Yes, a few things have changed around here in the 10 years since Barry Alvarez assumed the role of University of Wisconsin athletic director.
The UW Athletic Department’s operating budget has more than doubled from $59.8 million in 2004-05 to $127.5 million in 2013-14.
UW Athletics has built $130 million worth of new academic and training facilities to go along with the $109.5 million renovation of Camp Randall Stadium that was completed in 2005.
There have been head coaching changes in 18 of the 23 sports, including four that have seen multiple transitions: football, men’s soccer, softball and women’s tennis.
There have been four UW chancellors: John Wiley, Biddy Martin, David Ward and Rebecca Blank.
The Big Ten Conference went from 11 institutions to 12, with Nebraska joining in 2010.
Every Big Ten school has made at least one change in athletic directors with the exception of Purdue (Morgan Burke took over in 1993).
But all that change may pale in comparison to what Alvarez could see in the coming months.
The Big Ten will add Maryland and Rutgers in 2014-15, creating
all sorts of new alliances and issues as well as revenue streams.
The NCAA is expected to ratify dramatic changes in governance and structure that will give more autonomy to the five biggest leagues — the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern — and alter the competitive landscape for schools such as UW. Cost-of-attendance stipends for student-athletes could be seen as early as next year.
Meanwhile, the first College Football Playoff will be conducted in 2014 and Alvarez, who coached the Badgers from 1990 to 2005 en route to the College Football Hall of Fame, will play a prominent role as a member of the 13-person selection committee.
With the end of his 10th full year as AD coming up this month, Alvarez looked back and forward during a recent discussion. An edited transcript follows:
Question: Is this job more difficult now than when you took over?
Barry Alvarez: “Right now is a very unique time in this business because of the changes. Everyone’s sitting out there; none of us knows what’s going to happen with the NCAA. Are the five conferences going to separate and when they do, what are the rules they’re going to abide by and who sets those rules? There’s obviously — and rightfully so — an emphasis on student welfare (and) doing more things for the student-athlete, hence the … stipend and the meals and talking about dead periods for them (away from practices and workouts) and them having a say in governance. … I think those are all good, but all of us are sitting here saying, ‘Where does it go? Can we all support it?’ It’s going to cost more money for all of us to do it. So, right now, I don’t say it’s harder, but there’s more change.”
Q: Where do you think you’ve made your biggest strides as an administrator?
BA: “I don’t think about that. I know my strengths and I know the advantage I have over most athletic directors and that’s that I’ve coached. I’ve been in those shoes. When coaches have issues, they feel comfortable coming in here and visiting with me about it and I’ll have answers, whether it’s dealing with athletes; whether it be building a team; whether it be struggling through a rough season; whether it be dealing with parents. Whatever it might be they feel comfortable coming in here and ask and I have an answer for them. It’s the same thing with evaluating coaches. It’s the same thing with supporting coaches and giving them a plan to get better. If you haven’t (coached) it’s hard to give answers.”
Q: You run an operation that’s had no NCAA compliance issues, has an operating budget in the black, have nationally competitive teams across the board and reasonable ticket prices compared to your peer institutions. But fans still seem to grumble a lot. Is it getting harder to please them?
BA: “I don’t hear much noise.”
Q: Really? Even in this time of social media and email?
BA: “I don’t know. I don’t get many emails. I don’t follow Twitter. I don’t do any of that stuff. I don’t care about that.”
Q: Your staff does, though, correct?
BA: “That’s what they do. That’s what they have to do. But you know what? It makes it easier to complain when you’re faceless or you have an agenda or you have a dislike for someone or somebody irritates you. It’s easy to take shots. You have a venue to do that where years ago you didn’t have a venue and you could spout off at the coffee shop or with your buddies at the bar. Now you can get it out there in front of everybody. I take a look at what we do. … Have we had any compliance issues? Financially, fiscally, are we sound? Do we operate in the black and (give back) to campus? Are we competitive? Do we graduate students? The answer to all those is we’re doing our job and we’re doing it well. … I think we’re one of the most consistent programs in the country.”
Q: You mentioned recently that your department has had multiple episodes where potentially major NCAA rules violations were identified by staffers and prevented before they got out of hand. Can you give me an example?
BA: “We had some instances where some retail places in town were aggressively … trying to use our athletes. They buy this here; they do this here. They’re trying to tie themselves with the athletes and would have gotten very aggressive with it. It was just getting started when word got back to us and we were able to cut it off before it really got started.”
Q: The debate about paying student-athletes has been around for a long time and you’re against the idea. But it has gained steam recently thanks in part to the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit and the union movement at Northwestern. Part of your dissent is your estimate that a UW degree is worth at least $250,000. How does that factor into the discussion?
BA: “Really, you can’t put a value to it (with) what that degree allows you to do after you graduate.”
Q: That’s a pretty dramatic price tag. Why don’t you mention that more often?
BA: “No one wants to read that. They’d rather talk about paying athletes or giving them a chance to go pro. It’s like everybody’s going to go pro when in fact you probably have less than 1 percent going on to play pro athletics. … My whole thing in recruiting was we want to get you a degree. We want to prepare you for life after if you play pro football. That’s a way for you to get a nest egg. That’s a bonus. It was never to sell someone to play pro football first. … I spoke to one of the classes and someone asked about paying athletes. I asked, ‘How many of you have loans? How long is it going to take you to pay those loans off?’ There happened to be a football player in there. … I said, ‘You’ve got a degree and now you’re in grad school and we’re paying for that. When you’re finished (with school) how much do you owe?’ Nada. Plus you had medical training. You had specialized strength training, trainers, equipment. You had access to academic support. That all costs money. You have special meals, training table. That all costs money. But you don’t pay for it. No one really thinks of that.”
Q: When was the last time you raised your voice on the job that didn’t involve cheering for someone?
BA: “I don’t know. Not often.”
Q: Put aside the challenges brought on by the Power Five and their pursuit of NCAA autonomy for a moment. What is on your to-do list here at UW?
BA: “I want us to keep growing, keep improving. I want us to stay consistent. The majority of our teams played in the postseason. We are competitive and I’d like for all our teams to be competitive. … It’s hard to win. You have to continue to improve (and) self-evaluate or you fall back. Just like a team, our department has to continue to do that. We have to keep evaluating. Where can we get better? What are some areas we may be deficient? What are some of the best practices out there that people are doing that we might be able to implement to help us? You have to continually think of where you are and where you take the next step.”