Jan. 16, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Zach Azzanni remembered introducing himself to Bret Bielema while both were sitting in the stands watching a football practice at John Carroll High School in Fort Pierce, Fla.
That was a decade ago.
Azzanni had just been named a full-time assistant under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, while Bielema was a first-year linebacker coach and co-defensive coordinator for Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
"We were the only two watching practice and we kind of hit it off,'' said Azzanni, noting from that point forward, "Bret helped me throughout my years recruiting in south Florida.''
Even though their individual coaching careers have advanced at their own pace in different directions, Azzanni said, "We stayed in touch and every chance that we had to talk, we did.''
Their most recent discussion resulted in Bielema hiring Azzanni as Wisconsin's wide receivers coach, replacing DelVaughn Alexander, who left the Badgers for an assistant's job at Arizona State.
The 35-year-old Azzanni was Western Kentucky's offensive coordinator last season. The Hilltoppers featured running back Bobby Rainey, the second-leading rusher in the nation.
Rainey averaged 141.2 yards per game and ranked just ahead of Wisconsin's Montee Ball (137.3). Despite his presence, Western Kentucky was balanced: 2,179 yards on the ground; 2,008 yards through the air.
That type of yardage distribution is consistent with the UW blueprint.
"I've always wanted to work with guys that I know philosophically believe in the same things that I do,'' said Azzanni, "which is why I jumped at this chance to work with Bret.''
Azzanni has a connection to Charlie Partridge, UW's co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. Over the years, they've crossed paths frequently while recruiting in south Florida.
Finding players has been an Azzanni strong suit. "Hopefully it made an impact on Bret,'' he said.
Just ask Meyer, who once said of Azzanni, "He's a tireless worker and relentless recruiter.''
Meyer was not the only head coach to use the word `'tireless'' to describe Azzanni.
"Zach is a tireless worker who has a knack for getting the most out of his players,'' said former Central Michigan coach Butch Jones, who just completed his second year at the University of Cincinnati.
Meyer and Jones have each had their own influences on Azzanni's growth in the profession dating to his formative steps as a GA following his own career as a Central Michigan wide receiver.
Azzanni, a native of Utica, Mich., was a Chippewas walk-on who went on to earn a scholarship and a degree in sports management. As a player, he never missed a practice or a game.
"When my career got to an end,'' he recalled, "it was one of those things that every player goes through, `Ok, what am I going to do now? I've been playing the game my entire life, what now?'''
Azzanni got a call from Valparaiso - "I didn't even know where it was'' he said of the school in Valparaiso, Ind. - and agreed to work first as a volunteer coach before becoming a graduate assistant.
|Bielema hires Azzanni to coach wide receivers
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema announced Monday that he has hired Zach Azzanni to coach wide receivers for the Badgers. Azzanni, who served as the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Western Kentucky last season, has also coached at Florida, Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Valparaiso. | Full Release
While at Valpo, he was utilized almost immediately as a recruiter and position coach; not unlike the training that Partridge and his co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash received at Drake University.
"You kind of get thrown into the fire because there are only so many coaches at a I-AA, non-scholarship program,'' said Azzanni, who took full advantage of the extra work load.
"Notre Dame was down the road from Valpo and I used to go there and listen to coach Meyer talk when he was a receivers coach. I tried to stay in contact with him as much as I could through clinics.''
In 2001, Meyer was named the head coach at Bowling Green and he hired Azzanni as a GA. "He was my mentor,'' Azzanni said, "and he kind of raised me in the business. `'
Meyer spent two years at Bowling Green before leaving for the University of Utah. His offensive coordinator, Gregg Brandon, inherited the Falcons' program and elevated Azzanni to full-time status.
In the 2005 season opener at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers outlasted Bowling Green, 56-42, as tailback Brian Calhoun rushed for 258 yards and accounted for five touchdowns.
BGSU quarterback Omar Jacobs, meanwhile, threw for 458 yards as the Falcons rolled up 28 first downs. Three of Azzanni's receivers had 100-plus receiving yards against Bielema's defense.
"I remember after the game, we talked," Azzanni said, "and Bret was really impressed with the way our receivers played. We were a no-huddle spread offense and we were going fast.
"I really think that game helped me years down the road get this job (at Wisconsin).''
Azzanni was weaned on the spread attack.
"I don't want to say we were the founders (at Bowling Green),'' he said, "but Brandon and (Indiana head coach) Kevin Wilson were all from the same tree and they branched out.
"We wanted to spread everybody out and get them thinking (on defense). If you do that in the MAC, you give yourself a chance against the Wisconsin's of the college football world.
"We were different at the time. No one was doing it exclusively. Now you see it all over, especially at a place like Oregon. When you've got that type of athlete, it's a whole different ballgame.''
In 2007, Azzanni returned to Central Michigan to coach receivers as the assistant head coach to Butch Jones. Together, they put their mark on everything from the locker rooms to the uniforms.
