A feeling of apprehension and uncertainty on the part of state high school football coaches was only natural when a new leading man emerged at the center of Wisconsin’s football program in late December.
Over the past seven years, they had grown accustomed to Bret Bielema presiding over a successful team and making in-state recruiting a priority. Bielema learned from former coach Barry Alvarez the importance of retaining talent close to home, and its effect also meant prep coaches were more invested in the program.
Now here was new coach Gary Andersen, a man whose roots rested in Utah and whose longest stop in Wisconsin was a few hours for a game against the Badgers in September. Area coaches hadn’t the faintest idea who he was or if he would carry on a longstanding tradition of pursuing Wisconsin’s high school football players.
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Then, those coaches met Andersen in person, and any reservations about his character, coaching ability or desire to build relationships in state were doused for good. Andersen served as the keynote speaker for the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association coaching clinic in March, sharing his beliefs and his vision for the future in front of hundreds of state high school coaches.
“I love how he talked about kids, and kids are first,” said Monona Grove coach Mike Stassi. “He cares about the kids. You’ve got to get them to do the things on the field and off the field the right way. It’s not just about football. It’s caring about them as people. I think he’s a perfect fit for Wisconsin.”
Pewaukee High football coach Justin Friske said Andersen had his entire staff stay for informal chalk talk sessions about their respective positions with coaches during the WFCA clinic. All the assistants also were visible throughout the rest of the weekend.
“I’m sure he understands the importance of making a favorable first impression,” Friske said, “not only with the WFCA executive board but with the rest of the coaches in the state to assure them that things, while they might be different, are not going to be 180 degrees different than how they’ve been.”
What Andersen brings, according to prep coaches, is an ability to simply be himself, a genuine interest in his players and a willingness to get to know the state’s high school coaches. In other words, he possesses all the necessary traits to continue a pipeline of Wisconsin high school players into the Badgers’ program.
“He’s very down to earth,” Wisconsin Rapids coach Tony Biolo said. “I think he fits in really good with the state of Wisconsin — just his demeanor. He wants Wisconsin kids. That’s a good thing. He wants to keep the kids locked into the state. He took great pride in keeping the Utah kids in Utah when he was there. He’s doing the same thing here.”
During Andersen’s tenure at Utah State, he established an ability to keep in-state players in the same way Bielema did at Wisconsin. Utah State’s spring practice roster this season consisted of 45 players from within the state. At Wisconsin, there were also 45 players on the spring roster from inside the state. And seven more in-state players will join the program as freshmen in the fall. When Andersen took over Utah State in 2009, there were 27 players from Utah on the roster.
Biolo is the president-elect for the WFCA board and, like Stassi and Friske, has a player committed to Wisconsin who stayed after getting to know Andersen. Offensive lineman Hayden Biegel from Wisconsin Rapids and tight end TJ Watt from Pewaukee are in the Class of 2013. Monona Grove offensive lineman Jaden Gault is in the Class of 2014.
One essential step in bridging the gap between the old coaching staff and the new one, coaches said, was retaining assistants Ben Strickland and Thomas Hammock. Strickland was a key in-state recruiter and held the 2013 class together while Andersen got acclimated to his new job.
“Ben has been around here three or four times, just poking his head in, talking with me and stuff,” Stassi said. “He’s a great guy. That does show they want to keep some continuity from what they were to a new staff here. I think it was a great move.”
Biolo described Andersen as a coach with “a blue-collar mentality” that comes across as hard working and hands-on with players.
“He tells you like it is,” Biolo said. “He’s a straight shooter, straightforward person. He tells you what he thinks right away, if your kid is good enough, if he’s not good enough. He’s not going to pull any punches or do any sweet-talking per se.”
Even in a few short months, coaches already can see a distinct difference in Andersen’s style and interaction with others compared to Bielema.
“They’re different,” Biolo said. “They’re definitely different. I think Bielema was a rock star and probably Andersen is just more of that blue-collar kind of guy. Everybody recognized Bielema wherever he went. I think Andersen’s presence will be felt soon enough. I think he’s just more of a ‘Let’s get to work’ kind of guy, where Bielema was a little more of an orchestrator, a director of everything. I liked them both, though. I got along with both in conversation and everything else.”
Added Friske: “I think with coach Bielema, you saw a little bit more swagger would be the word I would use. Coach Andersen is quietly confident. You can tell that by the way he goes about his business.”
Now that state high school coaches have a positive first impression of Andersen, they’re hoping he can continue Bielema’s track record of winning at Wisconsin, retaining in-state players while putting his own twist on the program.
“Just from a coaching perspective, you always want to see guys who work really hard have success,” Friske said. “I think all of us in the state are hoping he continues that and even builds upon the tradition that’s been there.”