It's interesting, looking back at the annals of Wisconsin Badgers football history, to learn that a team that is typically lumped into the upper echelon of the Big Ten Conference wasn't actually all that legendary throughout the better chunk of the Bowl era (post-1935... Side note: The Rose Bowl traces its origins back to the early Tournament of Roses matchups going as far back as 1902, but didn't become the Rose Bowl until 1923. In 1935, other Bowl games started popping up, with five in existence - Sugar, Cotton, Orange and Sun - by 1940).
In 1935, Clarence "Doc" Spears led the Badgers to a 1-7 record, tied for dead last in the conference; in 1936 Doc was coaching the Toledo Rockets. Up to that point, the team had won the conference title five times: 1896, 1897, 1901, 1906 and 1912. Following Doc's dismissal, Wisconsin swiped a successful head coach away from Villanova named Harry Stuhldreher, who had gone 65-25-9 in 11 seasons at the helm.
Stuhldreher, a three-time All-American quarterback, was a member of Notre Dame's legendary "Four Horsemen." His tenure at Wisconsin was nowhere near as glorious as his days playing in the shadow of the golden dome. In 13 seasons he notched a record of 45-62-6, climbing as high as 2nd in the conference standings twice - and #3 in the AP rankings in 1942 - but otherwise never did better than a share of fourth place in the B1G. He left Wisconsin in 1948 and died two years later.
Ohio native Ivy Williamson was the next skipper at UWM. A captain of the M*ch*g*n team that won the national championship in 1932, Williamson was a noteworthy line coach at Yale from 1934-1941, and again following his Naval service, from 1945-1946. Hired as the head coach of Lafayette (Penn.) in 1947, he took a team that had gone 3-14-1 in two seasons to a team that 13-5 during his two years at the tiller, leading to his hiring at UWM.
Williamson's tenure at Wisconsin was solid, but not exceptional. He won the conference in 1952, but lost the 1953 Rose Bowl to... you guessed it: USC. From 1949-1955 he coached the Badgers to a respectable 41-19-4, but after going 4-5 in 1955, he was named Athletic Director (actually because the current AD died suddenly), a post he held until the long, steep decline of the Badgers in the late 60s, culminating with his firing in 1969. He died six weeks later.
Following William's move to AD, his line coach and fellow Lafayette staffer Milt Bruhn took the reins. A guard on an undefeated Minnesota squad that won back-to-back B1G titles in 1934 & 1935, Bruhn notched more AP rankings than his predecessors to go along with two conference championships, but a precipitous decline following a loss in the 1963 Rose Bowl led to an overall so-so record of 52-45-6 from 1956-1966. True to UWM tradition, after three 2-5 seasons in the conference, Bruhn was moved into the Assistant AD's office from 1967-1969.
Upon Bruhn's move into administration, former Wisconsin player John Coatta was named head coach. A three-year quarterback under Ivy Williamson, Coatta was a Florida State assistant from 1959-1964, and was hired as an assistant under Bruhn in 1965. Named head coach in 1967, Coatta set an NCAA record for most consecutive games without a win to begin a career with 23, going winless his first two seasons and winning only three games his third and final outing as head coach in Madison.
Another former lineman and line coach helmed the Badgers from 1970-1977 (perhaps there is a reason Big Ten teams are known for a "three-yards and a cloud of dust" mentality). John Jardine had played at Purdue, and after five years of high school coaching was a line coach at his alma matter in 1964. He served from 1965-1969 as an assistant at UCLA, a team that was ranked in the top 10 four of five years.
Jardine was every bit as uninspiring as his predecessors, going 37-47-3 though the 1977 season, going no better than 7-4 and 4th in the conference - both in 1974.
Another Ohio native followed Jardine's inauspicious footsteps: former Bowling Green quarterback and safety Dave McClain. McClain studied under some truly legendary coaches, including as an assistant coach at Cornell University under Tom Harp in 1962; at Miami University under Bo Schembechler from 1963–1966; at the University of Kansas under Pepper Rodgers from 1967–1968; and at The Ohio State University under Woody Hayes from 1969–1970 before accepting the head coaching job at Ball State.
