Rudolph returns to Wisconsin having grown as a coach
MADISON, Wis. — Joe Rudolph is the first to admit he is averse to significant lifestyle changes. And if he truly had his druthers, he probably never would have left Wisconsin’s football program in the first place.
But an opportunity knocked, and he answered. He had worked for four seasons as the Badgers’ tight ends coach when a chance to move up the ladder and become offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh arrived in his lap following the 2011 season. He could enhance his football knowledge, prove he knew how to run an entire unit and do so under well-respected friend and first-time head coach Paul Chryst. So, he took a chance on himself.
"It was really difficult the first time," Rudolph said of leaving Wisconsin. "Obviously, you’d never do it if you didn’t have great passion for the person you’d be working for.
"I think there are times when you recognize that you need challenges, and challenges help you to grow. I think it was an opportunity, and I think it was really a great growth period for me."
The growth demonstrated by both Chryst and Rudolph has led to yet another partnership — this time back at Wisconsin. Rudolph, who was officially named the Badgers’ offensive coordinator Tuesday, spoke Wednesday to reporters for the first time about his new job and the excitement level he felt about returning to a familiar place.
What Rudolph learned during three seasons as Pitt’s offensive coordinator, he believes, will help Wisconsin’s offense continue to thrive. Over the past two seasons under former offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, the Badgers averaged 34.8 points and 34.6 points, which rank as the third- and fourth-highest averages in program history. At Pitt last season, Rudolph guided the offense to 31.8 points per game.
"First off, going in and being able to put an offense in, really install it from ground zero, I think that’s important," Rudolph said. "I think really appreciating the fact that you need to know your players and you need to know their capabilities and what they’re good at. Like all coaches, you need to try to put them in the best position to be successful, and you have to be willing to change and bend, and then always keep working towards what you think may be ideal.
"That growth happened from development, from recruiting, from we were forced to play guys that were a little younger and getting them ready and no excuses in doing so, and I think you learn a lot from that. Those are probably the main things that really forced you out of your comfort zone."
Chryst has spoken highly of Rudolph and continued to do so Wednesday, noting the ways in which Rudolph’s coaching ability and relationships with players had impressed him. Chryst recalled a story from he and Rudolph’s first go-around as assistant coaches at Wisconsin that has stuck with Chryst.
"I remember when our offices were next to each other, and Scott Tolzien was in our office and we were doing some stuff, and Joe had Lance Kendricks in there," Chryst said. "He looked at me, and Scotty says, ‘I wish you were as good a coach as Joe.’"
Rudolph certainly will have a chance to prove just how good of a coach he truly is. Wisconsin loses three starters to its offensive line — a position Rudolph will coach in addition to his responsibilities as coordinator. The Badgers also must find a way to make up for the productivity of Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon and develop more wide receiver threats. Last season at Pitt, Rudolph’s team ran the ball on 66.4 percent of plays, which falls in line with Wisconsin’s offense as well. UW ran on 66.8 percent of plays.
One of the most intriguing questions is what Rudolph intends to do with Wisconsin’s quarterback situation. Incumbent starter Joel Stave returns for his senior season, as does Tanner McEvoy. Other quarterbacks on the roster include Bart Houston, D.J. Gillins, Austin Kafentzis and Alex Hornibrook.
"I think we’re familiar with Joel because he was here, so we got to know him," Rudolph said. "But I think for the most part we’ll enjoy kind of learning about them and finding out their strengths. I think that is the strength of the offense, is trying to help guys have ownership so they really know it and understand it and have confidence in execution.
"Just put them in positions where they are confident and they can be successful. That will be the ultimate goal. I’m excited. That’s the part that you’re pumped to dig into and get going with."
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