It was the summer of 1996, Chris McIntosh’s second training camp with the University of Wisconsin football team, and he was starting to doubt whether he had what it took to play for the Badgers.
He told his mother, Julie, as much in a letter.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” he remembers writing. “I’m not sure this is for me.”
McIntosh was telling that story Wednesday afternoon from the Kohl Center shortly after being formally introduced as UW’s next athletic director. The man he’ll replace — Barry Alvarez will retire on June 30 — was McIntosh’s coach on that day 2½ decades ago when McIntosh was contemplating his future with the Badgers.
“Boy,” McIntosh said, “I’m glad I didn’t follow through on that one.”
A self-described “shy, timid kid from Pewaukee” arrived at UW back then with potential unknown even to him. It was his coaches — Alvarez and offensive line coach Jim Hueber, among them — who helped convince McIntosh of everything he could accomplish.
By the time his career with the Badgers was over, McIntosh had started for four seasons and served as captain on two teams that ended the season with Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl championships.
He arrived back in Madison seven years ago to be inducted into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame. His playing days were long over by that point due to a neck injury sustained early in his NFL career, and McIntosh had settled into the private business sector.
That weekend on campus triggered something inside McIntosh and he realized he missed UW. He thanked Alvarez in an email, struggling to find the right words, and Alvarez took much less time to come up with a reply: Call me.
McIntosh did and was invited by Alvarez for a return trip to Madison. They had dinner at Nakoma Golf Club one night and Alvarez said he might have a job for his former player at some point. He wanted McIntosh to consider a career in administration.
The stars aligned, according to Alvarez, and McIntosh officially returned to UW as the director of business development in 2014. He was promoted to Alvarez’s senior staff a year later and, by 2017, had been moved into the deputy athletic director role.
When exactly Alvarez decided he wanted McIntosh to be his successor is unclear. Alvarez said Wednesday that there wasn’t one particular moment that stood out, that it was more an accumulation of solid impressions McIntosh made on him.
McIntosh fit into the culture — an Alvarez buzzword — that had been built in the department. Alvarez liked that McIntosh wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion. He kept giving McIntosh more and more responsibility.
The bond became tighter during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Alvarez and McIntosh had to make some difficult financial decisions.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘grooming’ — maybe he would — but that’s not how I viewed it,” McIntosh said. “Barry has a style, a management style or a leadership style, of hiring people and letting them do their job but also holding them up to a level of accountability. High expectations. And that was his style when he was a coach.”
The shy, timid kid from Pewaukee is no longer shy and timid, but he’s not exactly dynamic, either. McIntosh’s introduction as athletic director was solid, not splashy. Alvarez said afterward that McIntosh has to be himself, and there were no signs Wednesday of McIntosh trying to be something he’s not.
“Certainly my style is different from Barry’s,” McIntosh said in the biggest understatement of the day. “Barry has his own unique style. It’s been well-documented. Swagger is a term that he has trademarked. I have my own style, and I’m comfortable with how I am.”
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, no stranger to following a legend, compared McIntosh to a typical offensive lineman: soft-spoken.
“They’re quiet, they’re soft-spoken, they’re leaders, they’re dependable, they’re honest, they work hard, they’re reliable and they just get the job done,” said Warren, who took over for Jim Delany in January 2020. “That’s Chris McIntosh.”
McIntosh has big shoes to fill at a place that has had two highly successful athletic directors over a span of 31-plus years: Alvarez and the man who hired him as football coach, Pat Richter.
The fifth-floor boardroom where McIntosh eventually will lead meetings includes two portraits, one of Alvarez and the other of Richter.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank will be judged by this hire and, at least to some degree, Alvarez’s legacy could be impacted as well. This is the guy Alvarez endorsed, for better or for worse.
Alvarez, for his part, didn’t seem particularly interested in addressing that issue Wednesday. Nor did he show any concern about whether his guy was the right person for the job.
“He’s confident and he’s got a good plan,” Alvarez said. “He’s been taught well.”
The best thing McIntosh did Wednesday was embrace expectations. He addressed Alvarez personally near the end of a nine-minute speech, saying he understood how even a strong athletic department like the one Alvarez helped build was fragile.
McIntosh said his goal is to continue “building,” making a conscious choice to use that word rather than “sustaining” or “maintaining.” He told a story about how Alvarez brought in Lou Holtz — who had been Alvarez’s boss at Notre Dame — to talk to the Badgers at one point during McIntosh’s career. Holtz’s message that day: You’re either growing or dying.
“We will grow,” McIntosh said at the end of his comments directed at Alvarez. “We will not be complacent. You will be proud of this program as we build into the future.”
The same woman he’d turned to in a letter 25 years ago was the one delivering a message to him on Tuesday. Julie told her son to enjoy his big day.
“I woke up this morning,” he said, “and I tried to take that advice.”