MADISON, Wis. — Gary Andersen wasn’t entirely stuck. But when it came to moving up the coaching ladder, there weren’t many options for a high school coach who’d already opted to leave the college ranks.
So when Bronco Mendenhall reached out to Andersen back in 1995 — “out of the blue,” Andersen said — it was as if a gift had arrived from the heavens. Here was Mendenhall offering Andersen an opportunity he wasn’t sure would arrive in the near future.
“I had nowhere to go,” Andersen said Monday during his weekly news conference. “I didn’t have an ‘in’ in college football at that point. I was hoping I could get back in at some point.”
Mendenhall was the co-defensive coordinator at Northern Arizona at the time. He had competed against Andersen during their junior college days a decade earlier, with Andersen playing center for Ricks College and Mendenhall playing defensive back at Snow College in Utah. That familiarity helped pave the way for Mendenhall to see if Andersen would be interested in joining Northern Arizona’s staff.
In 1995, Andersen was brought on to serve as Northern Arizona’s defensive line coach. He has moved up the coaching ranks ever since, eventually becoming head coach at Utah State — where he annually played against Mendenhall’s BYU team — and now Wisconsin.
Andersen’s ties to both Mendenhall and the BYU football program run deep, which will make Saturday’s Wisconsin-BYU game at Camp Randall Stadium particularly meaningful to Andersen.
“Having BYU on the schedule was probably one of the most shocking things that I looked at when I took this job,” Andersen said. “It’s amazing. They follow me all the way here.”
The story of Andersen’s coaching rise is well documented by now, but it’s worth repeating. Andersen left Idaho State back in 1994 after he disagreed when his good friend, Kyle Whittingham, was let go by the head coach. Principle and loyalty to his friend did not help put food on the table, however. So Andersen accepted a job teaching in the youth custody program at Highland High School in Salt Lake City for $12 an hour while his family was placed on COBRA insurance.
After six months, Andersen accepted the head coaching job at Park City High School but still didn’t have a real plan to wiggle back onto a college team.
Then came the call from Mendenhall, which helped to change Andersen’s life.
Andersen spent two seasons at Northern Arizona, though Mendenhall would move on to Oregon State during that time. Andersen became Utah’s defensive line coach in 1997 and later took over as the Utes’ defensive coordinator from 2005-08 under Whittingham, who had become the team’s head coach.
Saturday’s game will mark the 10th consecutive season in which Andersen will face BYU, which makes him especially familiar with the Cougars as the Badgers prepare this week. Andersen went 1-3 against BYU while head coach at Utah State and 6-5 during two stints as an assistant at Utah.
Mendenhall joined BYU’s staff in 2003 as a defensive coordinator and has been the program’s head coach since 2005.
“In my time at Utah State, we’ve become close coaching friends,” Andersen said. “We text back and forth quite a bit. Respect for him. He gave me an opportunity.”
Big Ten defender: The Big Ten has only three teams ranked in the latest Bowl Championship Series top 25 standings and has been criticized by pundits as a football conference this season. But Andersen adamantly defended the Big Ten and its talent level on Monday.
“I haven’t gone all through a full cycle,” Andersen said. “I’ve done this for a few years and I don’t look at myself as a guru of conferences or teams or anything else. But this is one of the best, if not the best conferences in the country. A lot of people might stick their nose up in the air when I say that or whatever, but to me it is. You can’t say until you’ve been in it.
“You don’t know what it’s like to walk out there and play against that Iowa defense with a good offensive line. You don’t know what it’s like to walk into Ohio Stadium and play. People don’t know what it’s like to come to Camp Randall and play. This is a big-time conference. It’s got great teams.”
Ohio State came in ranked No. 4 in the latest BCS poll released Sunday. Michigan State is No. 17 and Wisconsin is No. 24. The Badgers did not move up despite a 28-9 victory against Iowa on Saturday. Minnesota (7-2) and Michigan (6-2) are not in the BCS poll but were receiving votes in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
The SEC has six teams ranked in the BCS top 25, the Pac-12 four, the Big 12 three and the ACC three.
“I think the key is you look and say you’ve got to play each other week-in ask week out,” Andersen said. “And that’s where respect is gained. And somebody who hasn’t played in this conference doesn’t know. If you haven’t played in this conference, you have no idea how tough these kids are. How hard it is to go on the road and compete and play. You have no idea.
“So people shouldn’t make stuff up that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Personnel update: Andersen described the chances of defensive end Tyler Dippel returning to the team in time for Saturday’s BYU game as “unlikely.” Dippel missed last week’s game against Iowa after flying to California for an undisclosed family issue.
“Our concern is not getting Tyler back here to play in the football game,” Andersen said. “It’s just being with Tyler and helping him get through the situation he’s involved in. Football is a distant second in my opinion right now. I’m sure it is, and it should be in Tyler’s mindset. I’m worried about Tyler and Tyler’s family and making sure he finishes up school to get his degree, and then we’ll worry about football. So we’ll see.”
Andersen said he did not have an update on the status of wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who injured his chest while catching a third-quarter touchdown pass against Iowa and did not return.
“I can’t say anybody’s not going to play for sure yet because I haven’t seen him physically,” Andersen said. “It’s been reported through the trainers.”
Badgers linebacker Chris Borland, meanwhile, continues to make strides in his attempt to recover from a strained hamstring suffered on punt coverage against Illinois on Oct. 19. Borland did not practice at all until last Thursday and did not play against Iowa.
Borland remained optimistic he would be able to play against BYU.
“I just couldn’t practice earlier in the week last week,” Borland said Monday. “This week, I feel like I can. Still got to continue to recover, but I think I’ll be able to at least do our scout period tomorrow.”