June 23, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- It was Gary Andersen’s last response to a string of far-ranging offseason topics, including new NCAA legislation creating more access to players, that revealed the most about the competitive fire of the second-year Wisconsin football coach.
What has been Andersen’s driving force the last six months?
He will get around to telling you.
Despite having to sit through two separate interview sessions that combined took up 90 minutes of his work day, Andersen was in a chipper mood last Tuesday morning. Summer youth camps were winding down; summer school was starting, and summer was almost officially here.
Not unlike Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, who has been featured in Dove Men+Care television commercials, Andersen was feeling comfortable in his own skin. Especially since recruiting is seemingly going so well and Andersen’s “journey to comfort” would soon be taking him to Hawaii.
“I can leave for eight days and feel very good about going and getting my kid married,” said Andersen, whose oldest son, Keegan, will exchange vows with his fiance, Jennifer. Upon hearing of their plans to wed in Maui, Gary Andersen’s blessing essentially took the form of a fist-pump and an animated “Yeah, let’s do this.”
Keegan Andersen was a three-year letterwinner as a tight end at Utah State. He graduated with a degree in exercise science and is looking to pursue his master’s in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at Wisconsin.
Keegan would thus be reunited with one of his younger brothers, Chasen, a walk-on linebacker with the Badgers. Meanwhile, Chasen’s twin, Hagen, has inherited Keegan’s No. 22 jersey at Utah State.
Starting this summer, Gary Andersen will get to see more of his other “kids” -- his Wisconsin players -- thanks to the NCAA permitting contact between coaches and players for eight hours a week over an eight-week period corresponding with summer school on the Madison campus.
Men’s and women’s basketball teams have operated under this model for a couple of years.
The NCAA is saying that each of these eight weeks “can include eight hours of required weight training and conditioning” and “up to two of the eight hours can consist of film review.” The student-athletes must be enrolled in summer school or meet specific academic benchmarks to participate.
It’s a notable departure from the old protocol when the strength coaches were the conduit between the staff and players. Everything would run through them because the on-field coaches were so limited in their summer access. Contact with the players was minimal and not to be football specific.
Andersen believes the freshmen will be the biggest beneficiaries of the rule change.
“If they can handle it mentally, they should be much more prepared than they were a year ago for practice one (in August),” he said. “They’ll understand the drills, they’ll know what they’re getting themselves into and they’ll get a feel for the coaching even though they’re not in true football drills. The meeting time is invaluable.”
That could bode well for the Badgers, who could be relying on some freshman wide receivers and defensive backs to fill voids in the two deep.
Although assistants can now monitor the players in the weight room, Andersen doesn’t want to disrupt the status quo and stressed, “We’re not going to do that.” Instead, he wants his strength coach, Evan Simon, to stay in charge of the room and train the athletes.
Andersen is all for the expanded access -- “It’s progress because it’s good for the kids,” he pointed out -- but he’s not about to make dramatic changes in the way he conducts business over the summer. “I’m not going to change our vacation schedule for our coaches,” he said.
|“It’s invaluable for the coaches and the players to be away from each other at this time of the year,” Andersen said of relying on Simon (above) in the weight room. “I think that’s when they get their leadership, their toughness, their cohesiveness in dealing with adversity and they get their own identity.”
There is already a system in place; one that Andersen approves.
“It’s invaluable for the coaches and the players to be away from each other at this time of the year for pretty good stretches,” Andersen said. “I think that’s when they get their leadership, their toughness, their cohesiveness in dealing with adversity and they get their own identity.”
Andersen doesn’t want someone constantly looking over their shoulder.
“I don’t think that’s healthy for a football team,” he suggested.
And there’s a simple reason why he feels this way: ownership.
“I can’t stand in the huddle when it’s third-and-2,” Andersen said, “and we have to keep a drive alive in the fourth quarter.”
Each position coach will have the autonomy to determine the full extent of their time involvement, Andersen added, and how they utilize the allotted access periods with the players -- whether it’s in the film room or during on-field conditioning.
“The relationship between the position coaches, myself, and the kids is going to be better because in the past, heck, you were afraid about what you could say to them,” said Andersen, reflecting on all the previous restrictions on summer contact.
