ORLANDO, Fla. -- Barry Alvarez has watched the Wisconsin football program rise, fall and rise again over the last 24 seasons, first as head coach and now as UW's director of athletics.
He has lived through Big Ten titles, triumph and heartache in the Rose Bowl and even two seasons in which his teams failed to qualify for a bowl game.
He watched his hand-picked successor, Bret Bielema, win three consecutive Big Ten titles before bolting for Arkansas after the 2012 league title game.
This season, he watched Gary Andersen and seven new assistants bond with a veteran team, though the season ended with a thud, a 34-24 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Alvarez, who turned 67 on Monday and has a contract that runs through 2018, said before the Capital One Bowl on Wednesday he has seen enough evidence to know Andersen is the right caretaker for the UW program.
Asked if he could retire tomorrow knowing the program he built was in good hands, Alvarez said:
No hesitation. No doubt.
"You can tell he is a hell of a coach," Alvarez said of Andersen. "And he has a good staff."
Alvarez cited two other factors.
"I can't tell you how many of the seniors have told me they wished they had another year to play under him," Alvarez said. "More than anything he cares about the welfare of his players. He is a players' coach."
Reminded that the term "players' coach" is sometimes code for being soft, Alvarez smiled.
"That isn't true," he said, referring to Andersen. "You want to be a professor who is loved by your students? Don't make them work hard for good grades.
"He is demanding now. He is not soft. He has dismissed guys for not following the rules. He has his rules and you better live by them.
"And don't lie to him. If he asks you something you better tell him the truth."
The other area that has Alvarez excited is recruiting.
"I like how they are recruiting," he said. "They are recruiting nationally. But they also know you have to keep the best players in the state."
Although Andersen and seven new assistants deserve credit for winning over a veteran team during the transition, they benefited from having more than a dozen seniors in the two-deep depth chart.
His second season will bring sweeping personnel changes.
Wisconsin has 25 known commitments for the 2014 freshman class. Andersen can't talk about individual players until they sign a letter of intent but he made it clear he is pleased with how the '14 class looks so far.
"We've done our best to recruit like crazy," he said. "We have a great place to recruit to. And we have recruiters who are aggressive and honest and put our plan out there. Every school is unique. Our plan is unique.
"I feel good about the class.. . . . When we came in we said the team was top-heavy with a lot of older players, a ton of seniors. We were able to get a good number signed last year.
"But in the middle there were deficiencies. That's just a fact. By numbers and by talent, to be quite frank."
Fifteen players listed in the two-deep for the Capital One Bowl must be replaced.
So many questions must be answered in the spring and in preseason camp:
How will the staff rebuild the front seven on defense, all of whom were seniors?
Will quarterback Joel Stave, who will be a redshirt junior in 2014, be able to retain the starting job?
Stave has 19 starts on his resume but redshirt freshman Bart Houston is healthy and champing at the bit to win the job.
Safety Tanner McEvoy, who will be given the opportunity to showcase his skills at quarterback in the spring, is the dual-threat performer the staff covets.
Asked after the loss to South Carolina whether he thinks he can win the starting job, McEvoy said:
"I do. That is my opinion. But if you're going to play the position you've got to be confident in yourself."
Who will fill the void created by wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen?
Abbrederis leaves UW with 202 receptions, 3,140 receiving yards and 23 receiving touchdowns. Pedersen leaves with 104 receptions for 1,394 yards and 17 touchdowns.
"The key is the ability of the kids to get into the moment, mentally and physically to play in the Big Ten," said Andersen, whose team opens the 2014 season against LSU on Aug. 30 in Houston. "There's going to be some youth that has to do that. I think you can go through maybe 15 names. Do they all have to be ready? No. But 10 of them probably do.
"They can't walk into LSU next year and be starry-eyed. Now they can be nervous, but they can't be starry-eyed.
"That is going to be the challenge with a youthful team."
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