Gary Andersen’s final act as Utah State’s head football coach, heartfelt but atypical among college coaches, helped assuage the pain and frustration felt by his players, most of whom were stunned to learn their coach had taken a new job less than a week after capping arguably the most memorable season in the history of the program.
Andersen’s decision to call the Utah State players — one by one over a span of two days — so he could personally explain the reasons behind his decision to take over the Wisconsin program impressed the players at his new school.
“That did surprise me, because you don’t hear about things like that very often,” says Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland, who learned of Andersen’s classy gesture online. “That speaks a lot to his character. Coaches fly by night these days. To stay connected to his guys like that, at all hours of the night, over 100 guys, that is really special.”
Kyle Whittingham, who has been the head coach at Utah for the last eight seasons, has known Andersen since the two first worked together at Idaho State in 1992. Whittingham wasn’t surprised to learn that Andersen had devoted hours on the phone to talk to his players before he left Logan, his home from 2009-12, for Madison.
“He cares tremendously about his players,” Whittingham says. “That is one of his strengths. He has a great rapport and has always been able to develop a strong bond with his players.”
And Wisconsin’s players needed a hug — probably even more than Utah State’s did.
Three days after crushing Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, the UW players learned they were losing their coach, Bret Bielema.
About 24 hours after Bielema told the players not to worry if they heard his name linked to any job openings, he was in New York City finalizing an agreement to take over the Arkansas program.
By the time he returned to Madison for a team meeting, the UW players knew Bielema was gone. Although most of them respected his right to make such a career move, many were taken aback when he said he was leaving in part to win a championship.
Hadn’t UW just won its third consecutive Big Ten title?
“I was a little surprised by that, and he said that to me,” UW athletic director Barry Alvarez says. “I thought we were very close to playing for a national championship a year ago (2011). We just won three (Big Ten) championships.”
Andersen, 49, has been working at a frenetic pace since being introduced as UW’s head coach on Dec. 21. He had the opportunity to meet the players and evaluate the team’s personnel shortly after he was hired and watched the 2013 Rose Bowl from the UW sideline.
However, he generally kept a low profile and let the UW staff focus on the bowl game.
“I respected that,” senior defensive end Tyler Dippel says. “I thought it was cool. He wasn’t some guy trying to come in and move everyone aside and say this is what we’re doing now.”
Instead, Andersen focused on building his staff, holding together the bulk of UW’s 2013 recruiting class and reaching out to the state’s high school coaches.
Andersen hired five coaches with whom he had worked, including three from Utah State; retained two from UW’s 2012 staff; and added two others to finalize the staff.
“It is an important part to this puzzle,” Andersen said when asked about hiring familiar faces. “It helps the transition. We need to hit the ground running. It is important to start fast.”
Andersen’s final team at Utah State had 47 in-state players, or 44.8 percent of the roster. Shortly after UW lost to Stanford in the Rose Bowl, Andersen met with key members of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association to assure them he would work diligently to keep the state’s best high school players home.
“He did a really good job explaining his philosophy and how they’re going to handle things,” says Tom Swittel, president of the WFCA. “He seems like a very down-to-earth guy. He’s not going to blow smoke up anyone’s rear end. He is going to say what is on his mind, and as a coach I appreciate that.
“He wants to continue to get the best kids in the state of Wisconsin. He made a point of saying that they don’t know how many that means every year. But they are committed to that.”
Andersen is also committed to keeping UW in contention for Big Ten titles.
When Bielema took over as UW’s head coach in 2006, he inherited a veteran-laden team coming off a 10–3 season under Alvarez. Bielema’s record in his first season: 12–1, with the lone loss at Michigan.
Andersen inherits a team that returns a total of 12 starters on offense and defense, as well as both specialists, from a group that finished 8–6.
“What’s my stamp going to be on it?” Andersen said when asked about the direction of the program. “I sure hope my stamp at the end of the day is to be a football team that’s physical, tough-minded, plays aggressive, plays the game the right way, is respected by their opponents, solid in all three phases (and) has one of the best graduation rates in the country. That’s what I expect. … Again, we’ll never be perfect. I’ll never say that. But we sure will try to be every single day and fight to get to that position.”
Andersen’s Utah State résumé suggests that he will not disappoint at UW.
From 1998-2008, the Aggies compiled a cumulative record of 35–90. They never finished above .500 in that 11-year span. Utah State finished 4–8, 4–8 and 7–6 in Andersen’s first three seasons. In 2012, Andersen guided the Aggies to the outright Western Athletic Conference title with a 6–0 league record. The 11–2 overall mark was the best in program history, and the Aggies finished 16th in the final Associated Press poll. The 41–15 victory over Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl was the second bowl victory in program history.
“It was a rebuild, a complete rebuild,” Whittingham says. “He built it from the ground up. But Gary is organized, pays attention to details and has a good vision of the big picture.”
Andersen, whose Utah State team suffered a 16–14 loss at Wisconsin last season, wasn’t planning to change jobs until UW entered the picture. He reportedly turned down offers from California, Kentucky and Colorado. But when Alvarez offered him a new challenge, Andersen jumped at the chance, because he had seen the campus and the fan support, and the players reminded him of those he recruited at Utah State.
“The second that Coach Alvarez had contacted me and gave me the opportunity,” Andersen says, “I knew that that was a job I was going to take.”
This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 Big Ten Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 SEC season.
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