"I was his right-hand man,'' Azzanni said, "and he really helped me develop into a better coach. We got it going and we got some good players - four of them started in the NFL this past year.''
That included Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had 305 career catches at Central Michigan. Azzanni recruited Brown out of Miami, Fla., and a North Carolina prep school.
"One of the best players I've coached,'' Azzanni said. "He had never played a snap at receiver until he came to Central Michigan. The fourth year playing the position he started in the Super Bowl.''
In 2009, Azzanni was reunited with Meyer at the University of Florida. "I wouldn't have left Butch for just about anybody,'' he said. "But Urban called and it was a chance to coach in the SEC.''
Azzanni joined the Gators about a month before they faced Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl.
"I hit the road running and recruiting,'' he said.
In that small window, Azzanni was exposed to Tim Tebow, then a Florida senior.
"What you see is what you get with Tim,'' Azzanni said. "None of that is a façade, none of that is fake. He was the first guy on the practice field and the last guy to leave the field.''
Azzanni had a flashback to Florida's 51-24 win over Cincinnati.
"I'm kind of an intense guy and I kind of get blinders on during games,'' Azzanni said. "Well, we went `three-and-out' and I was going crazy. I didn't know if we had any juice and I'm paranoid.
"It was my first game at Florida and I didn't know how they did things yet.
"Tebow puts on the head phones between series.
"I hear this voice, `Coach Z, Coach Z.'
"I said, `Who is this?'
"He says, `Coach, this is Tim. Look down to the sidelines.'
"So I do and he says, `Hey coach, relax. We'll be fine. Trust me.'
"I'm thinking, `I probably should listen to this guy.'
"Sure enough, he threw for 482 yards.''
There was no shortage of drama during Azzanni's one season in Gainesville with Meyer, who resigned for 24 hours before taking a leave of absence before coaching during the 2010 season.
Meyer then retired and kept his word this time - leaving his assistants in somewhat of a bind. Those who weren't retained by Meyer's replacement, Will Muschamp, had to find work elsewhere.
Former UW offensive coordinator Brian White (under Barry Alvarez) was retained.
Former UW defensive coordinator Dan McCarney (under Alvarez) became the head coach at North Texas.
Former UW secondary coach Chuck Heater (under the late Dave McClain) became the defensive coordinator at Temple.
After considering some MAC offers, Azzanni became the offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky on the urging of his wife, Julia.
"She goes, `It's an offense you've never run, it can't hurt; you need to do it,''' he recounted.
Western Kentucky head coach Willie Taggart had been an assistant to Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. So he installed a pro-style attack which was truly foreign to Azzanni's frame of reference.
But he was anxious to learn.
"When I was a spread guy,'' he said, "I used to tease pro-style receiver coaches, `I can do that in my sleep. I've got five guys running routes and you've got two guys. I can go home at five every day.'
"Obviously, it's much more complicated. Now that I'm in it, I really enjoy it.''
Western Kentucky offered Azzanni another challenge - competitively.
Taggart took over a moribund program at his alma mater and went 2-10 in his first season.
Azzanni was intrigued by the prospect of doing something that bordered on improbable.
"Being a walk-on, I've always had an edge to me and kind of outworked people,'' he said. "These guys (at WKU) had won four games in three years (including a 26-game losing streak).
"My thought was, `Shoot, if we can even come close to that (an 8-5 record in Meyer's final season at Florida) they'd be throwing a parade for us.'''
There was no ticker tape. But the Hilltoppers (7-1) finished second in the Sun Belt Conference behind Arkansas State (8-0) and had a 7-5 record overall, one of the losses coming at LSU (42-9).
"Coordinating that offense,'' Azzanni said, "made me a much better coach.''
Meyer got in touch with Azzanni after he took the Ohio State job. "He was still putting together some of the pieces to the puzzle as far as his staff,'' Azzanni said.
Meyer didn't offer him a position; nor was Azzanni counting on anything. Meyer eventually hired another former Florida assistant Zach Smith to coach receivers. Smith is an Ohio native.
"To be honest,'' Azzanni said, "it was time for me to branch out anyway. I've always wanted to work for Bret and I'm excited that it has worked out this way not the other way around.''
Azzanni has not yet had a chance to study Wisconsin's returning wide outs on film. But he did catch a glimpse of Jared Abbrederis during a TV game before he knew that he would be coaching him.
"I believe I was watching Wisconsin and Michigan State,'' Azzanni said, "and I told my wife, `This guy is everywhere. Look at all the things they ask him to do. You know he's a football player.'
"He's got everything I love in a wideout. He's tough. He runs great routes. He has great hands. I've had a couple of kids like him: Cole Magner at Bowling Green and Cody Wilson at Central Michigan.
"I'm excited to coach him.
"What an impressive young man, good Lord.''
He'll soon find that to be true in person, too.