LOS ANGELES — Ben Strickland knew nothing of Gary Andersen’s coaching philosophies and hadn’t even spoken to the man eight days ago when Andersen was introduced as Wisconsin’s next head football coach. In other words, the butterflies in Strickland’s stomach were churning at a record pace because his job security was in serious doubt.
If, for some reason, the two coaches didn’t mesh, Strickland would be dialing in favors to find a new residence despite working his way up the chain as an assistant coach for the Badgers.
Before it reached that point, however, Andersen name-dropped Strickland during his introductory news conference and made it clear of his value to the program.
“Ben Strickland, he’s going to stay,” Andersen said. “I want him here in the worst way, and it’s important for me to have him on the staff. Ben has shown me how important he is, and he is Wisconsin, if you will.”
The statement quickly quelled Strickland’s fears. While six of Wisconsin’s nine assistant coaches already had accepted positions elsewhere, Strickland was one of the three that remained behind.
“It was a feeling of relief,” Strickland said Saturday morning during Wisconsin’s media day ahead of Tuesday’s Rose Bowl against Stanford. “I know my wife won’t be relieved until I sign something officially. The biggest thing I learned is if you try to focus on the things that are important like making sure that the kids are all right, things will work out.”
Things couldn’t have worked out much better for Strickland, a Wisconsin native who played for the Badgers and has remained loyal to his alma mater.
Strickland, 27, came to Wisconsin from Brookfield Central High School as a walk-on running back and defensive back in 2003. He took a redshirt season as a freshman and by his senior year was a contributor on special teams and was voted by teammates as a co-captain.
His coaching career began in 2008 at Minnetonka (Minn.) High School with him serving as a defensive backs coach. A year later, he returned to Wisconsin as a quality control assistant under head coach Bret Bielema and worked as a graduate assistant in 2010 and 2011. By then, his tireless work ethic as an in-state recruiter was evident, and Bielema promoted Strickland to coaching the team’s secondary last fall.
When Bielema left Wisconsin to accept the head coaching position at Arkansas on Dec. 4, Strickland became a vital asset in keeping the Badgers’ committed players in place. Wisconsin has 17 committed players for the Class of 2013, and Strickland called each of them while other schools attempted to push them in different directions. Most, if not all, are expected to stay at Wisconsin.
How did Strickland do it?
“For me, it’s more just about being up front and honest and genuine with all my intentions,” Strickland said. “Because I think people see that. Especially in the recruiting world, in the college football world, a lot of people say things and you don’t know how much truth there is to it. The more consistency and more honest you can be with kids, the more they respect that.”
Strickland’s pitch to recruits included answering as many questions as possible about the coaching change to make them feel more at ease. He highlighted his own experiences as a player and the importance of sticking together during times of adversity.
Wisconsin athletic director and interim coach Barry Alvarez said he noticed Strickland’s impact on the current recruiting class during Alvarez’s first weekend as coach in early December. Recruits commented on Strickland’s importance in keeping them committed to the Badgers. And they weren’t the only people who noticed.
“High school coaches have called me without me asking, called me and referenced what a great job Ben has done,” said Alvarez, who coached Strickland at Wisconsin in 2003 and 2004. “Gary saw that right away in him. It reminded him of Gary. Someone who grew up in state, walked on, became a captain, has passion for the school.
“Players respond to him. Coaches respond to him. He’s someone who is a tireless worker. That’s a guy you want on your staff.”
Alvarez suggested to Andersen that Strickland was too important to lose, and Andersen listened.
Strickland said he spoke with Andersen after his news conference to discuss the direction of the program. His exact coaching position with the Badgers for next season is uncertain, but at the very least, he knows he’ll still be contributing to the program he loves so much.
“It’s whatever is best for this program and these kids and what coach Andersen’s vision is,” Strickland said. “I’ll embrace that with everything because I love this place, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
“Regardless of where I end up in my career, I’m always going to want to stay here. But that might not be within my control, which I learned this year. I think I’ll always want this place to have success.”