 12 or 13 tackles.”
Well, the Gophers went into Madison and beat that good Wisconsin team. Mueller, a freshman, made 12 tackles and was instrumental to that victory.
Analyzing the Minnesota-Nebraska game coming up this Saturday, it’s tough to figure out how the two teams will react to what happened to them in their previous games.
Nebraska suffered one of the worst defeats in their history, 59-24 at Wisconsin on Saturday, something that was not expected. Earlier this season, Wisconsin was having quarterback problems. But they have found a quarterback in Joel Stave, although against Nebraska only threw for 46 yards.
Melvin Gordon ran for an NCAA-record 408 yards for the Badgers who, as usual, have a great ground game.
So the question is can Minnesota, which lost a one-touchdown margin game to Ohio State, bounce back against the Cornhuskers? And can David Cobb duplicate, to a point, the rushing totals of one Melvin Gordon against Wisconsin?
The Gophers have taken some awful beatings at Nebraska. But I think it will be hard for Nebraska to bounce back, and I think the Gophers, who performed so well against Ohio State, will play their best of the season.
Of course, it could be the opposite. Nebraska could take it out on the Gophers, because it is tough to win at Lincoln.
This was the second time that the Badgers have handed the Cornhuskers a big, lopsided loss in a big game. They beat them 70-31 in the Big Ten title game two years ago.
Considering they are in the same conference, Minnesota and Ohio State playing each other in a Big Ten football game is a rarity.
The teams haven’t met since 2010, and have played only 50 times since 1921.
During the years Woody Hayes coached Ohio State (1951-78) and Murray Warmath coached the Gophers (1954-71) they played only five times. They didn’t meet at all until Warmath was in his 11th season (1965).
Because their teams didn’t play much, Hayes and Warmath because friends, and started sharing scouting reports. This was the days before teams exchanged game films, so assistant coaches would scout. On more than one occasion, the scouting reports were different, and I believe a couple of assistant coaches got fired on account of that.
I was standing outside of his Warmath’s office more than once and heard him yell at a scout for not having the same information that Hayes had reported on the telephone.
The Gophers have maybe the toughest remaining four games of any team in the Big Ten. All of a sudden, Iowa becomes one of the better teams in the Big Ten, even though earlier this season they lost to Iowa State, lost to Maryland and needed a last-second field goal to beat Northern Iowa.
But the Iowa team that comes in here Saturday is a much improved team over what it was three or four weeks ago when most of the experts, including myself, thought the Iowa game would be a pushover, and the worries would be about the final three games against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Now Iowa could be just as competitive as any of those teams.
The Gophers will have to play so much better than they did against Purdue and Illinois if they want to beat the Hawkeyes on Sunday.
Yes, the final four games of the Big Ten season will be a big test for Jerry Kill and his team. If they want to be among the elite of the league, they'll have to find a way to win these games.
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