Wisconsin’s Andersen guided by principles, loyalty
MADISON, Wis. — Some suggested Gary Andersen was crazy for walking away like this. Leave a Division I-AA college football program while wife Stacey was pregnant with twin boys? To teach in the youth custody program at a high school for $12 an hour? With no immediate plan for finding another coaching job?
What coach trying to work his way up the ladder does that?
“That was the wildest and probably the most challenging part for Stacey and I,” Andersen says now. “Stacey was like, ‘You’ve got a job. I’m pregnant. We’re going to leave and we’re going to be on COBRA (insurance) and you’re going to make $12 an hour. This doesn’t make sense.'”
The year was 1994, and Andersen found himself at a crossroads of sorts. He had served as a defensive line coach at Idaho State for two seasons and certainly could’ve stayed to continue building his resume. Yet one of his closest friends, Idaho State defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, had essentially been let go by the head coach because of a personality clash, Andersen says. Andersen didn’t believe Whittingham was treated fairly. So, he took a stand and left the program, 30 years old with his second and third sons on the way.
His father told him he was nuts. His wife questioned his sanity. But, Andersen told himself, if he didn’t stick up for his beliefs, then what kind of man was he?
“The situation at Idaho State came down to what I thought was a loyalty scenario,” says Andersen, now 49 and the head coach at the University of Wisconsin. “I’m going to be loyal to my people. That’s the decision I made.”
It is a decision he credits with helping to shape his life, one that has allowed him to appreciate just how far he’s come while doing things the right way in a cutthroat profession.
Andersen, a bright young mind whose passion for football had shone through in six years as an assistant coach, would spend the following six months with his family in Salt Lake City as a teacher at Highland High School — without a coaching job. He missed impacting kids and teaching them life lessons through football, however, and wasn’t in a spot to be picky.
The coaching trail would lead him to Park City High School about a half-hour away — certainly not a position he ever envisioned for himself. The stench of an 11-game losing streak clung to the team, but Andersen wanted the job. He needed the job, even though he had to work as a study hall and internal suspension teacher the rest of the day. He still possessed eagerness and a plan to reshape the football culture. And his knack for creating an environment of trust among skeptical players was obvious from the start.
“Park City is a fairly well-to-do town,” says Mike Shepherd, the current Park City High football coach. “You can’t just be anybody to show up and tell everybody you’re great and follow me. Kids just don’t do that here. You have to be genuine. You have to show them you know what you’re talking about. You have to show them you’re committed. That’s one of the things he did naturally, so he fit in here.”
Andersen gave players hope that season, instilling an upbeat attitude and shifting expectations. He promised to shave his head if Park City could actually win a game. The team would win three consecutive games to reach the state playoffs. And he made good on his word.
“That’s one of my best years I had was as a head coach at Park City High School,” Andersen says. “I say that to people all the time. They look at me like I have 12 heads. It truly was awesome. I still remember those kids.”
If nothing else, Andersen has forged a path his way from the ground up by maintaining his sense of integrity, loyalty and honesty while displaying a genuine interest in his players’ lives. Those who have known him over the years say the value he places on areas outside of football have made players better men — and better football players in the process. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Andersen has won just about everywhere he has gone. Treat people right, and the behavior will be reciprocated.
Now, he is attempting to implement the same principles and win on the biggest stage of his coaching career at Wisconsin. He has been on the job for only four months, but he is making changes the only way he knows how: with equal parts discipline and love.
“If you want a family environment, you’d better put your money where your mouth is,” Andersen says. “You’d better create it.”
In some respects, the environment Andersen inherited at Utah State in 2008 was similar to the one he overcame at Park City High School 14 years earlier. The stakes were different — this was his first FBS-level head coaching job — but the plan for success was not.
Andersen had spent more than a decade working his way back up the coaching ranks following his one season as a high school coach. He served as a defensive line coach at Northern Arizona for two years and spent 11 of the next 12 seasons as an assistant coach at Utah, which included reuniting with Whittingham.
When Andersen interviewed for the Utah State position, expectations were minimal. The team hadn’t produced a winning season since 1997. During the 2000s, Utah State ranked among the worst programs in Division I. From 2000-08, the Aggies were 28-75 (.271 winning percentage). And once in 2006, the team went 216 consecutive minutes without scoring a point — a span of nearly four games.
As Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes puts it: “We never gave ourselves a chance.”
