MADISON, Wis. — A setting that was part pep rally, part news conference greeted Gary Andersen on Friday morning as he walked to the front of an auxiliary gymnasium on the University of Wisconsin campus. The usual surroundings were deemed too small for a moment this big.
Members of the school band performed. Cheerleaders rattled red and silver pom-poms. School mascot Bucky Badger danced and wiggled. And Andersen, the new Wisconsin football coach, was introduced as “today’s guest of honor” to a chorus of cheers from university boosters.
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The spectacle and curiosity had been building for days, since Andersen agreed to leave his position as head coach at Utah State for the same job at Wisconsin on Tuesday night. Fans had heard snippets of information about him as word trickled out of the move, but they had not heard directly from him.
So who is this man tasked with leading Wisconsin’s football program into the future?
Friday morning, Andersen introduced himself as someone who would be there for his players in times of need and someone who would hold them accountable. He also quickly assuaged fears about the type of team Wisconsin will have moving forward. There will be no spread offense like the one he used at Utah State.
“This is the University of Wisconsin,” Andersen said. “I’ve seen the young men walk around the hallways. … We will be a power run team. Our goal and our mindset will be to wear you down as the game goes on and to out-tough you and out-physical you.”
As Andersen spoke, any lingering skepticism about the hire surely continued to lift. In addition to the Badgers’ style of play, he addressed concerns about his growing up in Utah and being unfamiliar with recruiting in the Midwest. He said he would retain Wisconsin assistant coach Ben Strickland, who has been instrumental in handling in-state recruits.
Andersen also noted that when he came to Utah State in 2009, there were 18 in-state players. When he left, 55 in-state players were on the roster. At Wisconsin, 53 players on the current roster are from inside the state.
“Some people say, ‘You’re not from here. How are you going to be able to recruit back here?” Andersen said. “I completely disagree with that. Good coaches, good recruiters can walk into any living room and show what a university is.
“… There may be some programs out there in the country that have to go sell their program. But that’s not what we are and what we’re doing. I’m excited to get in those fights in the Big Ten and show people why they should come here.”
In four seasons at Utah State, Andersen turned around a moribund program, finishing 26-24 during his tenure. The program had been 9-38 the previous four seasons. The Aggies went 11-2 this season, won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and will be ranked in the final Associated Press top 25 poll for the first time since 1961.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said he first took notice of Andersen last season, when Utah State nearly defeated defending champion Auburn. Utah State played Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 15 of this season and almost pulled off a stunning upset, which further impressed Alvarez. Wisconsin held on for a 16-14 victory, but the performance hovered in Alvarez’s mind as he searched for a coach to replace Bret Bielema, who left for the same position at Arkansas on Dec. 4.
Alvarez said he interviewed three candidates in person and only offered the job to Andersen. He lauded Wisconsin’s new coach for being the “whole package.”
“Just his entire philosophy and how it fit here,” Alvarez said. “Having watched his teams play, studied his background, having turned around a program, the important things for him in how he coaches, how he manages a team, how he manages his staff — all those things came out. The longer we talked, the more I could see that.”
In late November, Andersen informed his Utah State players that, despite a deluge of interest from other college programs, he would remain as Aggies coach. But he admitted on Friday that his remarks came before Wisconsin had a job opening, noting “Wisconsin was nowhere to be seen at that point for me.”
“When (Alvarez) offered me the job, I just said yes,” Andersen said. “I think I shocked him a little bit. I didn’t ask any questions.”
Andersen will bring at least a small sense of familiarity with one of Wisconsin’s biggest Big Ten rivals — Ohio State and head coach Urban Meyer. Andersen served as the defensive line coach at Utah under Meyer in 2004 when the Utes went 12-0 and earned their first BCS bowl victory.
Bielema’s relationship with Meyer was cold after Bielema accused him of using “illegal recruiting tactics,” but Andersen sought Meyer’s advice when he was interested in the Wisconsin job.
“His first thoughts were obviously it’s a tremendous job, a great opportunity,” Andersen said. “That was all a positive. And then the next text he shot back was, ‘But you’ve got to come and play us.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we do.’ So away we go.”
Andersen said he would spend the next few days meeting Wisconsin’s players and putting together his coaching staff. He is expected to bring three assistants from Utah State — defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, offensive line coach T.J. Woods and special teams coordinator/safeties coach Bill Busch — as well as Utah defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a. His biggest hire will be finding a new offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.
In the meantime, he intends to keep an eye on Wisconsin from afar as the Badgers prepare to play in their third consecutive Rose Bowl with Alvarez guest starring as head coach.
“I’m going to be a fly on the wall and evaluate and watch the practices as best I can,” Andersen said. “I just want to be there for the young men and start the relationship.”
Utah State and Wisconsin may be programs separated by more than 1,350 miles and are on two different platforms in the college football world, but in the end, Andersen expects to do the same things that led to his success in the past.
“I don’t think the transition is going to be difficult at all,” Andersen said. “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.”