UW's Gary Andersen embraces past, future
March, 22, 2013
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
AP Photo/David StlukaGary Andersen has paid close attention to every detail in his transition as Wisconsin's new coach.MADISON, Wis. -- When Gary Andersen arrived at Utah State in December 2008, he didn't spend much time looking back. Some would say he didn't want to strain his eyes.
At the time, Utah State barely seemed worthy of FBS citizenship. The Aggies had endured 11 consecutive losing seasons, 30 losses in the previous three seasons and eight consecutive seasons of four or fewer victories. Andersen faced a total rebuild, but at least he could wipe the slate clean and look only to the future.
It's not so simple at Wisconsin. Despite the construction going on just north of Camp Randall Stadium, Andersen isn't walking into a mess. Quite the contrary.
He takes over a Badgers team that has won three consecutive Big Ten championships, reached three consecutive Rose Bowls, won 40 games in the past four seasons and hasn't endured a losing campaign since 2001. Andersen's new program has produced 39 NFL draft picks and five consensus first-team All-Americans since 2002. The man who hired him, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, won three conference titles and three Rose Bowls as Badgers coach, resuscitating a downtrodden program and building it into the closest thing we've seen to a third Big Ten power.
"You take a lot longer and harder look at what's made them successful and what's made the kids successful," Andersen told ESPN.com. "For me, there were so many familiarities. The types of young men in this program are what I'm used to at Utah State, the emphasis on in-state recruiting, the emphasis they’ve had in the walk-on program. All those things are staples to what I believe in.
"The transition, there's nothing difficult about it, but you’re more open-minded to what's happened in the past."
Andersen and his assistants also are mindful of what Wisconsin players have been through. One of the nation's most successful and stable programs has endured drastic changes in each of the past two winters.
Six assistant coaches departed after the 2011 season, and head coach Bret Bielema made a surprise exit to Arkansas in December, just three days after watching his team upset Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Andersen brings in seven new assistants, including T.J. Woods, the team's fourth offensive line coach since the 2012 Rose Bowl.
"We've been through a lot of changes," senior defensive tackle Beau Allen said. "Last season we had all these new facilities [being built] and we were in different locker rooms on different days. Sometimes we didn't really know where we were practicing. And then with all the coaching changes. I think we've rolled with it pretty well."
Allen could be right, but Andersen is taking no chances during the transition. He has gone to great lengths to connect with the players during his first three months on the job.
It starts with the BTA Challenge (Badger Team Accountability), a competition that includes 10 teams of 10 players, each assigned to two coaches or support staffers. They compete in academics, community service events, weightlifting and even dodgeball. The challenge has carried over to the practice field this spring.
Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comWisconsin coaches have incorporated team-building exercises into offseason training with a competition called the Badger Team Accountability Challenge.
Andersen meets regularly with the 27-player leadership council. He brought the team together to watch the Super Bowl in the players lounge. During practices, he'll snap the ball to the quarterbacks (Andersen played center in college) or press receivers on the line. Players often receive calls from Andersen, just to check in.
"Guys appreciate that," linebacker Chris Borland said. "He's really in tune with the pulse of the team."
Andersen's player-focused approach is a big reason Alvarez hired him.
"A lot of coaches don't feel that’s important," Alvarez said. "You're a dictator and you’re going to do this and this. The good ones still get close to their kids. They’re still demanding, yet they have an empathy.
"The bottom line in everything he talks about is the kids."
When Andersen accepted the Wisconsin job 18 days after announcing he'd stay at Utah State, he called all 106 Aggies to inform them of his move, reaching the final player at 2:30 a.m. Andersen's new players took notice of the gesture. Badgers running back James White said he "knew it was a good fit right away."
Although Bielema was also popular with the players during his time at Wisconsin, Andersen has brought "a different energy" to practices, according to quarterback Curt Phillips. Practices are crisp and upbeat, and music blares throughout the workouts, a change from the past.
"It’s getting there," Andersen said. "They get an idea of who we are, the way we practice. The speed, the pace, everything we do, we want it to be fast and quick. We want to make sure we’re putting the kids first.
"I want them to know I care about them."
Andersen's assistants also are doing their part to ease the burden on players. Woods has kept about 60 percent of the terminology the Badger offensive linemen used last season under Bart Miller. It helps that Woods has a direct connection to Miller -- he coached him at New Mexico -- and an indirect one to former longtime Badgers line coach Bob Bostad. (Woods worked for Jason Lenzmeier, who had played under Bostad at New Mexico.)
"I'm the fourth guy in two years to walk through those doors in that meeting room," Woods said. "I've tried to strain myself more than them just because of the situation they've been in."
There's certainly an if-it-ain't-broke element of Andersen's challenge at Wisconsin.
The offense will remain rooted in the power run, while mixing in some play-action passes. Andersen inherits two backs -- White and sophomore Melvin Gordon -- who would start for almost any FBS team, veteran linemen like Ryan Groy and Rob Havenstein, and good depth at tight end. Although the quarterback competition is crowded, Wisconsin has three options with Big Ten starting experience: Phillips, Joel Stave and Danny O'Brien. He also has bionic-armed redshirt freshman Bart Houston and incoming junior-college transfer Tanner McEvoy.
"It's been easy for the players to adapt because we're doing stuff that they've done," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "There's a little different terminology, but again, we're trying to draw as much as we can from the past."
Andersen's influence will be seen more on defense, where his expertise lies. The Badgers will be the only Big Ten team operating out of a 3-4 set, although their flexibility with the outside linebackers, who previously played defensive end, allows them to show a 5-2 personnel package.
There will be much more variation in coverages and calls for a unit that has been statistically strong in recent years but a notch or two below elite status.
"We've been on the cusp of greatness, but I don't think we've achieved it yet," Borland said. "We've got a lot of seniors, a lot of guys who have experience. We haven't set any concrete goals, but I think we should be one of the best defenses there is."
Expectations are high despite the coaching change, and for good reason. Wisconsin returns 25 seniors and many key underclassmen who have only experienced winning in their careers.
Bielema often pointed to the 2013 Wisconsin team as potentially his best. Although many are already handing the Big Ten title to Ohio State, the Badgers are aiming for a fourth straight Rose Bowl appearance, which would tie the record held by Ohio State (1973-76) and USC (1967-70).
"There is a good core," Andersen said. "As with every program, there are definite questions that need to be answered. But to say we're not excited about next season would be the ultimate understatement."