Editor's note: Barry Alvarez will retire as the Wisconsin athletic director June 30. The State Journal asked some of those who have worked closely with him during his 31 years at the university as football coach and AD to share their thoughts about their time working together. This is part three in the eight-part series.
Though he wasn’t Joe Thomas’ coach for his entire playing career at the University of Wisconsin, Barry Alvarez’s impact on him and his home state’s football program stick with Thomas.
Thomas, now a rising star in the NFL media and successful entrepreneur, was once a blocking tight end for the Badgers in the twilight of Alvarez’s coaching career. Alvarez and his staff moved Thomas to tackle after one season and Thomas responded with one of the best three-year runs of line play in UW history before embarking on a sure-fire Hall of Fame career in the NFL. Thomas talks about what Alvarez means to him, UW athletics and the state of Wisconsin. These are Thomas’ words, edited for clarity, from an April 8 interview.
During the week he announced his retirement, Alvarez was asked multiple times the best player he coached during his tenure at UW, and he named Thomas on each occasion.
First, I'll say that the commitment to build the second Barry statue and my donation must have paid off.
I'm humbled to hear him say that. I don’t know ... I still feel like a little bit of that imposter syndrome when I hear that because I'm thinking to myself, think about all the great players he coached. I mean, obviously even outside of Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy, you think about all the first-round offensive linemen, first-round picks overall, there's so many great players.
I was 10 years old when they won the Rose Bowl. And I remember watching those guys and thinking like, Brent Moss and Darrell Bevell, the guys in the late ‘90s … Chris McIntosh and then I played with Lee Evans, who was a phenomenal receiver. It's sort of hard to wrap my mind around it when I hear that. I kind of get a little embarrassed at first, but then I have this enormous sense of pride.
I think people realize how special his tenure at Wisconsin was. Especially those people that were around before he was there, and how shitty the program was, and how he resurrected the program. And then he built the program for sustained success, but he did it in a way with such class that not only were they good, but everybody in the state, even if you weren't a huge Badger fan, you had a lot of pride about the Badger football program because Barry did it the right way.
He did it with a loyalty to his players, to the coaches that worked with him, as was evidenced by all the coaches that stuck around so long. I mean, it was so rare to have a coaching staff stay together as long as they did with Barry because they were loyal to him. And he was loyal to them. Loyalty is a two-way street.
But then he carried on that tradition into the athletic director role, building up and continuing the success in so many of the other programs in Wisconsin athletics, and he did it again with class. There's very few people, if any, you can ever find someone that can say something bad about Barry. That's so rare in today's day and age to say not only was he extremely successful from a wins and loss standpoint, but he did it with class in a way that we can be proud of him. And he did it without bending his values or the values of the people in the state of Wisconsin.
I have so much pride that he was my coach. He was just such a great representative of our state.
Thomas was injured in Alvarez’s final game as the Badgers’ full-time coach, a 24-10 win over Auburn in the Capital One Bowl. He played one more season in Madison under Bret Bielema, but the culture of winning that Alvarez established and maintained are what Thomas says he relishes.
It's human nature. You see it everywhere, to take (UW’s consistent success) for granted. I think about my friends who are Alabama fans. Like if they don't win the national championship, it was a disaster, and even when they do win … it's this sense of relief, not excitement, right? Wisconsin wins the national championship, they're burning that place down. Madison, State Street, like it is the party to end all parties. It's Mardi Gras. Like in Alabama, it's like, ‘All right, that's what we were supposed to do,’ because that's where your expectations are. They're always above maybe what the reality of your expected situation is going to be, and that's fine.
But the way Barry delivered three Rose Bowls, and then now a team that basically competes to go to the Rose Bowl every single year, to think that that would be our standard 30 years ago, 40 years ago is unfathomable. Just to get to the Rose Bowl was every Badger fan’s dream and now it's like that's what the standard is, is to play in the Rose Bowl. And there's really one man responsible for that, and that's Barry Alvarez.
READ MORE ESSAYS TO BARRY ALVAREZ
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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