It’s no coincidence that the Wisconsin athletic department run by Barry Alvarez is full of Badgers.
From his deputy athletic director to fundraisers to the directors of development and student-athlete engagement, Alvarez has hired a lengthy list of alums to help spread, as he puts it, “the same message from a lot of different voices.”
A similar scenario has played out in the offices at the opposite end of Camp Randall Stadium, where Paul Chryst, three decades removed from earning his degree at Wisconsin, is set to begin his fourth season in charge of a thriving football program.
Wisconsin is the only Power 5 program in the country with an alumnus as head coach, offensive coordinator (Joe Rudolph) and defensive coordinator (Jim Leonhard). The assistant coaches in charge of the quarterbacks (Jon Budmayr), tight ends/fullbacks (Mickey Turner) and strength and conditioning program (Ross Kolodziej) are also former Badgers.
“I think guys are pulled to come back here,” Rudolph says, “because they’re proud of it and believe in it.”
This is Rudolph’s third stop in Madison. He was an offensive lineman during the Badgers’ rise to relevance in the early 1990s, when Alvarez raised the program from the dead. Rudolph served as assistant on Bret Bielema’s staff from 2008-11 and returned as Chryst’s top lieutenant three seasons later.
The Badgers have evolved a great deal since Alvarez led the program to three Rose Bowl titles in a stretch of seven seasons from 1993-99, but significant portions of the foundation he built remain visible. The names change, but Wisconsin’s identity as a program that relies heavily on grit and toughness has largely remained the same.
The Badgers have averaged 9.1 wins since 1993. They’ve won at least 10 games in 12 of those 25 seasons and have played in a bowl game in 16 consecutive seasons.
“It’s not anything magical, you know,” Rudolph says. “It’s hard work and it’s playing physical and it’s caring about each other and it’s maximizing opportunities. The sayings on the wall aren’t fancy — ‘Smart, Tough, Dependable’ but I think the kids take it to heart.”
While a Wisconsin degree isn’t a prerequisite to be hired by Chryst, he acknowledges that institutional knowledge is a huge asset in recruiting.
“By having experience here,” says Chryst, who is 34-7 at Wisconsin, “it helps you know the guys that can be successful here.”
When Chryst used to hit the road looking for offensive linemen with Bob Bostad, a Wisconsin native in his second stint on the staff, they’d be brutally honest with recruits while attempting to identify good fits.
“We’d tell them, ‘If you don’t like to work, don’t do this, you’ll be miserable,'” Chryst says. “We’d try to scare them. ‘You think it’s cold? It gets colder.'”
Academics is another big piece of the evaluation process at Wisconsin. Again, that’s where first-hand knowledge is valuable.
Leonhard was an All-America safety under Alvarez before embarking on a 10-year NFL career. He also was a star in the classroom and can quickly identify players who can fit seamlessly on and off the field at Wisconsin.
“When you’re pushing academics and development, toughness, all of those things, you’re going to attract a certain type of kid,” Leonhard says. “We’re not going to fight that. That, I think, is the smart thing that we do and why we’ve been able to be consistent. We understand the type of kids we’re looking for. You find out pretty early in the recruiting process that some kids love that and some kids don’t.”
One thing that’s not part of Chryst’s recruiting pitch is his educational background. The Wisconsin coaches who played for the Badgers don’t feel the need to use that as a selling point, although Turner says it allows them “to be a lot more comfortable and be who we are as coaches and trust ourselves because we know this place so well.”
Even if Chryst and Co. aren’t touting their Wisconsin credentials, there appears to be an implied effect.
Wide receiver A.J. Taylor was a blue-chip prospect out of Kansas City who found out after the fact that Chryst had gone to Wisconsin. That led to an a-ha moment for Taylor as he reflected on his interactions with Chryst during the recruiting process.
“It definitely attracted me to here,” Taylor says, “because he was genuine.”
Leonhard believes it’s important for a program to know what it is and what it isn’t. He says there’s been a lot of thought put into that concept over the years at Wisconsin.
That’s evident to the players during meetings, practices and games, according to star running back Jonathan Taylor.
“They’ve played here, they know the standard, so it’s not hard for them to coach to that standard,” he says. “When they’re coaching you up, you take heed to it because you know that they’ve been in your shoes.”
For Beau Benzschawel, there’s a certain pressure that goes along with being coached by one of the program’s building blocks. He doesn’t want to let Rudolph down.
“It really makes you appreciate the foundation that they’ve set,” Benzschawel says. “You also know that they’ve been through the (bad) days and all that stuff.”
One thing that stands out to Benzschawel about the three seasons he’s played under Chryst is how the message has remained consistent.
Coaching mottos, particularly corny ones, can go in one ear and out the other once they reach the players. But Chryst’s primary slogan — Smart, Tough, Dependable — is one that Benzschawel says resonates with the Badgers.
“It’s important that everybody here speaks the same language, because what you’re talking about is a culture, an identity,” says Kolodziej, a defensive lineman on back-to-back Rose Bowl teams in the late 1990s. “How you relate to one another, what your common goals are and how to achieve those goals are very important. So if you’re speaking something else than I am, that’s a tremendous opportunity for division and that’s where a lot of organizations fail. When it comes down to what we’re here to do, everybody is unflinching in what that goal is.”
During the opening week of spring practice, with the Badgers in the midst of a transition from a school-record 13-win season to one that will begin with massive expectations, Alvarez sat in his office and reflected on a time when not everybody at Wisconsin was on the same page.
When Bielema bolted to Arkansas following the 2012 season, Alvarez led a coaching search that didn’t go well. He could have hired Chryst, who had just finished his rookie season at Pittsburgh, but didn’t. Eventually, after being turned down by multiple targets, Alvarez settled on Gary Andersen.
Two seasons later, Alvarez was back in search mode after Andersen’s shocking decision to leave Wisconsin for Oregon State. While Andersen went 19-7 with the Badgers, he was never comfortable in the program and veered from a formula that had worked so well under Alvarez and his hand-picked successor, Bielema.
“The first thing he told me when he called me the day he was leaving,” Alvarez says of Andersen, “was, ‘I can’t do it the way you want me to do it.'”
Among Alvarez’s biggest gripes with Andersen was how he handled recruiting in the state of Wisconsin, particularly the walk-on program. “That’s our advantage,” Alvarez says.
Wisconsin had 50 players make NFL rosters from 10 recruiting classes that spanned from 2003-12. Twenty-seven of those players were in-state recruits, including eight who began their careers without a scholarship.
“I just feel like coach Chryst is more of a Wisconsin fit,” Benzschawel says. “He knows what Wisconsin football is all about, and I think that’s kind of why coach Andersen was kind of out of his element. He wanted to change stuff and make it his team. I think traditionally at Wisconsin that doesn’t work.”
Fortunately for Alvarez, he had a perfect replacement yearning for the job Andersen left behind: Chryst, who brought along Rudolph, Kolodziej, Turner and Budmayr from Pitt, which essentially had become Wisconsin East — without the gaudy win totals — for three seasons. A year later, Leonhard became the latest former Badger to join the party.
To Alvarez, it just feels right to have Wisconsin guys in all the leadership roles inside the program.
“They take great pride in this school and what we’ve accomplished here. They want it to continue,” Alvarez says. “They can sell this place because they’re sold on it. It means something to them.”