Temple: Badgers have kept clicking with first-year coach Gary Andersen

A year ago today, Wisconsin fans were panic-stricken at the thought of a football program sailing along without a rudder, no coach and no general direction as it prepared for a third straight Rose Bowl appearance.

Bret Bielema had left for the Arkansas job three days after leading Wisconsin to a Big Ten title. Athletics director Barry Alvarez had yet to announce that he would coach the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin was still two weeks from hiring a new head coach.

The events represented a stark contrast for a program that is generally as steady as they come in college football, free from off-field turmoil and a perennial top-25 team. But as rumors swirled about which coach would step in to guide Wisconsin in the future, chaos followed from a concerned fanbase.

Remember those days? It really happened. Gary Andersen’s seamless transition as Wisconsin’s head coach only makes it seem as though it wasn’t real.

One year later, and Andersen has done exactly as he promised when he took the head coaching job last December. He has created the stability that threatened to disappear when Bielema left. He has established a family atmosphere that makes players want to work for coaches and reward faith in those players.

And, mostly, he has won games, which is ultimately the most important factor in determining a coach’s success.

Maybe you thought this team was too talented to miss out on a BCS game. That’s a fair point. Wisconsin lost on a controversial last-second call at Arizona State, lost by a touchdown against Ohio State — a possible national championship game participant — and suffered a stunning and disheartening loss last week at home against Penn State.

But if you can’t appreciate the job Andersen has done guiding Wisconsin to a 9-3 record and a sure New Year’s Day bowl game with an almost entirely new coaching staff, then your cynicism runs too deep. If instead we step back and evaluate all the team has accomplished, it’ll be easy to realize why Andersen was named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Football Club Coach of the Year honor.

“I was very pleased with the transition,” Alvarez told the Appleton Post-Crescent this week while at a speaking engagement. “I thought Gary made a very easy, smooth transition. I thought the players really adapted well to a new staff; played very well. It was easy. Up until this last game, I thought we played at a very high level. I looked at us as a one-loss team going into that game, and one asterisk. …

“Gary has been embraced very well by our fans. It’s hard to make that transition sometimes. I felt he’d be a good fit, and he’s proven to be that.”

Even if you’re disappointed with this season, the future remains bright. Andersen and his staff are working on bringing in one of the best recruiting classes Wisconsin has had in recent memory. According to Scout.com rankings, Wisconsin has the No. 17 recruiting class for 2014, which includes five four-star prospects and 25 commitments thus far.

Since 2002, when Scout began tracking recruiting ratings, Wisconsin has not ranked higher than No. 26 and has never had more than four four-star prospects. During that time, the Badgers have averaged out to the No. 41-ranked recruiting class.

On the field this season, meanwhile, consider that this Wisconsin team has done things few ever have. The Badgers already have set the school record for rushing yards in a season (3,396), breaking the mark set in 14 games last season. The team’s 35.8 points per game ranks third in program history behind the 2011 team (44.1 points) and the 2010 team (41.5). And, of course, the Badgers came within one victory of putting themselves in position to qualify for a BCS game.

Such an achievement isn’t easy. Only Oregon, with four straight BCS game appearances, had a longer active BCS streak than Wisconsin’s three. Stanford also has played in three straight BCS games. Not even Alabama, winners of three of the last four national championships, has played in four straight BCS games. The 2010 team played in the Capital One Bowl — the same game Wisconsin is likely headed toward this season.

That doesn’t mean Andersen is happy about missing out on the BCS. He was open and honest about what went wrong during a 31-24 loss against Penn State, addressing communication breakdowns between he and his coaches in setting up Wisconsin’s defense, an inability to find explosive plays in the running game and inconsistency in the passing game.

He admitted he needed to be better in the future. And from everything we’ve seen, there is reason to believe he will be.

“This will not define this football team for me,” Andersen said. “They defined themselves to me a long time ago with their toughness, their grit, their want-to, the direction and the leadership they’ve had to bring the young kids along.”

During a year that featured unusual upheaval at Wisconsin, the same could be said for Andersen.

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