In the leadup to Barry Alvarez’s retirement as the Wisconsin athletic director, this is part seven in an eight-part series of conversations with those who have worked closely with Barry Alvarez during his tenure at the University of Wisconsin.
Barry Alvarez’s plan for the University of Wisconsin football team’s offense over a four-year stretch was simple and direct:
Give the ball to Ron Dayne.
Dayne became the leading rusher in Big Ten Conference history and is second in NCAA history in rushing yards only because his bowl-game statistics aren’t counted for reasons that remain unclear. Dayne led the Badgers to back-to-back Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl wins, and UW is still the only Big Ten team with consecutive Rose Bowl titles.
Dayne — one of two Badgers to win the Heisman Trophy — shares his memories of meeting Alvarez, how their friendship has grown over the years and how he’s stayed connected to UW through Alvarez.
I never really got to know coach when I first was getting recruited and things; I got recruited by Bernie Wyatt. One day, coach was at my house — and at this time there weren’t cell phones and all that — but everybody knew everybody was at. So after school, I was at my buddy's house. We always went to my friend's house and we would play like spades or Monopoly or different games. My aunt called and she’s like, “Ronnie, there’s a coach over here. Need you to come back to the house.”
So I get there, I walk in the door and I see coach. The first thing coach does is give me a big hug. And I’m like, “Oh, OK, I’ve never met you before, I don’t know who you are.” So then the next thing he was like, “Hey Ronnie, you got a question for me?” And I'm like, “Yeah, will you let me be running back?” And he says, “Yeah, I'm giving you the ball as much as you can carry it.” So then I was in. That was the first time I met coach. He just came to my house out of the blue and just gave me a big hug.
When I first got here, we had a 1,000-yard rusher already in Carl McCullough, Aaron Stecker … Then we had another pair (of backs) … So I'm like the fifth dude. They’re all faster than me, but I’m fast enough. But during camp my freshman year, I had to go against the 1s on defense. I only had to do it for a little bit because coach made me stop. He said, “You can’t go against the 1s, you can’t run them over.”
So I didn't get to go against the 1s a lot, maybe once in a while, but I didn't play with the 1s on offense through camp at all. I would just do different plays and things like that. So we never talked, but he knew what I could do because I couldn't go against the 1s anymore.
It was kind of crazy because the first time when me and coach really got to kick it and talk and I knew that coach noticed me was when I think Carl was kind of hurt, so (Alvarez) said, “Ronnie, be ready.” I was surprised, but I wanted to play and he knew that. So the first couple of times I played in the games, I didn’t know any plays. So I would depend on (fullback) Cecil (Martin), the linemen might tell me (the play). Mackey (Chris McIntosh) would be like, “Come this way,” and that was just fine with me. Cecil would point between his legs which way I should go. I was thinking, “It must be coming to me because everybody’s telling me where to go.”
It only took me like maybe two, three weeks to get it all. I knew the running plays, I just didn’t know the passing plays — we never did passing plays anyway.
As Dayne’s star rose, he became a conduit between Alvarez and the team, and he got to see a different side of Alvarez during his Heisman campaign.
I started getting a little power — maybe not power, but my guys were like, “Ronnie, all you’ve got to do is go talk to coach or tell coach about this.” I'm getting it from the seniors, the seniors come and tell me things and I’m like, “All right.”
I’d go up (to Alvarez’s office) and tell him. Coach would go, “OK, that’s how guys feel? OK, practices better look like this.” I’d go back and tell the guys, “Practices better look like this. If coach has to stop practice, everything I went up there and asked coach for, we might as well hang it up.” So we’d have great practices, especially when we needed to. Sometimes we didn't get what we wanted because sometimes we'd be having bad practices. We’d get through half of practice and coach would be like, “Start it all over from the beginning.” So we’d start over, like start stretching again. We were through like 15 periods — there’s only 20!
It was fun just being able to be with coach. I consider coach like a father figure to me because he was always there for anything. I really didn’t need a lot because I was good, my family was straight, so we were able to just kick it. People would always talk to coach before talked to me, so I’d just have to figure out what he talked about and just follow it up. “Yep, right what coach said. Yep, that.” I appreciated that time I had with him.
When Dayne turned pro, Alvarez still would coach him from afar and Dayne still wanted to be involved in recruiting to help his alma mater.
I would always call coach or call him back. He'd hit me (after) different games, like I might have fumbled in the game or something. I remember getting a personal foul and coach calling me like, “Oh, Ronnie, come on.”
We'd have different things like that. I always called coach because of the fact that I always wanted us to have the best running back. So I would call back and be like, “Hey, what running back should I (call)?” So I could kind of talk to the family and see who he was recruiting. Different stuff like that, just trying to help. So I was always calling to see ... “Let me call him, let me call Melvin (Gordon) and let me tell him.” Those guys were always like, “What? Ron Dayne’s calling me?” I’d always reach out to keep getting the top backs here. And I still do, kind of still, to this day.
Dayne spoke with Alvarez at McIntosh’s introduction as Alvarez’s successor. He said he was excited about his former teammate taking over but felt a range of emotions regarding Alvarez stepping away.
I think coach did the most that he could have done probably for any university. Our football team was 0-for when coach got here. It wasn't just the football team — the basketball teams, all of our sports were kind of down. And then when coach put the football team on the right track, everything started to kind of fall in track. Once he became AD, he was putting it together. So we started winning championships, championships, our women’s hockey team, they've been national champs for the longest. Coach has been AD as long as they've been winning national championships. He’s had so many other different things that he had to deal with, coming from football to being the AD, but bringing us as football players to this program, I think we helped a lot too with making our program a lot bigger and better. That’s what he wanted from Day 1.
He's one of the greatest guys I've ever met. Doing what he did, from what I got to see for 20-something years now, and he's still doing his thing. He still will be able to be around and be a big influence, and help Chris (McIntosh). When Mackey gets in a tough spot and he feels some kind of way, coach is going to be around. That's a great thing with him being a Badger and getting Chris McIntosh in that position — he can always reach out to coach. He can pick off one of the greatest minds that you’d want. I love to be doing stuff with the university, and this just makes it a lot easier.
I just wish the best for him. And I'm glad that he was able to go out on his own terms and still have a great program that he's leaving behind. He didn’t leave on a bad note. He was able to leave us on a great note and able to still do our thing.
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In this Series
'There's one Barry Alvarez': Here's how former players, colleagues will remember Wisconsin's AD as he heads into retirement
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