Barry Alvarez looked at Rocky Biegel and told him one thing.
“You would have played here for me,” the former Wisconsin coach said.
The former high school all-America linebacker replied, “You’re right. I would have.”
But Biegel played high school football in the 1980s. Back then, Wisconsin played to a half-empty home stadium and seldom won, which caused many of the state’s best players to go elsewhere to play college football.
Everything has changed since then.
Soon after Biegel left home, Wisconsin hired Alvarez. More than 20 years later, Biegel will have two sons playing in Madison.
Biegel’s younger son, Hayden, will officially join older brother Vince at UW when the 6-foot-6, 270-pound offensive lineman signs a letter of intent today, the first day of the national signing period.
“It’s my home state,” said Hayden, a Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln senior. “There’s nothing like it.”
Rocky, another former Lincoln player, also had a brother, T.D., with him in college, but at Brigham Young, in faraway Provo, Utah. The elder Biegels were among the many state-raised players who went somewhere else for college.
“We lost a bunch of the top guys who had left the state,” Rocky said. “I was a top defensive back coming out. A lot of guys left the state. You don’t see that right now. … In the last 15 years, I don’t know if we’ve lost a top kid out of the state of Wisconsin.”
That’s what Big Ten titles and frequent Rose Bowl berths will do. Much of the turnaround began with a determination to prevent Wisconsin-raised players from leaving the state.
“Barry and Bret both did it,” Lincoln coach Tony Biolo said in reference to Alvarez and his successor, Bret Bielema.
Solidify the state
Bielema unexpectedly left UW in December to coach the University of Arkansas. Alvarez, now the athletic director, hired Gary Andersen from Utah State.
“The thing coach Andersen is proud of,” said Biolo, who met with Andersen in Madison and talked at length with him about a week after UW hired him Dec. 20, “is when he took over at Utah State, he had 17 (in-state) kids on the roster. When he left, he had 40 (actually 52) kids from Utah.”
In four seasons at Utah State, Andersen won four, four, seven and 11 games.
At Wisconsin, Andersen inherits a team coming off a third straight Rose Bowl berth. The roster already is filled with Wisconsin-born talent. He wants to keep it that way.
“Barry’s formula when he coached was he was not going to lose any of the in-state kids,” Rocky Biegel said. “He solidified the state of Wisconsin. That was Bret’s goal, and that’s Gary Andersen’s goal – to solidify the state of Wisconsin and make sure we got who we want.”
Recruiting visits to the Wisconsin campus in the late-1980s exposed one of the program’s biggest flaws: poor facilities. Rocky Biegel, who graduated high school less than a year before UW hired Alvarez, recalled those facilities as “God-awful.”
“Things weren’t upkept,” he said. “Winning breeds a lot of pride into the program. You want to put things back into the program when it is successful. When Barry came, the culture changed. People starting having pride in the football program.”
Wisconsin hired Alvarez less than one year after Rocky Biegel graduated from high school.
“The Barry Alvarez era hadn’t hit yet,” Rocky Biegel said.
Andersen met Hayden Biegel for the first time when the coach visited the Biegel family home Jan. 13 in Wisconsin Rapids.
Served chicken fajitas on that Sunday evening, Andersen delivered his message.
“He wants to keep Wisconsin’s traditions,” Hayden said. “He doesn’t want to change much. He wants to keep it more run-based, offensively.”
The visit also let Andersen see the 20-pound weight gain for Biegel since the 2012 season ended.
Biegel had planned to wait until after the fall to enroll at UW, thereby delaying the start his five-year college playing eligibility window to the 2014 season. The wait would have given him more time to bulk up before joining the Badgers. But this weight gain — put on by following an enhanced workout and nutrition regimen similar to his brother’s at Wisconsin — caused Andersen to reconsider that plan.
Andersen returned to Madison to watch video on Biegel.
“That’s when they made the decision to bring him on and move him forward a little quicker,” Rocky Biegel said.
Having met Andersen, Rocky Biegel and Biolo believe Wisconsin will continue with a run-first approach, with a few possible twists.
Said Rocky Biegel: “He’s going to go with his plan and his vision. He’ll definitely stick to the basics of running the ball and so forth.”
Added Biolo: “I don’t think he’s a 45-, 50-runs-a-game kind (of coach). He’ll run a little bit of option, a little bit of spread formation — what he was doing at Utah (State). He will be a good fit.”
On game days last season, Biegel and wife Jamie greeted their son Vince as he stepped off the team bus about two hours before kickoff near Camp Randall Stadium.
They’ll do the same for Hayden.
“To drive an hour and a half to watch your kids run on the field at Camp Randall Stadium,” Rocky Biegel said, “it’s awesome.”
Just call it a benefit of staying home. One of many, it seems.