It’s not a stretch to say some of Barry Alvarez’s finest work during his days in Madison was taking place around this time 20 years ago.
Over the course of six chaotic weeks in early 1990, Alvarez was hired as the coach of the University of Wisconsin football team, put together an impressive group of assistants and rounded up several players who helped the Badgers go from pathetic to Pasadena in less than four years.
The 1990 recruiting class will always be special to Alvarez because it was his first at UW. It doesn’t hurt that it was a highly productive group that will go down as one of his best classes, an amazing accomplishment considering the massive selling job Alvarez and his staff had to do in a short amount of time.
Of the 23 players who signed with the Badgers on Valentine’s Day that year — the group later became an even two dozen — almost half (11) would become starters on the 1993 team that won a share of the Big Ten Conference title and clinched the program’s first Rose Bowl bid in more than three decades.
Seven of the players would earn first-team All-Big Ten recognition during their careers, the most in any of Alvarez’s 16 recruiting classes with the Badgers. That number doesn’t even count Joe Panos, who joined the program as a walk on.
“That was a great class,” Alvarez said recently. “To sign a class like that, under those conditions, was unbelievable.”
Wanted: Tough guys
Alvarez’s best recruiting during that stretch may have involved convincing the eventual members of his staff to join him in an enormous rebuilding project.
Dan McCarney, who had worked with Alvarez at Iowa under Hayden Fry, was the first to jump aboard and spent the next five seasons as UW’s defensive coordinator. Another product of the Fry coaching tree, Bernie Wyatt, was the next to join and gave the Badgers instant credibility on the East Coast.
Later, Alvarez would add two young “hard-chargers” he had recruited against in the Big Ten: Bill Callahan and Kevin Cosgrove would tag-team the state of Illinois for UW.
By Jan. 10, eight days after he took the UW job, Alvarez had his entire staff in place. He literally tossed the recruiting list from the previous staff in the trash can and gave his assistants marching orders on the type of players he wanted to recruit before sending them out on the road.
“Here’s what I told our guys: ‘First, make sure they like football,’ ” Alvarez said. “That sounds kind of trite, but we were going to work them hard. That’s the only way I knew how to get the thing done.
“I wanted tough guys.”
Alvarez and his staff used Madison and attending a world-class university as selling points. And while opposing coaches were reminding prospects of the fact the Badgers had won a total of six games in the previous three years combined under Don Morton, UW’s new staff countered with the potential for early playing time and the chance to be part of something special.
“We just sold that we were going to get better,” Wyatt said. “We didn’t know how soon that was going to happen. But we knew we were going to get better, and they were our building blocks.”
One of Alvarez’s main priorities was to build a wall around the state, but McCarney discovered rather quickly how difficult that task would be.
“Barry shot me out to see all the in-state kids and try to get them to come for a visit, and I was shocked that everywhere I went there were Michigan T-shirts, Michigan hats, Michigan sweatshirts all over the place,” McCarney said. “I remember telling Barry, ‘We’ve got to get this thing cranked up and turned around so we can see the Badger stuff out there in the state again.’ ”
Convincing in-state prospects UW could win wasn’t easy. The Badgers hadn’t won more than seven games in one season during any of the prospects’ lifetimes and had become such an embarrassment during the Morton years that some college prospects, like Kimberly’s Mike Verstegen, stopped paying attention altogether.
“They weren’t even on the map,” said Verstegen, who would join the Badgers as an outside linebacker but eventually became an outstanding offensive tackle. “I didn’t know about them, didn’t even follow them. Watching the Badger game wasn’t what you did on Saturday, and it wasn’t the first thing you checked out (in the newspaper) the following day. I remember they used to play the games on Public Television at night, and you’d just keep flipping.”
Alvarez built some early momentum by landing Portage’s Mike Thompson, who became a standout defensive lineman, within his first few days on the job.
Then, on the second-to-last weekend in January, UW got commitments from six players. The group included a pair of future starters from Racine — tailback Brent Moss, a future Big Ten Most Valuable Player and MVP of the 2004 Rose Bowl, and wide receiver J.C. Dawkins.
The haul also included Marinette star Jeff Messenger, who ended a run of three consecutive years in which UW missed out on the state’s high school player of the year. Messenger had no intentions of committing to the Badgers when he arrived in Madison for his official visit — he was leaning heavily toward Michigan State — but ended up buying into what Alvarez was selling.
“You kind of know when you’re in the presence of something special,” said Messenger, a two-time first-team All-Big Ten pick at defensive back. “Going through the recruiting process, you could kind of get a feel for some of the coaches and some of the people who are blowing smoke, but there was such a confidence about coach Alvarez that you believed it.”
UW ended up landing 10 players from the state. It could have been more, but Milwaukee Marquette fullback/linebacker Greg McThomas backed out of an oral commitment to the Badgers and chose Michigan instead.
Another in-state star who turned down the Badgers was Southern Door lineman Jim Flanigan, who picked Notre Dame. But Flanigan agreed to do Alvarez a favor by taking an official visit to Madison and saying positive things to other recruits and in the media.
“I needed his credibility to help with those other recruits,” Alvarez said.
Callahan and Cosgrove helped deliver five players from Illinois in the class, including defensive lineman Carlos Fowler. Wyatt landed four players from eastern states, including eventual starters Jamel Brown (safety, New York), Yusef Burgess (linebacker, New York) and Joe Rudolph (Pennsylvania), who signed as a linebacker but developed into a two-time All-Big Ten offensive guard and now serves as a UW assistant coach.
UW also ended up landing future All-Big Ten picks from Indiana and Iowa in nose tackle Lamark Shackerford and tight end Michael Roan, respectively, and a valuable starter from Minnesota in fullback Mark Montgomery.
In all, Alvarez and his staff convinced players from 10 states that they could be part of something special at UW.
“The way they sold it,” Burgess said, “Wisconsin was a sleeping giant in the Big Ten.”
Feeling blue (collar)
By the time Alvarez and Co. unveiled the class on National Signing Day, they were exhausted. And while they were pleased with the result of their hard work, they had no idea the group would turn out to be so good.
Like most UW classes, this one was ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten by most recruiting analysts. It exceeded expectations, in large part, because UW found so many diamonds in the rough among the 24-member group.
“There were a lot of names who weren’t big-time names but turned out to be pretty good football players,” Verstegen said. “It was a lot of blue-collar guys who worked hard and loved to play the game. Some of us weren’t prized recruits, but we just had a lot of pride in how we conducted our business.”
Twenty years later, those six weeks produced some of the groundwork that helped the UW program become the solid foundation it is now.
“I get a smile on my face just thinking about it,” McCarney said. “It was an amazing time.”