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Time for Alvarez to take responsibility at Wisconsin

This news story was published on January 29, 2012.
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By Michael Hunt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

Barry Alvarez should be ashamed of his comments regarding the drinking party involving underage Wisconsin students just before the Rose Bowl.

Then he should be reprimanded by the university.

Counter to the official report on the incident that noted Alvarez and his deputy, Sean Frazier, knew of the party, the UW athletic director split a lot of needless hairs Friday when he said he was unaware of the now-infamous event for the football team’s student support staff.

His explanation?

“The panel asked me if I was aware of the so-called B-team parties,” Alvarez said. “I said over the years I had been aware of them. But they specifically said we were aware of this party, which Sean and I were not.”

That is not the stand-up answer from a guy who makes $1 million a year to run the athletic department and had to rush back from his second home in Florida after the incident hit the fan.

From that absolute position of authority — and let’s not pretend that Alvarez’s power in Madison doesn’t rival that of the governor’s — it is unacceptable to shirk responsibility on any level when there is a problem. Just saying you didn’t know about this particular party doesn’t absolve anyone, whether or not the official report was accurate.

This is how Alvarez should have answered the question Friday: “I’m the boss. It happened on my watch. I am prepared to accept the consequences. This will not happen again.”

There are two problems with Alvarez’s answer.

He admitted he previously knew about such parties, presumably involving students who were not 21 years old.

And if he didn’t know about this one, exactly who is in charge over there? If he really did not know, the AD is not keeping his eye on the things that really matter. He can, and does, delegate a number of responsibilities. But there is no greater responsibility for a university — not even an 11-victory football team — than the safety of its students.

This is no time for the athletic director of one of the most prestigious universities and powerful athletic programs in the country to wiggle out with the alternative meaning of “is.”

Look, no one is being naïve. A number of college students, no matter their age, are going to drink, especially on the road, and especially in a place like Los Angeles. And, unfortunately, the university and the entire state are soaked in a culture of drinking. Alvarez can’t fix that. No one can.

But university funds, via a booster, paying for alcohol at a party where underage kids were going congregate? That is just wrong. The AD has got to know about that, or else something is really, really wrong at Wisconsin.

What would have been the problem with honoring the hardworking support staff with a dinner where no alcohol was served? If some of the students decided to go out drinking on their own afterward, almost nothing could have prevented it.

Or, if a party is scheduled in a hotel suite as it was during Rose Bowl week, hire a hotel bartender. Let the barkeep check IDs. Place a sign on the door that reads no one under 21 will be served. If an of-age student supplies an underage student with drink, well, at least the school tried.

But having an open bar with underage students is not trying. What if someone fell over a balcony? Or had gotten behind the wheel of a rental car? Any number of things could have gone horribly wrong. Alvarez is lucky that only one of his longtime gofers was fired.

But unfinished business remains.

Alvarez also is fortunate that he has built such a football legacy at Wisconsin. Because of it, his supporters far outnumber his critics. Little may happen to him because of the Rose Bowl party.

But when he was the coach, he ran an incredibly tight ship. There were no excuses, no justifications. When game plans failed, assistants were fired and players were demoted. But what I respected most about Alvarez was this: When something went terribly wrong on the football field, he stood up and said, “That was my fault.” That is what strong leaders do.

The party showed something is wrong within the athletic department. Alvarez leveraged AD power after he retired from coaching. Now is the time for Alvarez the AD to behave like Alvarez the coach.

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