Bret Bielema guided Wisconsin to four 10-win seasons and three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances in his seven years in Madison, but he couldn’t deliver a win in the Granddaddy of Them All before his stunning decision to bolt for Arkansas.
His replacement has had a bit more success in Pasadena.
Barry Alvarez will make a temporary return to the Badgers’ sideline on Tuesday looking for his fourth Rose Bowl victory in this 99th edition of college football’s oldest bowl, but Wisconsin figures to have its hands full against an eighth-ranked Stanford team appearing in its third straight BCS game.
Bielema was the hand-picked successor to Alvarez when the winningest coach in school history stepped down after the 2005 season, and the former Iowa defensive lineman kept the Badgers humming along as one of the Big Ten’s elite teams.
Wisconsin (8-5) blew out Nebraska on Dec. 1 in the Big Ten championship game to qualify for a third straight Rose Bowl trip, though this one - possible only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for the postseason - wasn’t met with quite the same enthusiasm as when it entered the last two ranked in the top 10.
The Badgers’ spirits were dampened even further three days later with the stunning announcement that Bielema was headed to Arkansas. But it was Bielema himself who first hinted his former mentor may temporarily take the reins in Pasadena during his introductory press conference in Fayetteville.
“They might finally win one,” Bielema said. “Everyone tells me he won three and I lost two.”
Alvarez won all three of his teams’ visits to Pasadena in his 16 seasons, and eight of 11 bowl games overall for a program that won only one postseason game prior to his arrival.
Considering how synonymous Alvarez is with the program - he’s been the athletic director since 2004 - Wisconsin’s players seem to be fully on board with his cameo appearance as coach.
“It’s the best thing that could happen,” linebacker Mike Taylor said. “He’s familiar with what we do and he built this program. That’s why kids like me come here.”
Alvarez, though, has had his hands full with more than just preparation for Stanford (11-2).
He had to worry about hiring a new coach to take over once the Rose Bowl is in the books, which he did the week before Christmas, bringing in former Utah State coach Gary Andersen.
Andersen said he’ll be a “fly on the wall” during preparations for the game.
“These kids need to go win a Rose Bowl,” he said. “The last thing they need for me is to hang around coach Alvarez.”
Stanford has had no such turmoil surrounding its coach this year, with David Shaw agreeing to a “long-term contract extension” in December.
Those seasons came with Andrew Luck under center, but what the Cardinal did while moving on without the NFL’s top overall pick may have been even more compelling. Stanford closed 2012 with seven straight victories, knocking off ranked opponents in its final four and ruining then-No. 1 Oregon’s national title hopes in Eugene on Nov. 17.
“Are we becoming a football powerhouse? They still don’t want to call us a football powerhouse,” said Shaw, who has won Pac-12 Coach of the Year in each of his first two seasons. “But how many teams have gone to three BCS bowls, how many teams have lost five games in three years?”
The Badgers and Oregon are the only other programs riding streaks of three straight BCS berths, while Northern Illinois and the Ducks are the only teams besides Stanford to have won 11 games in each of the last three seasons.
While Wisconsin only finished third in the Big Ten Leaders Division, there’s still plenty of intrigue in this matchup. The Rose Bowl will be the final college game for Montee Ball, the all-time FBS leader in rushing touchdowns (76) and total TDs (82), and he’ll be running into the teeth of the nation’s No. 3 rush defense (87.7 yards per game).
“This is probably going to be the first team for the both of us that’s almost like a mirror image,” Shaw said. “I think our guys are going to see things they go against in training camp. There’s going to be a little bit of a chess match as we go into this thing, but it’s going to be exciting to see something familiar on film.”
Stanford leans almost as heavily on Stepfan Taylor, who had just one fewer touch from scrimmage than Ball with his 38 receptions factored in. Taylor finished with 1,442 yards on the ground and will now face a Badgers defense that’s 22nd (124.5 ypg) against the run.
Aside from their talented tailbacks and bruising offensive lines, Wisconsin and Stanford have other reasons for concentrating on the run. The Cardinal are 94th through the air (203.5 ypg) while the Badgers are 115th (162.6).
Senior Curt Phillips has been Wisconsin’s quarterback since freshman Joel Stave suffered a broken collarbone Oct. 27, but while Stave was thought to be done for the year, his recovery is reportedly ahead of schedule.
Considering the tight games they’ve found themselves in, the Badgers will take any edge they can get. Their last three losses came in overtime, while their other two were by a field goal apiece in regulation.
Three of Stanford’s last four victories came by four points or fewer, and it had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat UCLA 27-24 in the Pac-12 championship game. Defensive lineman Terrence Stephens missed that contest and the regular-season finale, and he has been declared ineligible for the Rose Bowl because of a secondary violation of NCAA rules related to his rental of off-campus housing.
Freshman Kevin Hogan has thrown for eight touchdowns and three interceptions since taking over under center for Josh Nunes, also running for 193 yards in five games.
Stanford hasn’t won the Rose Bowl since 1972, when it was known as the Indians. The Cardinal fell 17-9 to Wisconsin in 2000 in their only trip since.