Wisconsin and Nebraska have a lot more in common than red-and-white uniforms and their new Big Ten allegiance.
Thirty years after he finished his playing career at Nebraska, Barry Alvarez went to Madison, Wis., and built the football program in the image of the Cornhuskers. No one's more excited than Alvarez about No. 8 Nebraska visiting the seventh-ranked Badgers for its inaugural Big Ten game Saturday night.
"My background and what I believe in football were established at the University of Nebraska," said Alvarez, now Wisconsin's athletic director. "I felt fortunate to play for a great coach in Bob Devaney, and he had a tremendous staff. And as far as fundamentals — physical play, sound play — all those things are things I took with me to this program."
Wisconsin had lost 36 of 45 games before Alvarez began his 16-year run as coach in 1990. Alvarez won 118 games and three Big Ten championships before he turned the program over to Bret Bielema, who is 53-16 in six seasons with a Big Ten co-championship.
Wisconsin and Nebraska football is predicated on toughness, something Devaney emphasized immediately upon taking over a downtrodden Huskers program in 1962. Devaney went 9-2 his first season and was 101-20-2 over 11 years with national titles in 1970-71.
Alvarez played linebacker for Devaney from 1965-67 and was the leading tackler for the '67 team that led the nation in total defense and forced a school-record 40 turnovers. Alvarez came to Nebraska from Pennsylvania but appreciated Devaney's commitment to bringing in as many homegrown players as possible.
The state produced the burly boys who anchored the lines, and Devaney would recruit nationally for speed and skill.
At Nebraska, the run set up the pass, though some would say the run just set up more runs during Tom Osborne's 25-year, 255-win coaching career (1973-1997) that ended with national championships three of his last four seasons.
If that sounds familiar to Wisconsin fans, it should. Both Nebraska and Wisconsin have traditionally gone into each game intent on outmuscling and wearing down the opponent, though there was a four-year hiatus from that methodology when Bill Callahan brought the finesse of the West Coast offense to Lincoln from 2004-07.
Interestingly, Callahan was an assistant under Alvarez at Wisconsin (1990-94). So was Kevin Cosgrove (1990-2003), Callahan's much-maligned defensive coordinator at Nebraska.
Fourth-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini completely cut ties to the Callahan era after last season when he fired Shawn Watson as offensive coordinator and promoted Tim Beck to the job. Beck's system gives a nod to the past, featuring the hard running of Rex Burkhead and a splash of Osborne's favored triple-option with quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Osborne goes back to the immigration patterns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to explain the similar way the two programs were built.
"A lot of people in Nebraska and a lot of people in Wisconsin are northern European types who tend to be big people and tend to have potential to be good linemen," he said. "I think (Alvarez) always felt he could recruit his offensive linemen, some of his defensive linemen, from the state.
"If you look at Nebraska over the years, we've had some fine linemen types out of Nebraska. You don't want to stereotype too much. We've had great running backs and receivers and all kinds of people from Nebraska, and they've had some, too."
All five of Wisconsin's starting offensive linemen are from the state, and they are big, averaging 322 pounds a man and none standing shorter than 6 feet 4. Three of the Huskers' five starting offensive linemen — Seung Hoon Choi, Mike Caputo and Spencer Long — went to Nebraska high schools.
Alvarez said he "stole" from Nebraska the idea for a walk-on program.
"Having been the only Division I school in the state, as Nebraska is, I really felt there were a lot of players who were borderline — guys you're not ready to pull the trigger on who we would actively recruit," Alvarez said. "Quite frankly, they've been our saviors. I call them our 'erasers.' They make up for any mistakes you make in recruiting."
Wisconsin players who joined the team as walk-ons and are now starters are Wagner, fullback Bradie Ewing, receiver Jared Abbrederis, defensive tackle Ethan Hemer and linebacker Ethan Armstrong.
Nebraska's walk-on starters are Caputo, Choi and Long, fullback Tyler Legate and safety Austin Cassidy.
Saturday night's game will be only the sixth between the schools and the first since 1974. Nebraska has won three of the five, but Wisconsin won the most recent meeting 21-20 in Madison.
Alvarez made two tackles and returned an interception 25 yards in the 1966 game, a 31-3 Nebraska win in Madison. Bielema asked Alvarez to be the Badgers' honorary captain Saturday.
Alvarez said it's the most anticipated game ever at Camp Randall Stadium, bigger than last year's win over then-No. 1 Ohio State and probably even the 1962 game against rival Minnesota, which was the last time two teams ranked in the top 10 played in Madison.
"I can't say there's ever been any with more anticipation over a long period of time," he said. "You look forward to a Rose Bowl, but you have three weeks of anticipation, but this has been like a year."