Barry Alvarez instrumental in helping reconnect Notre Dame-Wisconsin rivalry

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO — Not once, Barry Alvarez insists, did the thought enter his mind.

It certainly did other people’s, the notion of Alvarez returning someday to the Notre Dame football program to give it a hard reboot.

At least he was able to help reconnect the program he has helped ascend over the past 27 years, Wisconsin, with the one he left a little over a year after helping bring it a national title as Irish defensive coordinator — Notre Dame.

In a process that was almost a decade in the making, Notre Dame will resume a football rivalry with the Badgers that’s been dormant since 1964.

In a joint announcement staged at the Under Armour Brand House on the Magnificent Mile on Monday, two neutral-site games were revealed: Oct. 3, 2020 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay Wis., and Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

“When we’re trying to make scheduling decisions, we have three goals,” Notre Dame athletic director Swarbrick said. “The first is the experience for our students to play football. The second is the competitive ramifications for the game.

“And the third is, how does it advance the university? What are the connections? What is the story? I don’t know that we could have scheduled (games) against an opponent in two venues that could have hit those marks more effectively than this two-game series.”

They’ll be games 17 and 18 between the schools, but the first since the Irish ambushed the Badgers, 31-7, on Sept. 26, 1964 that launched a renaissance of Irish football, the Ara Parseghian coaching era.

When the next AP poll came out, Notre Dame landed in the top 10 for the first time since Oct. 28, 1961. It was Parseghian coaching on the opposing sideline, for Northwestern, that had bumped the Irish from the top 10 and sent them into a prolonged nosedive.

Alvarez, now 70 and well settled into a successful run as Wisconsin’s athletic director, said he first thought about a potential ND-Badger series during the two seasons that overlapped his final two years as the Badgers’ head football coach and his first two as AD (2004-05).

He finally approached ND, specifically Swarbrick, with the idea in 2009, Swarbrick’s second year as ND’s athletic director.

“He was making some adjustments with Michigan and Purdue at that time,” Alvarez recalled. “We visited, but nothing really opened up that worked.

“It’s a Rubik’s Cube. There are so many things that have to fall into place in scheduling, and it just never worked out until we were able to put this together.”

There’s some intriguing fine print in the matchups.

Notre Dame will treat both games as Shamrock Series games in terms of special uniforms, pep rallies, service projects — all the things that normally surround those games.

The twist is from a TV standpoint. The Irish are kind of the host team in the Lambeau game and technically the visitor in Chicago, with NBC holding the rights in Green Bay and the Big Ten with them at Soldier Field.

What’s known about the 2020 and 2021 Irish schedules help explain that. Had the TV rights been reversed, NBC — ND’s longtime TV partner — would have had an inventory of only six ND games in 2020. This way, there will be seven NBC games penciled in, in each of those seasons.

Each school will get 50 percent of the ticket allotment at both venues.

As for the Shamrock Series itself, Swarbrick said the neutral-site home games won’t return on an annual basis after this year’s planned hiatus. ND had played in a Shamrock Series game every year since 2009, beginning with a matchup with Washington State in 2009 in San Antonio, Texas, that was originally supposed to be a game with Baylor.

“Strategically placed” was Swarbrick’s description of their future frequency.

“We’ve got two others scheduled that we’ve nailed down,” he said, but declined to reveal when or where.

Expanding this two-game Wisconsin series to four games, and including games on the respective campuses, was intriguing but not practical.

“The available inventory is such that you would be so far out that it was better to focus on what we could do right now,” Swarbrick said.

“We would love to do that. We think getting to Madison would be great. But when you’re trying to find these windows — we did an unusual deal recently with Arkansas, where the games are split by so many years (2020 at ND, 2025 at Arkansas).

“Most schools don’t want to do that, so you’ve got to find two windows that are right back to back, and we don’t have a lot of those.”

Incidentally, Lambeau Field (capacity 81,441), Camp Randall Stadium in Madison (80,321) and Notre Dame Stadium (80,795 and recalculating) are all about the same size. But Soldier Field is significantly smaller (61,500).

It will be the 13th game at Soldier Field for the Irish, who own a mark of 10-0-2 in the previous 12. Notre Dame has never played at Lambeau. Wisconsin’s 16-14 upset of LSU last September in Green Bay was the first college football game in the facility since NCAA Div. III St. Norbert faced Fordham there in 1983.

“We’d like annually to have a Big Ten opponent on our schedule,” Swarbrick said of why Wisconsin fits the venues. “And with this game, we’ve satisfied that well into the future.

“It’s important to us. It’s a premier conference, obviously. As we attempt to create a body of work which makes a case for our inclusion in the College Football Playoff, we want to be able to have a marker against the Big Ten, against the SEC.

“We’ll always have Pac-12 and ACC markers by virtue of our schedule agreements. So yeah, it’s very important to us.”

Alvarez helped ensure Wisconsin was worthy of a look.

Before Alvarez arrived, the Badgers fashioned a combined 9-36 record overall and 5-27 mark in the Big Ten under, first Jim Hilles (one season) and then Don Morton (three seasons).

Alvarez’s first year, in 1990, was more of the same — 1-10. But by year four, he was 10-1-1 with a Rose Bowl berth and a Big Ten title. The Badgers haven’t had a losing season since 2001.

All the while, rumors, speculation and wishful thinking would occasionally stir about Alvarez coming back to the school where he spent three seasons.

Lou Holtz had shaken Alvarez out of the Hayden Fry coaching tree at Iowa to be his linebackers coach at ND in 1987. He was Irish defensive coordinator for both ND’s 1988 national title run and its near miss at repeating the following season, before heading to Wisconsin.

“You know what, I went to Wisconsin to build Wisconsin,” Alvarez said. “I never had any desire to go anyplace else.

“Now, I talked to some other people, had a number of opportunities to leave Wisconsin, but I went there to build a team and sustain it. So I never thought about the possibility of going back (to Note Dame).”

Not that he doesn’t reach back into his ND past for a little help now and then. In fact, last Tuesday, Holtz, at Alvarez’s invitation, was on the Wisconsin campus.

“Came in and spent a day with us,” Alvarez said of the 80-year-old former ND head coach. “Spoke to my staff. Watched practice. Spoke to the football staff. Spoke to the football team. And then spoke to some of my donors that night.”

“I worked him hard,” Alvarez said with a laugh. “And he told me, ‘You can’t wear me out.’ ”

University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez speaks to media following an announcement Monday in Chicago for a series of football games with Notre Dame in 2020 and 2021 to be played at Lambeau Field and Soldier Field. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)