Senior Writer

Flourishing Five No. 4: Badgers' powerful football program built with power


(Second in a series. Some schools have great football teams. Some have great basketball teams. But a select few have the best of both worlds. ranks and profiles the schools who’ve positioned themselves for success now and into the future in both sports. Today, No. 4 Wisconsin. Thur., July 29, No. 3 revealed.)

Wisconsin wants to be stereotyped.

It knows it is not big on sun, sizzle or style.

"Definitely not sexy," Scott Tolzien said.

Before you start e-mailing pictures of The Dells, wheels of cheese or trophy musky, remember we're talking about Wisconsin football. Let's just say the program fits the profile of the state.

Ask Tolzien, the Badgers quarterback.

"When [you] hear Wisconsin football, I would say first of all toughness, discipline and winning the turnover battle."

Throw in five nine-win seasons since 2004, six January bowls since 1998 and 15 1,000-yard rushers in the last 17 years and you get a better idea of that stereotype.

"We get guys out of our state that are giants," said Badgers patron coaching saint Barry Alvarez, who doubles as AD.

Offensive linemen, defensive linemen, tailbacks. Doesn't matter. While the likes of Purdue rose and fell in the Big Ten with a spread offense, Wisconsin hasn't deviated from the philosophy established firmly by Alvarez in 1990 when he arrived from Notre Dame.

"To come in here and think that we're going to have a truckload of skill players is just not right," Alvarez said of his early years. "I looked at the type of players we could consistently get at Wisconsin.

"We said, 'Let's make sure we keep them at home. Let's build our program around linemen. Let's be physical. We may not be able to get all the skill players in the world but we can probably find hard-nosed running backs.'"

Yes, there have been a few of those -- Brent Moss, Terrell Fletcher, Ron Dayne, Anthony Davis and currently the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year, redshirt junior John Clay.

Wisconsin may not be dominating the Big Ten. It is one of those beating it up, in both revenue sports. That's what helps land the Badgers on this list. Alvarez has transitioned nicely to AD where he also oversees a basketball program that has been to 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments. Bo Ryan has won at least a share of three Big Ten regular-season titles.

That's what they keep talking about in Madison. Battles, fights, knockout blows. Moss was a highly recruited in-state guy of the Alvarez era with almost 1,700 yards in 1993. Alvarez says to this day if he had 1 yard to pick up, the ball would go to Moss. The kid's college career ended tragically when he was busted for possessing crack cocaine as a senior. Moss kicked around the NFL for a few years and most recently was coach of the semi-pro Racine Threat before being let go. A year ago Alvarez received a letter from his first 1,000-yard back "apologizing to me for some of his actions."

Flourishing Five: No. 4 Wisconsin
Wisconsin basketball
Gary Parrish Gary Parrish
His recruits aren't always sparkly, and Bo Ryan doesn't care. Instead the Wisconsin coach finds players who fit a system that cranks out tourney teams. More >>
Wisconsin football
200510-3Won Capital One
200612-1Won Capital One
20079-4Lost Outback
20087-6Lost Champs
200910-3Won Champs
-- Bret Bielema took over as head coach in 2006
-- Joe Thomas was 2006 Outland Trophy winner
-- Finished No. 16 in the Final AP Poll in 2009
Top Draft picks
PlayerPick (Year)Team
DeAndre Levy71 (2009)Detroit
Joe Thomas3 (2007)Cleveland
Owen Daniels98 (2006)Houston
Erasmus James18 (2005)Minnesota
Related links Marquee recruits in sight
Wisconsin Badgers official athletic site
Series rundown
No. 5 Pittsburgh: Football | Basketball
No. 3 Ohio State: Football | Basketball
No. 2 Texas: Football | Basketball
No. 1 Florida: Football | Basketball
Blog: Honorable mention | Who's the worst?

Fletcher was the home-run hitter following with 1,476 yards in '94. Dayne was the offense for four years beginning in 1996, establishing the all-time career rushing record.

"We were like a wishbone team," Alvarez said. "We'd get the ball and hang onto it for a long time. You better do something defensively or you weren't going to get the ball until the next quarter."

The stereotype worked. From 1993-1999, Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl three times. Now it's going on a decade without a return trip to Pasadena.

"When I took this job, we had about three weeks before signing day," Alvarez recalled. "We started from scratch, we hustled. We signed a group of guys who took us to the Rose Bowl.

"Everybody wants to go to the Rose Bowl. Everybody wants to play in a BCS game. For a while there it was, "Heck, we're going back to the Rose Bowl again.'"

Spoiled? No, not spoiled. Just anxious. Wisconsin beat Ohio State three times in the last decade but finished ahead of the Buckeyes only once. Bret Bielema was Alvarez's hand-picked successor in 2006. The Badgers immediately won 17 of their first 18 games under Bielema, the former defensive coordinator. A downturn to 7-6 in 2008 was followed by a 10-win season last year. A 20-14 win over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl hinted at some of that old physicality. The Hurricanes got manhandled.

It didn't look that way in the second game of Alvarez's second season in 1991. At that point, he was 2-10 as Wisconsin's coach, playing an Iowa State program that was at the beginning of a stretch of 10 consecutive losing seasons.

In one of the worst displays of football, ever, Wisconsin won 7-6.

"We didn't know how to win," Alvarez said, "but you could see they would compete and they were never intimidated."

Enter Tolzien, a senior from Chicago's northwest suburbs. If there were ever a guy who couldn't be intimidated ... Tolzien wants a Rose Bowl too. It was a family tradition to gather 'round the TV on Jan. 1 to watch the San Gabriels frame the Granddaddy.

"They'd [Big Ten] always get out there and kick butt," Tolzien said.

Not lately. In fact, Ohio State's win over Oregon in January was the Big Ten's first in the Rose Bowl since 2000 when Wisconsin beat Stanford. Tolzien gets all that Wisconsin tradition. A year ago he headed into fall drills a distant third on the depth chart. The hardest hit of his career came in the opener against Northern Illinois.

"They sent a corner blitz, front side, but I was looking to my left," Tolzien said. "The guy got me pretty good ... I spent three years on the sidelines wishing I would get hit and wishing I was sore."

Tolzien got up, beat NIU and nine other teams while completing a school-record 211 passes. Add in Clay's 1,517 yards and the stereotype lives for the future.

"You see how frustrating it is on a defense, when you're just eating up the clock," Tolzien said. "It's cool when the defense knows we're running the ball and 80,000 in the stands know we're running the ball and we still get 4 or 5 yards."

Definitely not sexy, just perfect for Wisconsin.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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