TAMPA, Fla. -- Barry Alvarez cut the postgame question short. It was misleading. He didn’t want to coach Wisconsin in a bowl game for the second time in three seasons, so the aftermath of a second coach abruptly leaving didn’t have any immediate bearing on his decision to return to Wisconsin’s sideline.
“I didn’t want to coach these guys. Initially, I said I feel uncomfortable doing that again. They asked me to sleep on it and that they would come back. I thought maybe they’d forget,” said Alvarez, Wisconsin’s athletic director and former coach. “They did show up the next morning, but I started thinking that night, ‘Why are we at the university?’ It’s still about the kids. So the least I could do, if I could bring them some stability, then I should do that.”
Let’s shelve the belabored Big Ten narrative and the conference’s rivalry with the SEC until at least Jan. 2. No. 18 Wisconsin beating No. 19 Auburn 34-31 in overtime in the Outback Bowl wasn’t about shifting perceptions. The celebration in Raymond James Stadium -- the rush to midfield, the alma mater and Gatorade shower -- was about a running back chasing history and a program of 18- to 22-year-olds chasing something much more.
Wisconsin was reeling. It had lost four straight bowl games -- three of which were Rose Bowls -- and two coaches following appearances in Big Ten title games. Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen left Wisconsin in what can best be described as lateral moves. And there were questions about whether a coach could survive under the shadow of Alvarez, a Hall of Fame coach with 118 wins at Wisconsin.
It wouldn’t be overstating it to say a program that had played in four straight New Year’s Day bowls was in turmoil. It lacked stability.
So the players asked Alvarez for it.
“We needed someone that would be able to handle things,” running back Melvin Gordon said. “This game was important for us as a team, to win this for him.”
Gordon has been the Badgers’ enduring figure on the field. In his final game before heading to the NFL, the redshirt junior performed an encore that will live on in the annals of Wisconsin, which, with its rich running back history, does not willfully lease real estate on its walls. He rushed for 251 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries en route to Outback Bowl MVP honors. His second touchdown, a 53-yard fourth-down dash complete with a video-game-like stiff-arm, will be replayed for years.
He fell 42 yards shy of breaking Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season rushing record of 2,628 yards, but he broke school records for rushing yards in a bowl game (251) and most 200-yard games in a season (six). He also holds the Big Ten record for career yards per carry (7.79) and the school record for rushing yards in a season (2,587).
“Melvin is truly special,” Alvarez said. “I think someone told him he couldn’t have the numbers that you had if you played in the Southeastern Conference, and he begged to differ.”
Auburn made the mistake of motivating Gordon by commenting that the Big Ten had soft run defenses, but it was the Tigers who were mostly fluff on defense Thursday. However, the bowl game was secondary on most Auburn fans’ list of priorities. While head coach Gus Malzahn said the loss was disappointing, the Tigers already won their biggest offseason prize when they erased an ugly end to the season by landing Will Muschamp, whom Malzahn repeatedly called “the best defensive coordinator in football.”
Gordon and the Badgers, meanwhile, were still desperate for a positive spin on a mostly negative story.
“It means a lot,” Gordon said. “We’ve been through so much adversity. ... I tried to get in those guys' head that this game meant everything, especially for the seniors.”
But Gordon and Alvarez are outgoing school legends. Gordon is off to the NFL and Alvarez said “no más” when asked if he would ever coach again. (He remains Wisconsin’s athletic director.) When the Wisconsin seniors carried Alvarez off the field, it neatly tied a bow on a tough time in Wisconsin football. Now the Badgers hand the keys to head coach Paul Chryst, who comes to his native Madison with such little ego that he was willing to sit in Raymond James Stadium’s bleachers Thursday. The former Badgers player and coach figures to be a mainstay at Wisconsin for as long as the school will have him.
“I’m really excited for Chryst to come to Madison,” redshirt junior guard Ray Ball said, “and for his era to start.”
It helps to move on to a new era when the chaotic one ends well, too.