MADISON, WIS. – From his new office overlooking the field at Camp Randall Stadium, Gary Andersen still can see the fateful line of scrimmage.
Four years after taking over a languishing Utah State football program, Andersen had the Aggies on the verge of a major upset last September. Trailing the Badgers 16-14 with 11 seconds remaining, his team lined up for the winning field goal.
“Nineteen-yard line. Right hash,” Andersen said, pointing to the spot last month.
The kick sailed wide right. Then-Badgers coach Bret Bielema heaved a huge sigh of relief as Andersen walked off in defeat. But that night’s importance lingered into December.
After winning a third consecutive Big Ten title, Bielema abruptly left for Arkansas, thrusting the Badgers into their first true coaching search since they hired Barry Alvarez in 1990. Alvarez, who hand-picked Bielema as his successor before becoming Wisconsin athletic director, did something that California, Kentucky and Colorado could not — persuade Andersen to leave Utah State.
In the six years before Andersen took over Utah State’s program, the Aggies went 15-55. His teams went 4-8, 4-8 and 7-5 before turning in the best season in school history last year at 11-2.
“What he did there was fabulous because he brought the program from zero,” said Ron McBride, former Utah coach and Andersen’s longtime mentor. “He was No. 1 on Cal’s list. I was shocked he turned that down. I figured he was going to stay at Utah State, so the Wisconsin thing kind of blew me away.”
During his interview, Andersen immediately hit it off with Alvarez. And Wisconsin didn’t have to do much selling because Andersen had seen enough as a visiting coach last fall.
“We were heartbroken with that loss,” Andersen said. “But you also walk out of here going, ‘That was big time.’ It’s as big as it gets in college football.”
State of the program
Bielema went 68-24 at Wisconsin, including 12-1 his first season, but never quite escaped Alvarez’s shadow. The Badgers went 8-6 last year, winning the Big Ten, in part, because Ohio State and Penn State were bowl ineligible. Wisconsin then lost a third consecutive Rose Bowl.
But long before leaving, Bielema predicted this 2013 Wisconsin team would be his best. Running back Montee Ball and center Travis Frederick have moved to the NFL, but the Badgers return plenty of standouts, including linebacker Chris Borland and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. The biggest questions are the secondary, the wide receivers and the quarterback. Andersen hasn’t named a starting quarterback. He plans to open camp with a three-way battle between Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and junior-college transfer Tanner McEvoy.
The Badgers ran the 4-3 defense under Bielema, but Andersen prefers the 3-4. Offensively, he plans to spice things up a bit, too.
“Do we want to use a power run game? Absolutely,” Andersen said. “But we do want to incorporate a touch of the option. In 20 years of coaching on the defensive side of the football, just the threat that they’re going to grab the ball and pitch it sideways is a whole new dimension to football.”
Andersen was the defensive line coach at Utah under then-coach Urban Meyer when the Utes went 12-0 in 2004. The two have remained friends, which will add to the story lines when the Badgers play at Ohio State on Sept. 28. The winner of that showdown should be favored to win the Leaders Division.
Speaking to Badgers fans at the River Falls Golf Club last month, Andersen had some fun with all the hype being stowed upon the Buckeyes after their 12-0 finish last season.