MADISON, Wis. — Rumor mills churn at warp speed when it comes to head coaching carrousels in college football, an annual smorgasbord of speculation for fans in mid-December. Coach X’s wife was supposedly seen looking at elementary schools for the kids on the west side of town. The university’s athletic director boarded a private jet in the middle of the night, presumably to speak with Coach Y halfway across the country.
Such unfounded conjecture is as common as a Midwestern snow storm this time of year. And it’s no different at the University of Wisconsin as the head coaching search stretches into the back half of Week 2. Wisconsin’s fan base has heard a flurry of names, but no clear-cut candidate has emerged as a successor to former coach Bret Bielema, who left Dec. 4 for Arkansas.
The only certainty is the tremendous amount of uncertainty surrounding the next hire.
We’ve heard Miami’s Al Golden and Oregon State’s Mike Riley as names at the center of the coaching search. We don’t know how serious talks were, but both men reportedly turned down Wisconsin’s interest to remain with their respective programs.
“Some of the guys on my short list were loyal to their program,” said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who has made himself a one-man search team. “They were guys I wanted to contact to see if they’d be interested. But some guys are loyal to their program, loyal to their chancellor and that type of thing and didn’t want to leave their program.”
Alvarez did shed some light Sunday on where the search stands, saying he had interviewed two candidates with one more interview scheduled this week. Reports indicate he interviewed then-Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart and Jacksonville Jaguars assistant head coach Mel Tucker. Taggart has since accepted the head coaching position at South Florida.
Alvarez could head in any direction when it comes to naming the next Badgers coach. Speculation won’t make that decision come any sooner. But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate as to what type of coach Wisconsin should hire in the best interests of the program.
For starters, Wisconsin needs a coach willing to stay for the long haul, and that means at least the next five years — preferably longer to maintain stability. The last thing the Badgers want is a coach who says he’s found his dream job but really is looking ahead for the next dream job two years later. Loyalty at a place such as Wisconsin is of supreme importance because it gives the Badgers an edge over less-sturdy Big Ten programs.
In the past 23 years, Wisconsin has had just two head coaches — Alvarez and Bielema. During that time, the Badgers have gone to 18 bowl games and will play in the Rose Bowl against Stanford on Jan. 1. Minnesota and Indiana, for example, have each had six head coaches over the past 23 years, and it’s reasonable to believe there is a correlation between coaching turnover and a lack of sustained success. Those schools have combined to play in 14 bowl games in that span.
“Wisconsin football is a brand,” said former Badgers offensive tackle Chris McIntosh, who played three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. “It’s important to find a coach that thinks well with that brand. It’s not a rebuilding program. It’s an extremely appealing job. It’s not typical that there’s a coaching vacancy at a program that’s at this stage.”
Although Alvarez said finding a coach with ties to the program is not a necessity, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Tucker played defensive back at Wisconsin under Alvarez from 1990-94 and knows the Big Ten and the Badgers’ history. That perspective on the past could go a long way in a coach establishing roots in Madison. It could also help on the recruiting front in understanding the type of player Wisconsin should pursue.
Wisconsin is a program that Alvarez built by recruiting in-state talent and developing players over the course of four to five years — a tradition Bielema carried on during his seven-year tenure. In-state players grow up wanting to play for the only Division I program in the state and generally demonstrate a willingness to wait their turn in the hierarchy of upperclassmen players. This season, for example, 52 of the Badgers’ 111 players are from the state of Wisconsin.
Alvarez has said himself in years past the program took a step back when he struck out trying to chase national five-star recruits that didn’t fit Wisconsin’s typical mold of players.
“This is a team and a program that you’re not going to get huge monster talent,” said Mark Tauscher, a former Badgers offensive tackle from Wisconsin who played 11 seasons with the Green Bay Packers. “You’re going to get good talent that you need to develop and cohesively form into a team. That’s kind of the hallmark of a great coach.
“Coach Alvarez said you put a fence up around Wisconsin and then you go and pick off other guys that you are focusing on. If you’re going to be a coach, you need to keep all the homegrown talent that you possibly can, and that’s going to be beneficial for your program.”
Few current head coaches that meet Alvarez’s criteria have demonstrated a willingness to leave for Wisconsin, and although that is alarming to some, Alvarez says he is determined to find the right coach in due time. There have been 26 FBS head coaching positions open this year and only three remain unfilled, including at Wisconsin.
Badgers fans will continue to wait in angst for the next coach to be named. But the characteristics of that coach should not come as a surprise to those who have seen Alvarez work and followed the team for the past two decades.