“Now that’s all gone,” he went on. “Now we don’t have to be skittish about walking around and talking to the kids in the summer and you don’t have to be worried about putting yourself in a position to compromise the university (by breaking an out-of-season rule).”
Andersen will have even more interaction with the player in the fall. He plans on devoting some of this time to coaching the Boundary or B-Linebackers. “I’m going to be involved,” he said. “I think it’s best for us. We had a (graduate assistant) coach them in the past and it has been productive.”
But it becomes a numbers game. The Badgers have four full-time assistants on defense: Dave Aranda is the coordinator and oversees the four linebackers in the 3-4 scheme; Chad Kauha’aha’a has the defensive line; Bill Busch has the safeties and Ben Strickland has the cornerbacks.
“We need five coaches on defense,” said Andersen, a former defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Utah. “I can take 15 minutes of individual and I can take a position meeting 45 minutes a day. It will be good for me. I get to coach. It’s a good thing. It will be a positive. So away we go.”
Andersen admitted that he feels better about his program this summer than last; especially from the standpoint that he can leave town for his son’s wedding at the start of the summer conditioning phase without worrying about things getting done in his absence.
“It’s a very different feeling and I mean that in a positive way,” he said. “The kids will work hard. I think they’re in a very good spot. Same with the staff. With the youthfulness of this team, it’s worrisome, but it’s also very exciting. Being around the youth, it gives you juice. You’re going to see that as we grow.”
One of the most important stages in that growth is building a team personality.
“We talked about that with the players last Sunday when they returned for the welcome back dinner,” Andersen said. “I threw that out there to them. There were some powerful seniors here (last season), we all know that. It was a good group of seniors.
“But when you have that many, I think it restricts and holds down the younger players a little bit. And it did happen, no question, and we talked about it. I’m not saying it in a negative way about that senior group; I’m just saying it happened.”
Andersen has challenged the returning players “to take the next step mentally” in understanding what it takes to be successful at their position. “We’ve worked on the physical side,” he said. “They get that, they like it, they work hard at it. But the big thing for me is, ‘Challenge yourself mentally.’”
And he took it one more step by exhorting the players to “prepare for adversity.” As such, he wants each individual to “put yourself in a moment where it’s tough, it’s hard.” And he wants to see how they fight through it.
“With a youthful crew,” he said, “you always worry about when they get smacked in the face, how are they going to react? And that’s whether they’re in school or on the football field.”
Andersen had time for one final question.
What has been more of a driving force the last six months, he was asked, the back-to-back losses to Penn State and South Carolina to end the 2013 season or the specter of LSU to open the 2014 season?
“For me, losing the last two games of last season,” he said without hesitation. “I don’t know that I can speak for the kids on that one; I’ve never asked them.
“But I think of the way we lost to a very good Penn State team. We made some mistakes in that game that were very uncharacteristic and we seemed out of synch.”
The Nittany Lions knocked off the Badgers, 31-24, in the regular-season finale at Camp Randall Stadium. It was also Senior Day; the last time 26 players would defend their home turf.
“If we get beat, then we get beat, and they beat us,” Andersen said. “But there were some opportunities that we gave them that are not like a team that I want to coach on game day.”
The Badgers were guilty of three turnovers and numerous mental breakdowns.
“The bowl game loss,” Andersen said, “still doesn’t feel like the Penn State loss to me.”
The latter still pains him more.
But every loss takes a toll. No. 9 South Carolina rallied for 34-24 win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. The Badgers have now lost six of their last seven bowl games, including four straight.
“We’ve got to get over the hump,” Andersen emphasized. “We have to win some bowl games.”
The Badgers have drawn a fixture in high-level bowls -- LSU -- for their season opener.
“I think LSU does drive the kids,” said Andersen, looking ahead to the Aug. 30 game in Houston. “Just talk to a kid like Melvin Gordon. He doesn’t pull any punches. But he’s not cocky, in my opinion. He’s just very matter of fact -- he likes to compete against the best.”
And that’s why Gordon and his teammates have targeted the Tigers as a measuring stick. “It’s definitely a driving force as you go through the summer,” acknowledged Andersen, who obviously has his own motivation.