MADISON, Wis. -- When Barry Alvarez tasked his assistant coaches with hitting the recruiting trail their first few weeks on the job in the winter of 1990, their reports back to Wisconsin's new football coach contained a mixture of surprise and exasperation. They noticed the best players in the state were fleeing the Badgers' beaten down program to fill the rosters of other Big Ten teams. And more were lining up to follow them.
Without those corn-fed, cheese-eating behemoths, Alvarez quickly determined, Wisconsin would never attain conference and national success in the manner he knew was possible. His intuition and unwavering ambition not only fundamentally altered Wisconsin football, it also put the Badgers on a unique path toward sustained prosperity that surprisingly few programs across the country have been able to replicate since.
"He really set up his recruiting style," said Bret Bielema, who went 68-24 over seven seasons as head coach at Wisconsin -- including three consecutive Big Ten championships -- before taking over at Arkansas in December 2012. "He always used to say there's always going to be big people in Wisconsin. So you can recruit the O-linemen, the D-linemen and occasional skill kids, but you'd also go out of state for that. I'll never forget, I hired a defensive line coach. He came to me and he goes, 'Coach, you're right. There are big people in Wisconsin.' He goes, 'I went to the grocery store last night, and there was a 6-10 kid sacking groceries.' And I started laughing. But it's the truth, you know?"
As another year of spring practices come and go, the Badgers are quietly preparing to thrive this fall without an immediate impact early enrollee or big-time freshman ready to steal the show. While teams in the SEC or Big Ten East garner more headlines and dominate on national signing day, Wisconsin simply keeps winning despite never ranking in the national top 25 in recruiting ratings.
Instead, Wisconsin has found a near-perfect combination of talent evaluation, in-state recruitment, player development, coaching prowess and overall style of play -- factors that have kept the program relevant nationally, even during seasons in which outside expectations were minimal.
Consider that Wisconsin has played in 15 consecutive bowl games, which is tied for the sixth-longest active streak in the FBS behind Florida State, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Oklahoma and LSU. Among Big Ten teams, only one other program has a current streak longer than five consecutive bowl game appearances (Nebraska's nine).
"The one thing that I think stands out to me is it's always been greater than one person," Badgers head coach Paul Chryst said. "The older players do a great job of passing on lessons they've learned. I think that's real. All that doesn't guarantee anything in the future. I'm not saying Wisconsin is the only place, but there is a certain formula, there is a certain way that fits Wisconsin."
And that formula starts by keeping the big boys at home. During the 2011 season, when quarterback Russell Wilson guided Wisconsin to its second of three consecutive Rose Bowls, he did it behind an offensive line that averaged 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds, which represented the fifth-heaviest line in college or professional football that year. All five of those starters -- four of whom went to the NFL -- were from Wisconsin. Six years later, not much has changed. Wisconsin's projected offensive line in 2017 averages 6-6 and 321.6 pounds. Three starters are from Wisconsin, one is from Illinois and one from Ohio. As Alvarez likes to say, they are quintessential "tough guys."
Of course, there is far more to the program's success than simply recruiting big people. Wisconsin also has made a habit of finding gems that were undervalued by other programs. Because Wisconsin generally doesn't recruit five-star prospects capable of contributing immediately, it allows players to develop over a few seasons in the program and gain strength. By the time they're ready to see the field, they are among the Big Ten's best. That blueprint has helped Wisconsin outplay its recruiting rankings better than any other FBS program recently, according to data collected by FiveThirtyEight.com.
"When you've got blue-collar guys that are hardworking guys, when you bring recruits in, that resonates with them," said Tim Tibesar, Wisconsin's outside linebackers coach. "When you have other guys that are maybe me-guys and it's about them and they want the glitz and glamour, our locker room culture isn't going to feel like the right fit, and they're going to go somewhere else. That helps sustain it. You've got to give a lot of credit to the new class of upperclassmen every year. Because it only takes a year or two, and it can get out of whack."
Between 2010 and 2016, the Badgers signed only 20 four-star players and no five-star prospects, according to ESPN.com's rankings. That figure ranked seventh in the Big Ten, behind the total four- and five-star signings of Ohio State (103), Michigan (72), Penn State (49), Nebraska (37), Michigan State (34) and Maryland (23). Yet Wisconsin won 71 games during that span, the second most among conference teams behind Ohio State's 79 victories.
