Barry Alvarez, the University of Wisconsin’s winningest football coach, will retire from his longtime post as the school’s athletic director at the end of June, he said Tuesday.
The announcement by Alvarez, who turned 74 in December, was widely expected around the university and throughout the Big Ten Conference, which he helped shepherd toward an abridged football season during the coronavirus pandemic. His departure will leave Wisconsin without the day-to-day presence of a mainstay over decades, who oversaw enormous growth in the athletic department and rebuilt its football program into a modern powerhouse of the Midwest.
“It has been an honor to be a part of Wisconsin athletics and I take great pride in all we have accomplished over the last three decades,” Alvarez said in a statement on Tuesday morning. At a news conference later in the day, Alvarez said, “It was just time.”
The university did not immediately announce a successor.
Although Alvarez spent more years as the university’s athletic director, his 16-season tenure as the football coach is the bedrock of his public legacy in Madison. Under Alvarez, who became the head coach in 1990 and inherited a program that had won nine games over its four most recent campaigns, Wisconsin went 118-73-4. The Badgers won the Rose Bowl three times during Alvarez’s run, as well as a trio of Big Ten championships, and he coached Ron Dayne during his Heisman Trophy-winning 1999 season.
Alvarez stepped down as the football coach after the 2005 season — though he later coached two games on an acting basis, going 1-1 — but was already serving as the university’s athletic director. Wisconsin’s teams won 16 national championships while he ran the athletic department, which swelled into an enterprise that came to pull in more than $148 million a year, roughly double its revenue from when Alvarez followed Pat Richter as athletic director.
But Alvarez’s successor will have to navigate the repercussions of the pandemic, which upended the finances of athletic departments nationwide and led to budget cuts and furloughs at Wisconsin. Last week, Wisconsin estimated a $35 million shortfall for athletics this fiscal year, an enormous sum but far less than the $100 million Alvarez publicly warned about last summer, when the prospects for football and basketball seasons were uncertain.
The virus also posed medical challenges at Wisconsin, which struggled with the virus last autumn, just as the state as a whole. But Alvarez and other Wisconsin officials were among those in college sports who released regular data about cases within the athletic department. There was, Alvarez said, “nothing to hide.”
“Coaches are reluctant sometimes to give out a scouting report, et cetera,” Alvarez said in an interview in December, after other schools, including some in the Big Ten, had repeatedly refused to disclose case information. “That’s old school. A lot of coaches are paranoid — that comes with the business — but we felt this was more serious.”
Earlier in the fall, when the Big Ten looked to play football after initially choosing not to compete in 2020 because of the pandemic, Alvarez played an outsize role and led the committee that weighed potential approaches to game scheduling.
Alvarez is the latest conference luminary to take his leave. Jim Delany, the league’s commissioner for more than two decades, retired at the beginning of 2020. And James J. Phillips, Northwestern’s athletic director since 2008, recently became the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But on Tuesday, Alvarez left open one possibility for a return.
“I am always available,” he said, “to come back out of retirement to coach in a bowl game.”