UWâ€™s commitments mostly staying put
Jack Keeler says now he had a premonition that former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema would bolt from the football program during his time as a Badgers player. Despite his suspicions, Keeler, a 6-foot-7, 290-pound offensive lineman from Barrington (Ill.) High School, maintained his commitment to Wisconsin for the Class of 2013.
"I kind of got the feeling the first few months of knowing Bielema that he was going to leave in the next year or so," Keeler said. "I didn't expect it so early. It didn't really change anything for me because he's a defensive coach first of all. I wouldn't be talking to the head coach that much. It was more about who's my O-line coach and who's my offensive coordinator? And who's my strength coach?"
Turns out, all those other coaches left soon after Bielema accepted the head coaching position at Arkansas on Dec. 4.
For Keeler and Wisconsin's other recruits, the mass exodus created plenty of uncertainty and few answers over the next two weeks, as six assistant coaches accepted jobs at other schools.
"I was very concerned," said cornerback Sojourn Shelton, a Florida native who enrolled at Wisconsin a semester early and began classes Tuesday. "It was a hard time to go through. I didn't know what was going on."
Yet the persistence of UW assistant coach Ben Strickland helped keep most of the Badgers' recruits satisfied and up-to-date on the hiring process during the two weeks Wisconsin didn't have a head coach. Once Gary Andersen was announced as Bielema's successor on Dec. 19, he and his new staff immediately began introducing themselves to the Class of 2013 via phone calls or in-home visits.
From its original group of commitments, Wisconsin lost two recruits. Safety Tiquention Coleman followed Bielema to Arkansas, and safety Tyler Foreman de-committed and will attend UCLA instead.
Three other players — tight end Troy Fumagalli, defensive end Alec James and safety Marcus Ball — have re-opened their recruitment and have yet to officially decide on a school with signing day approaching Feb. 6. Wisconsin still maintained 14 recruits for the Class of 2013, and those players say Strickland's role was instrumental, as was the impression Andersen and his assistants made once hired.
Badgers recruit Matt Miller, a 6-5, 265-pound offensive lineman from Toledo, Ohio, said Strickland created a private Facebook page strictly for the Class of 2013 commits. The NCAA has ruled that as long as coaches contact recruits through private messages, they can do so as much as they want.
"There would be all of us on there, and we would talk back and forth," said Miller, who added that he called or Facebook messaged Strickland at least every other day
One of the biggest issues that popped up, Badgers recruits noted, was that other programs attempted to lure them away from Wisconsin during the coaching change. Keeler said Michigan, Ohio State and Oregon all came after him, but he decided to stay committed to Wisconsin.
Miller said he, too, received sudden interest from other programs.
"I opened my thoughts up to some other schools just to make sure I was still doing the right thing," he said. "But once it started to get a little more serious with coming to visits, I really evaluated and decided that wasn't for me."
Last month before Wisconsin played Stanford in the Rose Bowl, Strickland shared his reasons for putting in so much time on the recruiting front, noting he didn't want players to make a mistake by leaving too soon. Ultimately, Strickland was rewarded for his hard work because he was one of two holdovers, joining running backs coach Thomas Hammock, to stay on Andersen's staff at Wisconsin.
"For me it was just regardless of where I was going to end up, I wanted them to come to Wisconsin and have the same experience I had, if not better," said Strickland, a former Badgers walk-on who became a team captain in 2007.
"I think we've got a great group of kids that could potentially sign with us. Finding a way to keep those guys sticking together, that's what this place is about. I told those guys to stick together. You've got a good thing going. This place will continue to be what it's been as long as you believe in it, buy into it and once you get here, you just work your tail off."
Strickland's message resonated with recruits, and once they met the new staff, the comfort level with their decision returned.
Shelton said Andersen called him within days of taking over as Wisconsin's coach.
"Throughout the whole coaching process with everybody leaving, I wanted somebody coming in that could honor my commitment and everything like that," Shelton said. "That's what he did. I just wanted to give him a shot. Definitely from talking to him, I felt like it could possibly be a good fit."
Keeler noted that Andersen, offensive line coach T.J. Woods and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig all made in-home visits to meet Keeler and his family. And Keeler, like the 13 other committed recruits, quickly realized the reasons he listed for coming to Wisconsin remained in place.
"They're a bunch of good guys," he said. "Coach Woods is going to be a real hard worker. He said to me we're going to be the hardest-working group in the nation. Not just on the team but in the nation. I'm excited."
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