MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin football fans quickly grew impatient as big-name coaching candidates sidestepped the Badgers’ overtures, and the questions percolating through the state in recent days weren’t flattering.
Judging from the overwhelming displeasure with the process, you’d have thought Wisconsin was the most repugnant armpit in all of college football.
What’s wrong with the program? Why doesn’t anyone want to coach here? Does athletic director Barry Alvarez know what he’s doing with the hiring search?
Alvarez had been in Wisconsin long enough to know how fickle Badgers fans can be. So on Sunday, he spoke to a group of reporters and told the fan base not to panic. It hadn’t even been two weeks since the last coach left, he said. He promised to hire a good coach who would help the program continue playing at a high level.
Two days later, Alvarez delivered a home run nobody saw coming — a hire that should be met with considerable optimism from a fan base once fraught with worry and dread.
Wisconsin officially hired Utah State coach Gary Andersen as its next football coach on Thursday, a surprise simply because his name was nowhere to be found on the search list before this week. But dig below the surface, and his hiring is no surprise.
Given his credentials and character, Andersen is the perfect candidate to continue Wisconsin’s string of success and make fans forget about former coach Bret Bielema, who left the program one month before the Rose Bowl for Arkansas.
“He’s got a Big Ten mentality,” said Kevin Graham, the program director of KFAN in Salt Lake City, who has covered Utah State’s program since Andersen was hired. “Even though he’s a West Coast guy, he runs a Big Ten-type of program … I think it’s a slam-dunk hire.”
Andersen, 48, is a winner, and what he accomplished at Utah State can’t be overstated. He turned around an Aggies program that ranked among the worst in Division I during a stretch of the 2000s. From 2000-08, Utah State’s record was 28-75 (.271 winning percentage). In 2006, the Aggies went more than 216 consecutive minutes without scoring a point — a span of nearly four games.
By 2009, when Andersen took over the team after serving a stint as Utah’s defensive coordinator, signs of progress emerged. He spent four seasons with the Aggies and led the team to a 26-24 record. This year, Utah State finished 11-2, won its first bowl game since 1993 and will be ranked in the final top 25 poll for the first time since 1961.
“It’s a program that was literally a dumpster fire for years until Gary Andersen got there and was able to turn it around,” Graham said. “To take a program that went 19 years without a bowl win and in his fourth year they’re there, 11-2 and five points away from being in the BCS in Logan, Utah, which is really in the middle of nowhere — to be able to pull that off is something else.”
Andersen’s defensive background is intriguing as well. While defensive coordinator at Utah, he helped the Utes cap an undefeated season by beating Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. The last two Wisconsin coaches — Alvarez and Bielema — were defensive coordinators immediately before taking over the Badgers’ program.
Certainly, winning is always the objective in the world of college football, particularly at a high-end program like Wisconsin, which is headed to its third consecutive Rose Bowl. But Andersen will be successful because he cares about his players, and that love is reciprocated. Plenty of coaches have won games while being jerks, but that isn’t Andersen.
Players love him because even though he is a tough disciplinarian, he is also extremely loyal. That may sound strange coming from a coach who is leaving one program for another, but Andersen would not have left if the fit weren’t right. He turned down interest from Kentucky, California and Colorado in recent weeks for that very reason and wouldn’t come to Wisconsin if he didn’t intend to stay for the long haul.
He is a man who had the Utah State logo tattooed on his right shoulder after the Aggies made a bowl game last year. He is a man who reportedly intends to take his entire coaching staff with him to Wisconsin. He is a man who began calling his Utah State players Tuesday night to personally tell them the news and continued making calls into Wednesday morning until he had reached every player.
“How many coaches when they leave a program are actually going to take the time to call all 100-plus of their players before they leave?” Graham said. “Not many guys do that, and I think that says a lot for who he is and what he’s going to bring to Wisconsin.”
Even Utah State’s players, who could have been filled with resentment, took to Twitter on Tuesday night to voice an outpouring of support for their former coach.
“Coach A just called me,” Utah State receiver Alex Wheat tweeted. “Explained the situation. No hard feelings. I have nothing but respect for the man.”
Defensive lineman B.J. Larsen tweeted: “Coach A ha(s) been an important person in my life. His leadership and love for the game and players is unparalleled. The decision was his to make and he had his own reasons for his family and himself. I will miss him. The relationship and time I have had with him has been priceless, an amazing leader.”
And Aggies wide receiver Travis Van Leeuwen tweeted: “He is the only reason I came up here. The only man I wanna play for. I love that man no matter what and will support him no matter what. I love coach A.”
None of this is meant to suggest Andersen is without flaws. He may not lead Wisconsin to another Rose Bowl in his first season, given Ohio State’s rise in the Big Ten. He may need time to adapt to Wisconsin’s pro-style offensive system after running a spread at Utah State. He also has no background coaching in the Midwest, and the Badgers rely on maintaining in-state talent and recruiting areas of the Big Ten.
But if he can turn around a Utah State program that was a college football doormat, why shouldn’t we believe he can continue Wisconsin’s level of success with far greater talent already in place?
No, Andersen isn’t the splashy hire for which Wisconsin fans were clamoring. Alvarez was not in a position to hire either Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst or North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren — both men with Badgers coaching ties who are just getting settled at their schools. Oregon State’s Mike Riley and Miami’s Al Golden both shied from Wisconsin’s interest.
Still, Andersen is the right man for the job. Call it a home run. Call it a slam-dunk. Call it a touchdown. Regardless of the parlance, Badgers fans can relax. Wisconsin football is in good hands once again.