The game between the New Mexico Lobos and the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday will be a homecoming of sorts for Kevin Cosgrove.
Cosgrove is currently the defensive coordinator for the Lobos, but he also spent 14 years (1990 through 2003) on the coaching staff under Barry Alvarez, where he was initially a linebackers coach before becoming defensive coordinator in 1995.
I was at the very first game Cosgrove became the D-coordinator. It was in the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl at Tampa Stadium.
Cos and I were good buddies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh back in the day, plus I lived in the Tampa Bay area. It was a given that I would be at the game between the Badgers and the Duke Blue Devils.
Because of my friendship with Cosgrove, I was able to see the Badgers work out at Tampa Stadium in practice a day before the game. Then for the actual game, a couple of buddies and myself sat next to the coaches wives, which included Cosgrove’s wife Shelly.
The Badgers won the game 34-20. It was after the game in which I had one of the fondest memories I have ever had. We went to the Westin Tampa Harbour Island (where the Badgers stayed) after the game.
I distinctly remember smoking a victory cigar with a number of the coaches (including Alvarez and Cosgrove) overlooking the Hillsborough River from the balcony.
Before Alvarez and his initial coaching staff came to Wisconsin, the Badgers were 1-5 in bowl games, plus the football program was on a downward slide.
When I talked to Cosgrove about the state of the program then, he heaped praise on Alvarez on what he was able to accomplish, as Barry built a program that won 118 games in his 16-year tenure.
“Just seeing where the program was when he took over. Attendance was down. Interest in the Badgers was nil,” Cosgrove said. “I think the Badgers averaged 30,000 fans a game the year before we got there. But we gradually pumped it up until it became sell out after sell out. But naturally that first Rose Bowl (in 1994) was something special. The thrill of getting there, when you consider all the things we had to do to build that program.”
The Badgers are currently 15-14 in Bowl games in their history and are one of the best football programs in the country under head coach Paul Chryst, as Alvarez is now the athletic director. But the ongoing success of the program goes back to the job Alvarez and his coaching staff did in the 1990s.
The Badgers won back to back Rose Bowls in 1999 and 2000 when Cosgrove was the defensive coordinator. The defenses that Cos coached those two years were a big reason why.
In 1998, the Badgers were ranked fourth in the nation in total defense and first in scoring defense. In 1999, they were ranked 15th in the country in total defense and fifth in scoring defense.
In 2002 and 2003, Cosgrove coached current Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard when he played for the Badgers at safety. Leonhard had a combined 18 interceptions those two seasons, plus was named All-Big Ten and All-American both years.
After Cosgrove left Wisconsin after the 2003 season (the Badgers were 6-2 in bowl games under Alvarez at that point), he has been defensive coordinator at Nebraska, Minnesota, Akron and now New Mexico.
The New Mexico football program has been resuscitated under head coach Bob Davie, much like the Wisconsin football program was under Alvarez and his initial coaching staff which included Cosgrove.
In 2015, the Lobos went to their first bowl game since 2007. The Lobos went 7-6 that season and then went 9-4 in 2006 before winning the New Mexico Bowl.
New Mexico had a tough year in 2017 (3-9), but are off to a 1-0 start in 2018 as they get ready to face the Badgers. The Lobos have added a number of top football programs to their schedule in the future, which also includes Notre Dame (2019), USC (2020), Texas A&M (2021) and LSU (2022).
I talked to NFL scout Chris Landry about the New Mexico football program and he was impressed with the job Cosgrove has done.
“It’s a good program,” Landry said. “They’ve done a good job. Kevin is an outstanding coach.”
Indeed, Cosgrove is an outstanding coach and that’s why Alvarez hired him in 1990 and kept him on for 14 years, which includes nine years as defensive coordinator.
Now Cos gets to coach for the opposing team at Camp Randall for just the second time since he left Wisconsin. The first time was in 2010 when he was the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Gophers lost 41-23 that day, mostly because the talent on Wisconsin far outweighed that of Minnesota.
New Mexico also can’t match the talent level of the Badgers, but you can count on one thing for sure.
Cosgrove will have his defense ready to play against an offense which put up 491 yards against Western Kentucky last week.
That might not add up to a victory, but it will be yet another step forward in building up the football program at New Mexico.