MAC Coach of the Year in 1975, his team won the league in 1976 - only the school's second year in the conference. Following seven solid seasons at Ball State he was named head coach of the Badgers in 1978. McClain went 46-42-3, winning at least seven games each season from 1981-1984. Though he never won the Big Ten and though he only won one bowl game (the 1982 Independence Bowl), the Wisconsin athletic center and Big Ten Coach of the Year Award (the one still given by the media, that is) were named in his honor, and he has been enshrined in the Halls of Fame at Bowling Green, Ball State and UW.
Jim Hilles was named Wisconsin's interim head coach in 1986 following McClain's sudden death. The team went 3-9 under the Ohio native, who had served as McClain's defensive coordinator. He worked for Glen Mason from 1987-1990 both at Kent State and Kansas.
In 1987, the Badgers again looked to the ranks of successful Division II coaches for a new skipper. Don Morton had taken North Dakota State to three Div. II National Championships in four seasons, winning the 1983 title. In two years at Tulsa he went 13-9 and won the Missouri Valley Conference in 1985. Unfortunately for Morton and the Badgers, that was as good as he ever did: Wisconsin went 6-27 in three seasons under his leadership, going 1-7 in the conference each year.
So, before we get to the really interesting thing that happened in 1990, look again at the state of the Badgers' football program from 1935-1990: Nine coaches over a 55-year period, only three of whom won more games than they lost during their tenure; Only three conference titles; only five bowl appearances and only one victory...
And then, along came Barry. Badly in need of someone who knew what the hell they were doing coaching a football team, Wisconsin turned to a talented defensive coordinator from Notre Dame. Barry Alvarez had played linebacker at Nebraska from 1966-1968, coaching high school football in the state from 1971-1975. He then coached three years in Iowa, winning the state's 4A title in 1978 and earning the attention of Hayden Fry, the newly-minted head coach at the University of Iowa.
He then spent seven years on Fry's staff as linebackers coach before he was hired by Lou Holtz at Notre Dame in 1987 and named defensive coordinator in 1988.
Alvarez was just the medicine Wisconsin needed. Inheriting a program that hadn't had a winning season since 1984 and had only won seven conference games in that time span, he went 1-10 in his inaugural season. But, hope sprung from there, as the Badgers consistently improved their league record until 1993, when Wisconsin went 10-1-1, earning a share of the Big Ten title and earning the league's Rose Bowl berth, beating UCLA 21-16 in their own backyard (for more on the magical 1993 season and how John Cooper got hosed twice, see here).
For the first time... ever... Wisconsin was not only relevant to the conference battle, but also in the post-season. During his tenure, the Badgers won or shared three Big Ten titles and won three Rose Bowls - yes, he is 3-0. He also led the Badgers to 11 bowl games; before his arrival they had been to only six bowls in their entire history. The 1998 team notched the first 11-win season in school history, while the 1999 team won the school's first outright Big Ten title in 37 years. He went 118-73-4, capping a 10-3 swan song with a Capital One Bowl victory over the Auburn Tigers of the hated SEC in 2006.
In other words, without Barry, there is no Wisconsin as we know it.
There isn't much about Brett "we don't want to be like the SEC" Bielema you don't already know. He played nose tackle under Fry at Iowa from 1989-1992, serving as an assistant from 1993-2001. Serving as co-defensive coordinator at K-State from 2002-2003, Alvarez hired him in a similar capacity at Wisconsin in 2004 and was named Barry's successor in 2005.
His teams have gone 68-24 since '05, with a conference record of 37-19; he has won a share (or an asterisk) of the league championship in each of the past three seasons. He is 2-4 in Bowl Games, including back-to-back Rose Bowl losses.
And now, he's off to the SEC.
So, who's next? As we can see, the school has run the gamut when it comes to hiring philosophies: tasking successful head coaches from lesser conferences, promoting from within, and poaching successful assistant coaches from other big-name schools. What it has never done is successfully steal a successful head coach from another big-name school. Early speculation is hard to gauge at this point, especially given the number of other major coaching announcements made in recent days.
What we can tell from the histories is that the two coaches who put the football program on the map were defensive minds with ties to Hayden Fry and the Iowa Hawkeyes. Neither Alvarez nor Bielema had ties to Wisconsin, so getting a "Wisconsin man" is clearly not a prerequisite - in fact, former players haven't done all that well any way.
Predicting these things is a fool's errand, but looking at where the program has been, it isn't hard to speculate that Wisconsin's days as a perennial Big Ten powerhouse may be drawing to a close even sooner than we thought.