Badgers find 'right fit' for head coach in Andersen Alvarez, Andersen confident UW will continue to build on strong foundation
Dec. 20, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS UWBadgers.com
MADISON, Wis. -- The first time that Gary Andersen showed up on Barry Alvarez's radar was during Utah State's near-upset of Auburn in the 2011 opener. Despite being a three-touchdown favorite, the Tigers, defending national champions, had to rally from a 10-point deficit in the final 3:38 to escape with a 42-38 win.
"I was really impressed with the way Utah State played,'' recalled Alvarez, the Wisconsin athletic director. "They were physical and they weren't intimidated even though they were on the road. They outplayed Auburn and should have won the game. So I started following them.''
The next time that Alvarez took notice of Andersen and his Utah State team was in the 2011 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Ohio, coached by Frank Solich, a former Alvarez teammate at Nebraska, erased a 13-point third-quarter deficit and scored with 13 seconds left to upend the Aggies, 24-23.
Alvarez later spoke with Solich and "Frankie raved about Utah State. So I kept an eye on them'' especially since the Aggies were on Wisconsin's 2012 schedule. "I then saw first-hand how good they were,'' Alvarez said. "They outplayed us here with guys that weren't as talented.''
On Sept. 15, Utah State's tenacious defense held the UW offense to only one touchdown and 234 total yards, 156 rushing. But the Aggies gave up an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown by Kenzel Doe and missed a 37-yard field goal with six seconds left to fall short of the upset, 16-14.
During his postgame news conference, Andersen refused to single out his placekicker. Instead, he said, "We had an opportunity to win against a quality opponent. We expected to win when we walked in here (Camp Randall) and we didn't get it done. They made one more play than we did.''
Alvarez filed everything away and put Andersen on his short list; a pool of potential head coaching candidates that every athletic director compiles out of self-preservation. When Bret Bielema left for Arkansas in early December, Alvarez went to his list and sought out the right fit.
The search eventually led Alvarez to the 48-year-old Andersen. After a couple of phone conversations before and after Utah State's bowl win over Toledo, the two met face-to-face Monday in Minneapolis. Alvarez liked what he heard -- confirming what others had been saying about Andersen.
That included Ohio State's Urban Meyer, one of Andersen's mentors.
In 2004, Meyer was Utah's head coach and Andersen coached the defensive line. Those Utes, quarterbacked by Alex Smith, capped a perfect 12-0 season with a 35-7 thumping of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. Meyer's defensive coordinator was Kyle Whittingham, another mentor to Andersen who is now Utah's head coach.
"I talked to Urban about him (Andersen),'' Alvarez said. "He's had some very good assistants, like Whittingham. Urban told me that Gary is in the top five of all of them; he's the real deal. I said, `Would he fit here? Would he fit in the Big Ten?' He said, `Absolutely.'''
Alvarez was already sold on Andersen based on what he knew and what his instincts were telling him. "He's a legitimate guy -- no false pretenses, no big ego -- he's a ball coach,'' he observed. "What you see is what you get. Whatever he says, he's going to do, and he says this is his destination job.''
Alvarez was joined in Minneapolis by deputy athletic director Sean Frazier and senior associate athletic director Walter Dickey. After listening to Andersen talk about his plan and philosophies, Dickey turned to Alvarez and said, "If I had a blindfold on, I would have thought I was listening to you.''
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Alvarez (right) likes what he sees in Andersen. "He's a legitimate guy -- no false pretenses, no big ego -- he's a ball coach,'' Alvarez said.
One of Andersen's earliest mentors was a former Wisconsin assistant coach, Ron McBride, who coached the offensive line for the late Dave McClain in the early `80s.
McBride recruited Andersen out of Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho in Rexburg), groomed him as a center at Utah when he was his position coach and later mentored him as a member of his staff.
"There are a lot of things that I believe in,'' Andersen said, "and the number one key in coaching is that I always talk about taking care of the kids first.
"I believe that as a head coach, and anybody's who's ever going to work for me is going to put the kids first. That was Mac's deal. That was important to him.''
On Tuesday, Andersen began calling his Utah State players, one by one.
"I couldn't tell them yet that I had taken the job,'' he said. "But I told them if I was offered the job I was going to take the job. There were a bunch of tears and hard conversations.''
Since Utah State was on holiday break, most of the players didn't return to the Logan campus after the bowl game. So there was no opportunity for Andersen to address his status at a team meeting.
His biggest concern was "they're going to learn about it through ESPN.''
Although it was out of his control at that point, he didn't want them to hear it that way.
"So I reached out to them -- 107 times,'' he said of his individual calls to each player on the roster. "Probably seven or eight, I got their voicemail and I haven't gotten a hold of them yet.''
Obviously, it would have been easier to send out a text message to the group.
"But I just couldn't do that,'' Andersen said. "So I picked up the phone and started calling them one at a time. The kids were awesome, too.''
They were understandably unhappy to hear the news that he was going to Wisconsin.
"But almost everyone said, `Coach, we understand,''' he recounted.
