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Review: Don't Flinch - Barry Alvarez: The Autobiography

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I like reading coach's books. If you're reading a coach's autobiography you can be sure that he was successful. Reading stories about successful people won't make you successful in itself, but you certainly can learn a lot from them.

Some coach's stories, like Mack Brown's "One Heartbeat II" are smarmy, folksy stories about the coach's life philosophy containing stories about overcoming adversity or getting a team to come together to experience that championship season.

A lot of coach's stories wind up in those business-motivational books, but I don't typically read those. Normally the messages they're delivering gets thinned out to the point that they become a manager's catch phrase. Executives buy them, then put them on the bookshelf in their office. Makes them look well-read. I've worked with a lot of executives. I usually make the point of pulling a book or two off out of their library and open it. 90% of them make that cracking sound a hardcover book makes the first time you open it. But I digress.

Coach's stories tend to fall prey to a fair amount of sugar-coating. Not so with "Don't Flinch - Barry Alvarez: The Autobiography". The book starts (after forewards by Lou Holtz and author James Patterson) with Wisconsin's 2006 Capital One Bowl against Auburn. Going into the game, no one gave Wisconsin a chance to win. Alvarez starts by talking about how he would have rather played Alabama. Alvarez played for Nebraska when Alabama beat the Cornhuskers in the 1966 Orange Bowl, 39-28, and relates how Paul "Bear" Bryant arrogantly humiliated the Huskers later at an awards banquet. Alvarez makes it clear that this isn't how he's spent his career. Beating people is one thing. Rubbing their noses in it is another thing entirely, and something that Alvarez doesn't condone. He then goes on to talk about how he handled his underdog status and coached Wisconsin to a win.

That initial story sets the tone for the book. Author Mike Lucas takes us through Alvarez' life, using his Western Pennsylvania background to set the stage for Barry's brand of football  - conservative, hard-nosed, and physical. Alvarez played college football at Nebraska under legendary coach Bob Devaney. His first head coaching position was in Lexington, Nebraska where he chose to move instead of taking a job with the FBI. He later moved to Mason City, Iowa in a head coaching position. After being successful there, he went to the University of Iowa as an assistant under Hayden Fry. Later he joined Lou Holtz' staff at Notre Dame, serving as the defensive coordinator on the 1988 Fighting Irish National Championship team.

Along the journey you're treated to the reasons as to why he was successful in each position, and what he learned from the people around him, particularly coaches. All the while his goal remains clear - to be a head college football coach. There are times he strikes you as incredibly stubborn and/or arrogant but completely capable of listening to other people giving good advice.

He notes that during the 1990 1-10 season, there were times at which he would close his office doors and curl up on his couch in a fetal position. He had gotten so used to winning that his body ached from losing. There aren't a whole lot of big-name coaches that would admit that so freely in their autobiography. His wife Cindy plays a prominent role in the book making it clear, supporting him through rough times and sometimes bringing him back down to earth. As his coaching career is nearing it's end Alvarez makes an honest assessment of himself and concludes that it's time to move on, becoming Wisconsin's athletic director.

I liked Barry Alvarez before I read his story. Now I like him even more. The line "Don't Flinch" remains a constant theme throughout the book as Alvarez points out how to respond when the game (football or life) is on the line. Certainly Wisconsin fans should be interested in this book, but I'd recommend Barry's autobiography to anyone who's interested in reading those water-down business motivational books as well. The stories are much more interesting and just as insightful. On top of that, you'd probably finish this book. How many of those motivational books have you finished?

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