MADISON, Wis. — Hard work and fate put two fresh-faced coaches working their way up the college football ladder together at Northern Arizona in 1995. As underpaid and overworked assistants, defensive line coach Gary Andersen and defensive backs coach Bill Busch became nearly inseparable for two years.
Andersen, who had been hired one day earlier, was there to greet Busch at the airport on his first day on the job, Busch having just completed a graduate assistant position at Wisconsin. They often were the first two arriving early each morning during the season, talking football over coffee and then more football during the evenings away from the office.
“Personality-wise, we hit it off,” Busch said. “We were just together socially a lot during that time.”
Over the years, Busch would coach alongside Andersen at Utah and Utah State. Now, the two are together again on their biggest stage — at Wisconsin, where Andersen is the new head coach and Busch returns for the first time in two decades, this time as the secondary coach.
The relationship between the two is close. And that sort of camaraderie won’t be unusual for Andersen’s first staff at Wisconsin, which is nearly complete. Six of the Badgers’ eight assistants have worked with Andersen at some point, meaning continuity shouldn’t be a problem despite unfamiliar surroundings in Madison. Andersen retained two former Wisconsin assistants — running backs coach Thomas Hammock and co-secondary coach Ben Strickland — and has not yet named a wide receivers coach.
Andersen’s six new assistant coaches were introduced on Thursday.
“Getting people that you trust and have spent time with, have been through football seasons with is an important part to this puzzle,” Andersen said. “It was a big part of it. I don’t think it’s the catch-all for hiring a coach, but it is important.”
Last year, when former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema brought in six new assistants to his staff, the transition took considerable time. Although Bielema was intrigued by their potential, he had not worked with them at previous stops — and difficult times during the season appeared to reflect the unfamiliarity.
Former offensive coordinator Matt Canada reportedly had to plead with Bielema to allow him to run his game plan against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game. Bielema, in his seventh season in charge last year, was said to have vetoed Canada’s play calls during other games.
“A staff is like a team,” said Badgers offensive line coach T.J. Woods, who worked under Andersen at Utah State the past four seasons. “Chemistry is important. We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how we work. To me, that’s the No. 1 thing we’ll be able to bring initially is just the familiarity with each other.”
Woods and Busch are the only two Wisconsin coaches to have spent the past four years with Andersen, but four other Badgers assistants coached with him during stretches at either Utah or Utah State. Andersen was defensive coordinator at Utah from 2005-08 and head coach at Utah State from 2009-12.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda held the same position under Andersen at Utah State last year. The Aggies allowed 15.4 points per game, which ranked No. 8 in the country.
Defensive line coach Chad Kuaha’aha’a spent two seasons as the defensive line coach at Utah State under Andersen. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig served as offensive coordinator at Utah from 2005-08 — the same period in which Andersen was Utah’s defensive coordinator. Tight ends and special teams coach Jay Boulware had the same responsibilities at Utah from 2005-06.
“It’s going to be pretty easy for us to jump in and understand what we’re all looking for,” Boulware said. “I know what Coach A is looking for, what Coach Lud is looking for. It will be a pretty smooth process in my opinion.”
Andersen officially was hired Dec. 19 and spent the next two weeks observing with his future assistants as Wisconsin prepared to play in its third consecutive Rose Bowl. Wisconsin lost to Stanford 20-14 on Jan. 1 to close a disappointing 8-6 campaign.
When Wisconsin’s players return to school Jan. 22, expectations to return to another Rose Bowl won’t change. Although they’ll be diving into a new process, it is one coaches have confidence in because it has withstood the test of time.
“That biggest thing that everyone will see from him is that we have a plan,” Busch said. “It’s not one of those things like, ‘Well that sounds good.’ We have an exact plan. …
“Someone asks about how do you guys handle this in the weight room? That’s how it’s done. How about discipline? Everyone knows. Everyone has exactly what’s going to happen. How do Friday nights work before the game? It’s already done. Do we meet in mornings or afternoons? Done.
“All those things have been mapped out and time tested through all of our time together. That puts you in position to be ready to take over a program like this.”
Despite the complexities of establishing new relationships with players at Wisconsin, the plan for success has been building for several years with a group of men that won’t be afraid to bounce ideas off one another. That should make Badgers fans leery from last season’s turnover a tad more at ease.
“It helps the transition, especially at a place like the University of Wisconsin where we need to hit the ground running,” Andersen said. “It’s important to start fast.”