MADISON, Wis. — Gary Andersen had been in town less than 24 hours when he began arranging meetings to speak with members of Wisconsin’s football team Thursday. But on his first day as the Badgers’ new coach, he wasn’t interested in talking much about X’s and O’s.
He simply wanted to introduce himself, to give players his phone number and to let them know he was there for them now if they needed anything.
“I have a major care factor for them, and I’m very interested, as quickly as I can, to let them understand that they can trust me,” Andersen said Friday when he was introduced as the 29th football coach in Wisconsin program history. “But that takes time. Just because I say I want them to trust me means nothing. I have to show it through the way I carry myself.”
Andersen’s presence on campus already has been a welcome sight for players, who can finally breathe a sigh of relief following two weeks of uncertainty at the top of the football program. Andersen, the former Utah State coach, accepted the Wisconsin job Tuesday night, ending the search to find a replacement for former coach Bret Bielema, who took the same position at Arkansas.
Andersen said he would be a “fly on the wall” as Wisconsin prepared to play Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. While athletic director Barry Alvarez coaches, Andersen will evaluate players, learn their names and talk to them personally to understand the type of team he has inherited.
Badgers linebacker Chris Borland was among the players Andersen spoke to on Thursday, and Borland said his new coach made an excellent first impression.
“He seemed like a great guy,” Borland said. “He’s going to be a great fit here. He’s one of us.
“He’s a straight shooter. He said what he meant and meant what he said. He’s excited to be here. I think he left a great situation he had working at Utah State, so we’re the only job he wanted.”
During the interview process, Alvarez had former Badgers player Joe Panos, now a sports agent, contact several of Andersen’s former players in the pros. The message from those players meshed with Alvarez’s beliefs.
“He’s demanding. He’s fair. He’s consistent. He cares about his players,” Alvarez said. “He’ll hug you. He’ll get after you if you need it, and we all love him. That was the consistent theme throughout.”
It was Alvarez’s way of saying Andersen is a players’ coach. And in the few days Wisconsin players have known about Andersen, they have seen from afar the manner in which he deals with young men on his team.
In particular, they took notice of the way Andersen left Utah State’s program earlier this week. Andersen made phone calls to all 106 players on the Aggies’ roster to inform them of his decision to leave the school, calling late Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning.
“That’s a tremendous gesture by a coach to be able to do that,” Badgers center Travis Frederick said. “Obviously, kids probably had heard throughout the media or whatever. For him to reach out to each of them and personally break the news, I think that’s a very classy act. I think all the kids probably really appreciated that.”
Andersen said he made the calls because his players had earned the right to hear the news directly from him.
“If they’re frustrated, they deserve to tell me they’re frustrated, which not one of them was,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you they were doing back flips, but they understood the situation.”
Andersen has months to build the trust of his new players while he puts his own system in place at Wisconsin. On Friday, he said the team would maintain its run-first, pro-style offense, which has helped the Badgers to success since Alvarez took over as head coach in 1990.
Players insisted they were more focused on trying to win the program’s first Rose Bowl since 2000 than looking ahead to a new era just yet. But they admitted they would be more than willing to follow Andersen’s lead when the bowl game ends.
He is a players’ coach. And now he is their coach.
“From everything I have heard, he’s a very high-quality, high-character guy,” Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips said. “Somebody players really look forward to playing for. It seemed like the players at Utah State definitely enjoyed playing for him. I’m excited for him to come here. He’s been successful wherever he’s been. I think the players will embrace him.”