Barnes was in charge of the hiring process when Andersen interviewed, and he quickly realized Andersen had a specific plan, not a generic idea, for fixing Utah State despite its limitations as a mid-major level college team. The program hadn’t upgraded athletics facilities, wasn’t scheduling enough home games to make money and become successful, wasn’t paying its assistants competitive salaries and wasn’t recruiting the best players it could.
Andersen told them, if given the backing of the athletic department, he would change some of those things. He would embrace Utah State as his own and rally players around him.
“We needed a leader that believed in recruiting and believed he could be successful,” Barnes says. “We knew in the interview that his plan and passion and conviction for being able to win was real. We felt like that, coupled with giving him the tools we needed, could turn it around in a fairly quick manner.”
If this was a reclamation project with a bunch of second-rate players, Andersen never treated them as though they were below average. He demanded consistency and competition. He put forth expectations for practices and weightlifting sessions and never faltered in his belief that he could change the culture. He kept jars full of candy in his office for players and created an open-door policy so they could talk to him at any time. Often, they did just that. And during Thanksgiving, he and Stacey had nearly four-dozen players over for a catered dinner.
“Even when they struggled his first couple years up there, they still had a good attitude and a belief in what they were doing,” says Ron McBride, who was Andersen’s offensive line coach at Utah from 1985-86 and has remained a mentor to him. “You knew it was just a matter of time until he really turned that thing to where they are. Everything was very upbeat, upscale. The players loved playing for him.”
Bill Busch, who has worked alongside Andersen at four stops, including Utah State and now Wisconsin, says Andersen struck the right balance on the field to maximize his players’ effort. And once they realized how much Andersen cared about them, they wanted to return the favor and play well for him.
“When you deserved to get kicked in the butt, you got kicked in the butt,” Busch says. “You deserved when you got hugged. But he’s always there for you. It’s never, ‘Oh, screw that guy.’ When things are tough, he’ll put himself into the parent role a lot. ‘What if that was my son?'”
Busch says Andersen convinced the entire team it could win again. He upgraded the roster in recruiting so the talent level at the bottom more closely matched the talent at the top. And he promised the team that, if it should reach its first bowl game since 1997, he would get a tattoo of the school logo.
His tough but fair demeanor resonated with players. In 2011, Utah State went 7-6 and reached the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and Andersen again made good on his word. He got that Utah State tattoo on his right shoulder.
A year later, Utah State won 11 games and finished ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1961.
Given his remarkable ability to turn around a moribund program, it wasn’t long before the inevitable calls from bigger college programs came into Barnes’ office. Kentucky. California. Colorado.
Andersen was certain he would remain at Utah State for another 10 years. He was committed. He loved his players. They loved him. He told everybody he was staying despite the rumors.
Then came the call from Wisconsin.
Andersen says Busch first informed him of the Wisconsin opening during breakfast while Utah State prepared for its bowl game. Busch had worked as a graduate assistant at Wisconsin in 1993 and ’94 under then-coach Barry Alvarez.
“Bill was like, ‘Seriously, you want to look into that and see because it’s a great place,’ ” Andersen says. “He told me a lot of the things I know now, but I had no idea. That was when I first kind of thought, ‘You know what? I owe it to everybody, my assistants, myself to not leave a stone unturned.”
In October, Utah State had announced a contract extension through 2018 that would pay Andersen up to $765,000 a year. He felt comfortable. He was at a school just 90 minutes from Salt Lake City, where he was born. His oldest son, Keegan, was a tight end at Utah State. His twin boys, Chasen and Hagen, were headed to Utah State in January.
When Alvarez, now the Wisconsin athletic director, called Barnes in December to express his interest in Andersen, the pull toward leaving home strengthened. Andersen had impressed Alvarez up close in Madison, when Utah State nearly pulled off an upset earlier in the season before falling to Wisconsin, 16-14, in the final seconds.
This wasn’t a matter of being disloyal, Andersen thought. He would never want anyone to think that. It was a matter of a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity knocking on his door.
“It’s crazy how it happened,” Andersen says. “I still can’t really explain how fast it happened. I knew it was right. I believe I get told to go where I’m supposed to go and I believe I was told to come here. When I believe that, when I wake up and that’s what’s on my mind, that’s what I’m going to do no matter what.”
