Bill Moos says he’s learned over the years to be careful about judging someone based off what others are saying.
He uses Barry Alvarez as an example of why.
Before arriving in Lincoln during the fall of 2017 to become Nebraska’s athletic director, Moos made his mark as an AD in the northwestern part of the United States at Washington State, Oregon and Montana.
In his circles out west, Moos says, he had heard at times that Alvarez could be a bit of a bully, and even somewhat ruthless.
Then, Moos says, he took the Nebraska job, got to know his Big Ten brethren, and found Alvarez to be a delight.
“We’re dear friends now,” Moos says.
Close enough to enjoy breakfast together.
“Can I tell you a story?” Moos asks politely during an interview last week in his Memorial Stadium office.
He goes on to tell of an encounter with Alvarez that helps illustrate the native Pennsylvanian's incredible (and immediate) impact on Wisconsin’s football program as its head coach from 1990 to 2005.
Of course, Alvarez as an athletic director (2004 to 2021) became a respected power broker within the Big Ten and even nationally.
The 74-year-old has a regal presence, carrying himself with the sort of strength and dignity you might expect from someone who’s had such a wide-ranging impact.
His work at Wisconsin gives hope to football programs that lack a winning tradition. Consider: UW was 9-36 in the four seasons before Alvarez arrived as head coach.
Alvarez, of course, announced his retirement as AD in April.
So, back to the breakfast. Moos tells of going to the Chicago area in 2017 for a Big Ten meeting in nearby Rosemont, Illinois.
He arrives early and sits down in a hotel restaurant.
Alvarez enters, and Moos waves him over. Moos is full of stories. He loves telling them and he’s good at it, and he has something for Alvarez.
He tells Alvarez that as Washington State’s AD, he often used Alvarez’s early days as Wisconsin’s head coach — Alvarez was 11-22 in his first three seasons, including 1-10 in 1990 — to illustrate why Cougar fans should be patient with Mike Leach, whom Moos hired in 2012. WSU was 3-9 (1-8 Pac-12) in Leach’s first season.
Moos tells Alvarez that he liked to tell Washington State fans that 52 players left Wisconsin’s program shortly after Alvarez took over.
“Fifty-two!” Moos says for emphasis.
With a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal in front of him, Alvarez grins and stays silent as Moos recounts Alvarez’s early days as head coach.
“Fifty-two guys left your program!” Moos tells Alvarez. “More than half your roster!”
Moos will never forget Alvarez’s response.
“In a low voice, he goes, ‘It was 54,’” Moos said last week.
“He was proud of it.”
In Alvarez’s fourth season as Wisconsin’s head coach, 1993, the Badgers defeated UCLA in the Rose Bowl. As years progressed, Wisconsin became a consistently tough customer in college football, winning two more Rose Bowls while playing a style that Alvarez says he learned at Nebraska. You know that story, Husker fans. Moos certainly knows the story.
“Wisconsin football is this: 'We’re going to line up and we’re going to kick your ass, and there’s really not a whole lot you can do about it,'” Moos says.
This is where many Nebraska fans’ thoughts may shift to 2017, when Wisconsin came to Lincoln and was ruthless in prevailing 38-17.
In the fourth quarter, the Badgers rushed 22 times for 125 yards — and never attempted a pass.
The entire stadium knew a run play was coming, and it didn't much matter.
Alvarez, a Nebraska linebacker in the Bob Devaney era, had to be sitting back with a wide grin. That was his blueprint. It’s still the blueprint at UW. It's recruit big and ornery linemen from Wisconsin or regions nearby and go to work. You can imagine the rugged nature of the Badgers' practices. Facing a downhill running game every day will make a defense leather-tough.
OK, I’ll stop there, Husker fans. You already know the score.
Meanwhile, Moos paints a picture of how Alvarez, as a veteran AD, conducted himself in Big Ten meetings.
“He never felt he had to be the loudest voice in the room,” Moos says. “But when he had something to say, it always had value.”
“Sometimes people talk just to hear themselves,” Moos adds. “Not Barry. When he talked, it was worth listening. Sometimes, it was just once a meeting.”
In other words, Alvarez didn’t throw his weight around.
“Nope,” Moos says. “Very humble.”
Alvarez’s input was particularly valuable on football-specific matters. No surprise there given his coaching background.
“But I think he appreciated the professionalism of those of us who had been in the industry as administrators and not coaches,” Moos says. “He respected that, and it was mutual.”
Moos has enjoyed several conversations with Alvarez in the past three-plus years. Alvarez expresses to Moos the need for people to be patient with Scott Frost as he builds Nebraska’s program. Frost is 12-20 through three seasons. Remember, Alvarez was just 11-22 through three years.
“Barry’s just my kind of guy. Rough, tough. A linebacker,” Moos says. “And he’s always been proud to be a Husker.”
“He’s a tough disciplinarian. His players always loved him — those who didn’t quit,” Moos adds with a grin.
Oh, the stories Alvarez could tell.