Badgers stick together despite coaching chaos

LOS ANGELES — If Charlie Partridge had his druthers, he wouldn’t be leaving the University of Wisconsin in four days’ time. But sometimes, reality crashes down on the best laid plans, and important decisions must be made for the benefit of a man and his family.

And so Partridge, the longest tenured assistant football coach at Wisconsin with five years on staff, will move with his wife, Julie, and two daughters to follow former Badgers coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas. Partridge’s livelihood depends on it.

“At some point, an assistant is going to have a choice to hang on and hope or have a bird in the hand,” Partridge said.

Partridge, like the eight other assistant coaches on Bielema’s staff at Wisconsin, had to make that very same choice. Five others — offensive coordinator Matt Canada, defensive coordinator Chris Ash, linebackers coach Andy Buh, wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner — all accepted jobs elsewhere as the search to find the next Wisconsin coach created uncertainty.

By the time Gary Andersen was hired, each coach had already agreed to leave Wisconsin.

Given the close-knit relationship between position coaches and their players, it would have been easy for the Badgers to fall apart at the seams — and for players to fill with resentment at the prospect of losing a coach to another program.

But athletic director and interim coach Barry Alvarez refused to allow such a fracture. He gathered the coaches and made certain they would stay through the Rose Bowl because they owed it to the players. To further drive home the point about sticking together for the final few weeks, he handed everyone on the team a red wristband with the words “I’m in & I’m on” etched into the band.

While wristbands and other motivational tactics might come off as cheesy if not done the right way, Wisconsin’s players say they have bought into the concept.

“The idea behind them is during finals when everything was pretty hectic with the coaching changes, no one was really sure what was happening,” Badgers defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. “His thing is we are in, like we’re in the moment right now, and at the same time we’re also on, so we’re going to take advantage of the opportunity.

“We’re going to be focused in practice. We’re going to just be a really, really good team because we know we can be.”

Players were still wearing the wristbands — many of which were stripped of their color and now white through sweat, showers or pool work — during the team’s media obligations this week in advance of Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl game against Stanford on Tuesday.

“I try to make them earn the wristband, but if you have that wristband on, that’s 10 days, 12 days that it’s a reminder that you have a game, and what the band is about,” Alvarez said. “I think it helps you stay focused and keep your mind on the game. It’s just a little thing that I’ve done maybe once a year throughout my coaching career in a big game, and it’s always seemed to be effective.”

For coaches such as Partridge, trying not to think ahead has been difficult. He will make $350,000 at Arkansas, which is a considerable raise from his $241,750 salary at Wisconsin. He will also be starting over in a new program for the first time since 2007.

“Obviously you try and suppress your emotions so you can get the task at hand done every day,” said Partridge, UW’s co-defensive coordinator. “I’m trying to do everything I can to give every little last nugget that I can during this last week, from off-the-field suggestions, how to carry yourself, I think the world of you guys, take this advice, however you feel it applies, and go from there.”

Ash will join Partridge at Arkansas, with Partridge serving as defensive line coach and Ash the defensive coordinator. Ash will make $550,000, up from $265,000 at Wisconsin.

“I really have enjoyed my time here at the University of Wisconsin,” Ash said. “It’s hard to leave a situation like that. But at the end of the day, we can only control what we can control. And we have to go.”

Badgers linebacker Chris Borland noted the finality of the current situation was on each player’s mind during the run up to the Rose Bowl. In a way, it had actually improved the team’s mental toughness, allowing players to block out distractions and focus on winning a Rose Bowl before coaches scatter in different directions.

“I think we recognize that this is our last opportunity to play together, and we’re very close,” Borland said. “This is everybody’s second family, this team and these coaches. So there is no animosity, no lack of focus. It’s more of let’s pull together and finish this the way we deserve to.”

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