Wisconsin’s aides trying to focus strictly on the present

Wisconsin's assistant coaches, like defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, have come together for two more weeks to achieve something for the greater good of the team. They insist the Badgers' players remain focused, too, leading up to the Outback Bowl.

David Stluka

MADISON, Wis. — How easy it would be for the wheels to fall off, for an entire season of hard work to unravel in a few short weeks.

The head coach that members of Wisconsin’s football team have played for the past two years is gone. The position coaches are carrying on despite uncertain futures, and few could blame players for allowing the unfortunate circumstances to mess with their minds.

And yet, everything Wisconsin’s assistant coaches have seen during preparations ahead of the team’s Outback Bowl appearance against Auburn indicates otherwise. This is a group that remains focused on the task despite the whirlwind of events surrounding the program once head coach Gary Andersen abruptly left for Oregon State last week.

"I think that’s what makes this place so unique," Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said after Friday’s practice. "The players do a great job of focusing on what’s at hand. When we come out here, it’s all business. It’s something else. I know the coaches, we’ve got a bunch of pros. It’s a difficult time that way. We all want to do well, and we all want to finish off what we started."

Wisconsin’s assistant coaches are a big reason a relative calmness has hovered over the program amid the chaos of switching coaches. Some are likely to remain with the program when new head coach Paul Chryst can officially make offers once the Dec. 29 application deadline passes, though there are no plans for any official announcement until after the Jan. 1 bowl game. Others may join Andersen at Oregon State — defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a and offensive line coach T.J. Woods are reportedly headed there after the bowl.

Still, the assistants have come together for two more weeks to achieve something for the greater good of the team.

"Everything is completely locked into these kids," safeties coach Bill Busch said. "I’ve never been around a group of kids like this before as far as (being) resilient and what they’ve done to win 10 games and all that stuff. So it is real easy to just kind of step back from it all and when you get in the room just be like, ‘Holy crap, let’s just try to win 11.’"

One of the first orders of business athletic director and interim coach Barry Alvarez handled was to gain assurances from assistants that they would remain with the team through the bowl. And though coaches tried to deflect any discussion about potential distractions for themselves and the team, the tenuous nature of their jobs certainly has made for difficult circumstances.

Aranda and cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland each said their preference was to stay at Wisconsin, while Busch declined to comment. Aranda would appear to be the most immediate concern given all he has accomplished in two seasons with the Badgers. This year, Wisconsin ranks fourth nationally in total defense and 13th in scoring defense.

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"I love it here," Aranda said. "I love the players, No. 1. I love their attitude, their work ethic, how they approach their business. They are what I see as being the biggest plus of this place. My family loves it here. My wife is well situated. My kids, good schools, love their teachers, love their friends. I’m going to go home tonight, there’s going to be about 20 kids at my house going crazy and stuff. We’re used to that. We love that. That’s going to be my intention. . . .

"Decembers used to be fun when I was a kid growing up. They’ve gotten harder the older I get."

Aranda certainly could have many suitors for his services but said he did not like the attention of it all.

"It’s difficult for me to handle that," he said. "I’d rather not. So that’s the hardest part about it. All those guys are all good friends of mine and will continue to be friends. Once you get to the business part of it, you’d like to be able to get through that as quick as possible so you can get to the football part."

Strickland, meanwhile, is a former Badgers defensive back and said he has known Chryst since he was 17. His strong in-state ties and recruiting ability would seem to make him a candidate to remain with the program.

"When I’m asked a question, ‘Would I want to stay here,’ my answer is always going to be yes," Strickland said. "But that’s not in my hands and not in my control, so you just focus on the things you can control. And that’s the things that you give to the kids while they’re still here."

Other assistants that have expressed an interest in staying are wide receivers coach Chris Beatty, running backs coach Thomas Brown and special teams/tight end coach Jeff Genyk.

If Chryst is interested in keeping that many assistants on, it certainly would help soften the blow for players after a difficult couple of weeks that began with a 59-0 loss to Ohio state in the Big Ten championship game. For now, the focus remains on Auburn with the knowledge this team still can accomplish something special.

"I look back at that championship game, I look back at what’s happened since then with the moving on of coach Andersen, I think it’s very easy to lose the fact that we’ve won 10 games, that we’ve been successful, that we’ve done good things," Aranda said. "We have to fight to get that back, I feel. So we’re all ready to do that."

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