Even Barnes couldn’t deny how great of an opportunity this was for Andersen. He says he knew if Andersen lived up to everything he seemed to be during his interview at Utah State back in 2008, eventually a school like this might come calling.
“We both felt very good about the decisions that he made in fighting off courtship from others,” Barnes says. “But when the Wisconsin job came, it was something that he couldn’t turn down, and I didn’t want him to turn it down. I thought it was not only a tremendous sort of perennial top-tier job, but it was the right fit for him.”
When Andersen accepted, he could have slinked away into the night, never to be seen in Logan, Utah, again. Instead, he picked up the phone and began calling 106 players one by one to explain his decision, into the wee hours of the night. They may not have liked his departure, but certainly they could understand and appreciate Andersen’s willingness to let them speak their mind.
Little did he know the impact his gesture was making on members of his new team back in Madison.
“That was one thing that really elevated him above anyone that could come in was how he called everyone from Utah State and told them why he was leaving,” Badgers right tackle Rob Havenstein says. “I heard the stories. He stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning trying to reach people. That’s a testament to his character. That’s what you want from a coach that tells you, ‘I want to be here.’ I think it was absolutely wonderful that coach Andersen did that.”
The office and support staff is bigger now, the facilities nicer. Andersen is seated on a couch near the front of his office on a recent weekday, a blue towel draped around his neck and a Dasanai water bottle on the table after completing a workout. He is talking about how he reached this place — a world away from teaching in the youth custody high school program — and the importance of maintaining values.
He credits his mother, who is still alive at age 85, for instilling the value of education and a desire to teach others. She was an elementary school teacher, a principal and a reading specialist. He says his father supported him even if he didn’t agree with his son’s choices. His father, who worked at Mountain Bell Phone Company in Utah, helped pay for Andersen’s schooling when he was a walk-on football player at Ricks College in Idaho before earning a scholarship at Utah.
“If my dad would have made me do what he wanted me to do, I never would have played college football,” Andersen says.
Andersen’s most prized possession rests on a shelf in a glass encasing in his office. It is the military case containing the flag that was draped over his father’s casket, along with his dog tags. He served in the infantry during World War II.
Neither of his parents ever made excuses, Andersen says. They worked hard, and Andersen tries to carry on those beliefs with his own family and now his new players.
College football is about molding young men, putting everything you have into each team and watching just how much they can achieve on the field. But without creating an atmosphere of support and love, having fun and instilling a certain code of behavior that lasts after football, really, what’s the point?
“I’ve been around programs where it’s not as much fun,” Andersen says. “I told myself that I’m not going to do this if it’s miserable for the kids and it’s miserable for the coaches. There’s a lot of other things you can do. You can be miserable personally without making kids’ lives miserable, too. So it should be fun. It’s the best years of their life and they need to enjoy it.”
Since Andersen took over Wisconsin’s program, he has tried to build trust with players and fans alike by being honest and genuine. He opened spring practice to fans on multiple occasions. He and his assistants meet regularly with players, and some of those meetings require that football can’t be discussed. He intends to have every player over to his house in groups of 20, so he can barbeque on the grill for them.
He also created the Badger Team Accountability Challenge, a competition of 10 players on 10 teams, each assigned to two coaches or support staff members. The objective is to earn points through community service, weightlifting, academics and even a game of dodgeball.
During practice, he blares music from the loudspeakers. He holds dance-offs between players at midfield. He makes them learn the school fight song from a series of cue cards. He’ll break up the monotony of practice to have linebacker Chris Borland attempt a field goal from the hold of defensive lineman Beau Allen while the entire team cheers them on.
In a few short months, Andersen has produced a mood that players have easily embraced — much like he has done at other stops along his journey.
“I think he truly does care about his players,” Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips says. “You come by his office and you’re not ducking trying to avoid the head coach. He’s someone that you want to step in there and talk to, and he’s fun.”
Adds defensive lineman Brendan Kelly: “Coach Andersen makes people feel real comfortable around him. And I think he gets more out of guys because of that.”
Andersen isn’t in the business of predicting results. He recognizes expectations at Wisconsin are higher than they’ve ever been during his coaching career. The Badgers have won three straight Big Ten titles and played in the Rose Bowl during each of those seasons.
There is plenty of work to be done, Andersen says. But he is confident because he has a plan and a set of beliefs from which he won’t waver. And if a player wants to talk about those convictions or anything else, his door is open, jars of candy waiting on his desk.
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