In late November, Andersen was linked to job openings at Cal, Kentucky and Colorado.
At the time, he expressed publicly that he had no intention of leaving Utah State in the context that he loved coaching and living In Logan, and he didn't see himself as a fit in any of those programs.
"When I said no then,'' he pointed out, "I said no to those different places.''
The Wisconsin job wasn't open then.
But after Bielema bolted, and Andersen got to interview for the job, there was no question in his mind where he needed to be. "This was an opportunity,'' he said, "to be at the highest level.''
Moreover, he had gotten a "feel'' for the players that he would be inheriting while he was breaking down tape of the Badgers in preparation for Utah State's trip to Madison in September.
"I got an excellent opportunity to study Wisconsin football all summer because we were playing them,'' he said of his personnel breakdown. " I gained a tremendous amount of respect watching them.
"It's not just how good they are. I watched how they carried themselves. I can get a pretty good feel if they like to play football and like to be around each other when I watch a team.
"That's important to me, so there was a lot of intrigue after watching all of their games on offense and defense. We knew it was a tremendous challenge, but I had to see how their kids played.''
After all of his film study on the Badgers, he came away thinking, "There's a toughness factor. There's a want-to factor. And there's a blue-collar work ethic.''
In sum, Andersen said those are the types of players that he wanted to be around and coach. That came up in conversation with his wife, Stacey when they discussed making the move to Wisconsin.
"Stacey just wanted me to coach the kind of kids that I want to coach,'' Andersen reiterated. "That's all she really cared about. She wanted to make sure I'm not going to chase a job ...''
For the mere sake of chasing a job -- she intimated -- a high-profile, BCS conference job or not.
"It needs to be the right fit,'' he stressed, echoing her sentiments.
"Once I told her my belief this was the perfect spot for us, and really the only spot for us -- an extremely high level of football where I wanted to get one day -- she basically said, `I know you want it.'''
That was her blessing to go after the Wisconsin job.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gary and Stacey Andersen flew to Madison with one of their twin sons, Chasen. They were joined by Utah State recruiting coordinator Zach Nyborg.
Chasen, a linebacker, and twin Hagen, a wide receiver, graduated from high school early and were planning on enrolling at Utah State in January. That has been put on hold, for now.
"They're going to take four months off and let the dust settle,'' said Andersen, whose oldest son, Keegan, is a sophomore tight end with the Aggies. "He's 22 and can take care of himself.''
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Andersen got an unofficial welcome to Camp Randall when his Utah State team nearly knocked off the Badgers in September.
The book on Gary Andersen is that he has one -- a book outlining his plan and policies.
"My whole life basically as a head football coach is outlined from A to Z,'' he said. "The book walked Barry through everything from our discipline policy to our plan to win to our core values.''
While he was a Notre Dame assistant, Alvarez also had a book that he took on job interviews.
"The first thing that Gary asked me was about academics and what we do to support our athletes,'' Alvarez said. "He then talked about his beliefs.
"He doesn't have a lot of rules, but the rules that he has, he's going to enforce. And when someone breaks a rule, he's going to come down on them.
"All of his philosophy was in the book, and he was able to articulate exactly what he wants. He's about fundamentals, being physical, running the football and stopping the run.''
Alvarez saw that with his own eyes in September.
"The first thing we want to be able to do is run the football,'' said Andersen, whose Aggies ranked No. 25 nationally in rushing offense (204.1 yards per game).
"We want to run the ball, but you have to be explosive and you have to be able to take shots down the field consistently, whether through play-action or your route combinations.
"That's important because here you can recruit big, strong, physical offensive linemen because they're here (the Midwest). They're going to be a part of the program and have been forever.
"If we have the right quarterback, I think it's a very vicious weapon to be able to have a phase of the option in your game. It just depends on the pieces of the puzzle that are there.''
This season, Utah State had the eighth-best scoring defense in the country.
"I wouldn't say we're overly aggressive,'' Andersen said, "but we're an aggressive defense that will give you a lot of looks. We play with a lot of different packages. We'll carry five into games.
"It's important for a couple of reasons. Number one, it causes some confusion and issues for the offense. Number two, it involves a lot of players in the football game.''
Andersen has an outstanding reputation as a recruiter. It can be traced, in part, back to the lessons that he learned from McBride in the "world of recruiting'' and to taking care of the players first.
When asked if he felt that his lack of Midwest ties would be a hindrance, Andersen responded matter-of-factly, "I don't see it as any problem whatsoever for me personally.''
In the next breath, he posed rhetorically, "Do I want to have people on the staff that are familiar with the territory? Absolutely. That's a big step and an important part of the recruiting process.''
Andersen sounded like he already had a pulse of what can succeed at Wisconsin.
"I'm going to say this about 5,000 times while I'm the head coach here,'' he suggested. "But I have a pretty good feeling of the type of young men who want to be involved in this program ...
".... and have been involved for years and years and years.
"I feel very comfortable walking into their homes and presenting the University of Wisconsin football program. There are plenty of opportunities to find the right fits for young men to come here.''