Andersen's stunning exit leaves only unanswered questions behind
MADISON, Wis. -- When Gary Andersen arrived here nearly two years ago as Wisconsin's next football coach, he sat behind a table at his introductory news conference with a calm and confidence that suggested the Badgers had found the perfect long-term hire.
He lauded the program's tradition, praised athletic director Barry Alvarez for providing him with a special opportunity to coach at a Big Ten powerhouse and discussed the importance of building a family environment with players to develop trust.
Still, even back on Dec. 21, 2012, the question couldn't help but be asked: Wasn't it difficult to leave Utah State, take West Coast roots out of the ground for the first time and start fresh in a brand new region?
"I don't think the transition is going to be difficult at all," Andersen said then. "It's not like I'm coming from Mars and moving to Madison. I've been surrounded with quality people, and I know again I'm going to be surrounded by quality people here.
"Maybe there's more of a transition to it than I think, but not to me. It's away we go. It's football. It's life. The transition that could be hard is when you don't get to coach the type of young men that you like to coach, and that's not the case here. . . . I'm very comfortable. I can't think of a negative response in any way, shape, or form to the question or anything negative about being here."
Winning the press conference, as it turns out, is vastly overrated. Because on Wednesday, Andersen dropped the news on Alvarez that he was resigning after only two seasons to accept the head coaching position at Oregon State.
Coaches come and go all the time in college football, and to think Wisconsin was immune to the carousel would be naive. But in the aftermath of a stunning move no one saw coming -- not even Andersen's own son on the team, Chasen, knew, according to Alvarez -- what are we to make of this development? More specifically, what is it that Andersen truly did not like about Wisconsin?
Alvarez spoke with reporters Wednesday evening and said Andersen informed him the reason for leaving was because he simply wanted to move back to the West Coast.
"He just talked about opportunity for he and his family," Alvarez said. "That was what he told us."
The distance from Salt Lake City, where Andersen is from, to Madison, Wis., is about 1,360 miles. But moving to Oregon State isn't exactly a rock skip away, either. The distance from Corvallis, Ore., to Salt Lake City is 851 miles, or a 14-hour car ride. And because Andersen has not spoken publicly yet, it is difficult to take his conversation with Alvarez at face value. Surely there must be more to his decision than returning to a general area of the country that really isn't all that close to his hometown.
Was leaving about taking a step up in the college football world? That doesn't make much sense.
Oregon State finished 5-7 this season, including 2-7 in the Pac-12, and tied for fifth in the North Division. The Beavers have produced one 10-win season since 2001 and must compete annually in their own division with top dog Oregon. Wisconsin has produced 10-win seasons in four of the last six seasons and likely will be Big Ten West division frontrunners for the foreseeable future, though Ohio State lurks on the other side.
When Andersen left Utah State to take over at Wisconsin, Aggies athletic director Scott Barnes told me the decision was a no-brainer -- something that seems far less certain now.
"It was something that he couldn't turn down, and I didn't want him to turn it down," Barnes said then. "I thought it was not only a tremendous sort of perennial top-tier job, but it was the right fit for him."
Was leaving about money? That, too, makes little sense given Oregon State's standing.
According to USA Today's salary database, the highest-paid assistant coaches at Wisconsin -- offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda -- tied for 77th nationally at $480,000 per year. Wisconsin's total staff pay was $2,368,600.
Oregon State defensive coordinator Mark Banker makes $505,008, which ranks No. 55 nationally among assistants. But Oregon State's total staff pay was $2,347,200 -- less money than Wisconsin's staff. Wisconsin has put more resources into its athletics programs as well. According to USA Today, Wisconsin has spent at least $92 million on athletics annually for the past five years, while Oregon State's 2012-13 budget was $64.2 million.
Andersen already was making $2.2 million this season at Wisconsin. Former Oregon State coach Mike Riley made $1.5 million, though Andersen figures to receive at least a small raise.
Was leaving about recruiting? It has been reported that Andersen was not happy with Wisconsin's difficult academic standards, which made it much tougher for him to sign the types of players he wanted. But Andersen certainly should have known about those standards when he came to Wisconsin, and the Badgers appeared in three consecutive Rose Bowls only a couple of years ago. In fact, Andersen was brimming with optimism about recruiting at his introductory news conference.
"Wisconsin, the football program's recruiting, in my opinion, is obviously very well respected throughout the country, and as a staff and as a football program, we should be able to get into any recruiting fight that we want to get ourselves into," Andersen said then. "There's nowhere you can go in the country when you're a football player that you can't understand the logo of the University of Wisconsin. That's very important for everybody to understand."
When former coach Bret Bielema left Wisconsin in 2012 to take over at Arkansas, his rationale for leaving -- both stated and unstated -- at least made sense. He openly questioned the pay of his assistant coaches, all of whom received hefty raises in the spend-heavy world of SEC football. He also talked about bringing conference championships to Arkansas, and he recently had won three straight Big Ten titles, likely reaching his apex at Wisconsin. Leaving Alvarez's coaching shadow and creating a clean slate with a new wife were lesser-stated reasons.
Andersen's rationale for leaving, on the other hand, appears to leave much open for interpretation, at least for the time being. With everything he had going for him at Wisconsin -- coaching a second straight New Year's Day bowl game among it -- the timing seems curious.
"The table's been set for these young men to have everything they need academically, socially, and athletically to succeed at a high level," Andersen said two years ago. "How high that level is, only time will tell."
Andersen didn't stay long enough to find out. And now, we are left to wonder exactly why.
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