MADISON, Wis. — Barry Alvarez’s birth certificate says he’s about to turn 66. The bounce in his step on Wisconsin’s practice field suggests differently.
Trading his red sports coat, slacks and loafers for sneakers, sweat shirt and a whistle, the Badgers’ athletic director has balanced trying to find a new head coach with preparing Wisconsin for its third straight Rose Bowl appearance.
“It’s fun to be around these kids,” Alvarez said Sunday following Wisconsin’s fourth bowl practice. “It’s just a great group of guys. It’s fun for me to be around this staff, be a little closer to this staff. It’s been enjoyable.”
Alvarez, whose birthday is Dec. 30, will lead the Badgers on Jan. 1 against No. 8 Stanford. Wisconsin has lost the last two Rose Bowls.
Two days after his hand-picked successor, Bret Bielema, accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas, Alvarez announced earlier this month that he would end a seven-year absence on the sidelines.
Wisconsin’s seniors asked Alvarez to coach them in their last game. It was a natural decision for them to choose Alvarez, who led Wisconsin to all three of its Rose Bowl triumphs (1994, 1999, 2000). He has an 8-3 record in bowl games, the best mark in college football history among coaches with 11 bowl appearances.
His players are responding to the energy. Shortly after the first practice under Alvarez, junior tight end Brian Wozniak tweeted that it was Wisconsin’s best practice of the year, and subsequent players have agreed.
“They were shorter, more crisp and attacked the practice a little more knowing they were shorter,” receiver Jared Abbrederis said. “We were really getting after it and getting some good work in.”
Alvarez said he thinks he is close to finding a replacement for Bielema. Although he toyed with the notion of returning for the 2013 season — for “like a day,” he said — Alvarez has interviewed two candidates. Speculation is that South Florida coach Willie Taggart and current Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker have spoken to Alvarez, and he is expected to meet with another one this week.
An official announcement of the next head coach could come sometime this week.
“I feel good about the candidates we have interviewed,” Alvarez said.
While Alvarez is having on the field, he has become irritated that he’s lost five assistant coaches in the past week, most of whom were given hard deadlines to decide their futures.
Officially, Bielema has hired defensive coordinator Chris Ash and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge to the same position at Arkansas. Receivers coach Zach Azzanni (Tennessee) and offensive coordinator Matt Canada (North Carolina State) have also accepted other jobs.
The list is expected to rise, as reports surfaced Sunday that linebackers coach Andy Buh was going to become the defensive coordinator at California.
“I like for them to stay, but they had to protect their families,” Alvarez said. “A coach says, ‘You’ve got 24 hours to make this decision or the job isn’t there,’ they have to do something because I couldn’t promise them that the next coach would retain them.”
When asked if he planned to make a run at some of those assistants when a new coach is in place, Alvarez didn’t commit.
“We’ll see when that time comes,” he said.