PASADENA, Calif. -- When the Wisconsin players asked Barry Alvarez to return to the sideline, he couldn't resist.
After all, it's the Rose Bowl sideline, and that old stadium has an irresistible lure for lifelong football people.
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But when Bret Bielema abruptly left the Badgers for Arkansas after they clinched their third straight trip to Pasadena, Alvarez also felt a compulsion to protect the program he built into a power. The underdog Badgers (8-5) realize the odds they face against powerful No. 8 Stanford (11-2) today (4 p.m., ESPN) -- but Alvarez's mere presence on that sideline tells his players they've got a shot.
"Just give me a whistle," Alvarez said. "That's all I need, is a whistle and a bunch of guys to coach, and I feel very comfortable with that. And it's been fun for me. This has been like a gift. To be able to do this, and on this stage, is truly special."
Alvarez is a Hall of Fame coach, but Wisconsin's athletic director knows he can't work miracles. He acknowledges no tricks or insight into beating the favored Cardinal in Wisconsin's third straight trip to Pasadena for the 99th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All.
Instead, the Badgers are getting perspective, inspiration -- and even a little swagger -- as Alvarez bridges Wisconsin's one-game gap between Bielema and Gary Andersen, who also will watch his new team from the sideline while Bielema's soon-to-depart assistant coaches largely run the show.
Alvarez's current players were kids when he retired, and the athletic director doesn't hang out much with the football team during the season. But the Badgers know a leader when they see him.
"He's almost got an aura around him, like this man built what we are, and everyone knows it and recognizes it," Wisconsin defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said.
"He definitely walks around with a lot of confidence," Wisconsin safety Shelton Johnson said. "I think that rubs off on the players as well. You just see, he's just the Don sometimes when he walks around, because you just know. He has a physical presence to him when he walks in a room."
Over 16 seasons in Madison, Alvarez built Wisconsin's long-mediocre program into a consistent contender and a three-time Rose Bowl winner, most recently in the 2000 game, a 17-9 victory over Stanford led by Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Ron Dayne.
Alvarez sees similarities between his work and the Stanford revitalization led coach David Shaw, who could be in the early stages of a similar program transformation in the Bay Area. The Cardinal won the Pac-12 title to advance to their third straight BCS bowl with their third consecutive 11-win season, including the last two under Shaw after Jim Harbaugh left.
Such success was all but unthinkable just a few years ago at the academic-minded school that hasn't won the Rose Bowl since 1972, but Shaw has the Cardinal believing they belong in Pasadena.
"We're grateful to be in this game where every West Coast team wants to end their season, and we realize the opportunity we've got," Shaw said. "They did what they did to get here, and they're going to do that. Just like us, we're not going to change drastically. That's a disservice to the kids. It's going to be strength against strength. We're going to do what they do."
Indeed, Wisconsin and Stanford have remarkably similar approaches to their sport. Both schools favor hard-nosed running games with tailbacks Montee Ball and Stepfan Taylor running behind mammoth offensive lines.
Both offenses are run by relatively inexperienced quarterbacks: Stanford freshman Kevin Hogan has beaten four ranked teams in his four starts since taking over, while Wisconsin senior Curt Phillips is a smooth game manager who missed two full seasons with injuries and only got his starting job in November.
Both defenses lack glaring flaws, and Stanford is eager to show off the nation's third-ranked run defense. Both teams played numerous close games this season, with Stanford enjoying a bit more success than a Wisconsin team that lost three overtime games.
"We can see a lot of us in them," Stanford offensive tackle David Yankey said. "We both like to run the ball, and we're both just tough, physical teams. It should be a great matchup to watch."
Wisconsin earned a third trip by blasting Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, becoming the first five-loss team to reach the Rose Bowl. The Badgers got the chance to trounce the Cornhuskers only because the two teams ahead of them in their division -- Ohio State and Penn State -- were ineligible for postseason play.
The Badgers won't apologize for using a back door to Pasadena, not with Alvarez leading them through it.
Wisconsin lost the last two Rose Bowls by falling just short in the fourth quarter of tight games, so Alvarez has stressed the importance of tenacity and commitment. Even if the Cardinal come out on top, Alvarez thinks the Badgers have learned how to finish a season with pride.
"It would really be a great life lesson for these players," Alvarez said. "I think they'd learn quite a bit about how to deal with adversity, how to deal with (tough) situations and make something positive come out of it, especially after two tough losses. They could have won either game the last two years. They had opportunities to win, but couldn't close the deal. So I think it would be a tremendous lesson for them and very positive if they could win."