One contributing factor to all that success is Wisconsin's walk-on program, which Alvarez learned at Nebraska while he played linebacker there in the 1960s. Like Nebraska, Wisconsin is the only FBS program in the state. And like Nebraska, in-state players who are overlooked by other schools join Wisconsin to chase a dream. Alvarez and Bielema have both called walk-ons the "ultimate erasers" for potential recruiting mistakes. Walk-ons in recent years have included all-conference players such as receivers Jared Abbrederis and Alex Erickson, as well as linebacker Joe Schobert. Quarterback Joel Stave, running back Dare Ogunbowale and linebacker Jack Cichy are among other recent walk-ons to star at Wisconsin. Nineteen Badgers walk-ons have gone on to play in the NFL since 1990 -- a list that includes All-Americans Jim Leonhard and J.J. Watt.
"A walk-on kid might be 6-6, 235 pounds, but you look at his structure and you encourage him to walk on, and in three or four years, now he's 300 pounds, he's come through your system," said Alvarez, who won a Wisconsin-record 119 games in his Hall of Fame coaching career and is now the school's athletic director. "He gives you a solid player, somebody you can put on the field. Having one Division I school in the state, the walk-ons I felt was a definite advantage if we did it right, and coaches in the state and the players knew that they were going to get a fair shake. We showed them that right away."
That doesn't mean the Badgers haven't been tempted to change recruiting tactics. They tried. Even after Wisconsin attained national prominence in the late 1990s and had the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner in Ron Dayne, Alvarez found it difficult to land the highly ranked recruits.
"If it's a five-star kid in the areas that we recruited, we always tried to recruit him," Alvarez said. "Especially after Ron won the Heisman, I felt like you get a Heisman Trophy running back and someone that everybody knows about, let's go after the top running backs in the country. We'd get them on campus, but we couldn't close the deal. If I'm not mistaken, every one of them stayed relatively close to home."
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Wisconsin finished 5-7 in 2001 under Alvarez -- the last time the Badgers failed to reach a bowl game.
And maybe it's also no coincidence that it's tougher to close on some of the national prospects than the local stars. Madison's falls and winters can be notoriously frigid, creating a culture shock that catches visitors off guard.
"The weather in itself at times was an issue for kids in the South," Bielema said. "You'd try to strategically plan when they would come on campus. You would try to de-emphasize the weather to them when they were on campus. You tried to steer away from potential issues just because kids that live in the South have never experienced it. If they come visit on a weekend when it's snowing or freezing, it's not going to go well. You can't ignore that.
"Also, you've got to handle it the right way. I was recruiting a young man. It was us against Auburn. The coach used to literally every day take a caption of the weather page and send him the environment there versus at our place. But it was a tactic that was hard to overcome."
Wisconsin's higher admissions standards, which make it more difficult for the team to attract fringe high school prospects and junior-college transfers, have exacerbated recruiting challenges. Former Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen was 19-7 in his two seasons (2013-14). But he broadened his recruiting efforts to previously uncharted areas of the country and grew increasingly frustrated when junior-college prospects couldn't gain admission to the school. Ultimately, Andersen admitted in interviews that those issues caused him to leave Wisconsin for Oregon State.
"Gary had a hard time with the system that we have, and Gary was trying to change it, and when he left, he told me he couldn't do it," Alvarez said. "He couldn't do what I wanted him to do. I thought things were slipping. I thought our in-state recruiting had slipped. High school coaches were telling me. They were upset. They didn't think they were getting enough attention. You're leaving the state, we're bringing in guys that aren't as good as the kids in-state that are leaving or we're not recruiting. If you lose the in-state, the thing is going to fall apart."
Despite all those challenges, Wisconsin has excelled by understanding its disadvantages and utilizing the positives. There is a reason Wisconsin's pro-style, run-heavy offense and brute force of a defense has largely remained intact from Alvarez to Bielema and now Chryst.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out you're not going to have all great weather games up there," Bielema said. "It also allows you to recruit a certain type of athlete."
Added Alvarez: "It'd be foolish for us to sit there with five wideouts and spread it around the field when we've got big guys. Our style of play is a physical style of play."
It is yet another part of a formula that, after all these years, continues to produce successful results on the field.