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.
“Apparently, Ohio State is the best college football team to ever strap up their helmets, so we’ll see,” he said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to compete.”
When Meyer left for Florida in 2005, Andersen became Utah’s defensive coordinator under Kyle Whittingham. The Utes went undefeated again in 2008 before Andersen left to become the head coach at Utah State.
One challenge at Wisconsin is that Andersen and his top assistants had limited experience recruiting the Midwest. To help bridge that gap, he kept three holdovers from Bielema’s staff — Ben Strickland, Henry Mason and former Gophers assistant Thomas Hammock.
Last month, the Gophers received a verbal commitment from Gaelin Elmore, a tight end from Somerset, Wis., even though Wisconsin had offered, too. But overall, recruiting appears to be going well for the Badgers, who landed a 2014 commitment from one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country on Monday in Jacksonville, Fla., native D.J. Gillins.
“There is more time here spent recruiting,” Andersen said. “I would say it’s tripled, minimum, throughout the year. You’re recruiting like we would in January at Utah State all spring and summer.”
Andersen, 49, is determined not to let the work overwhelm his staff. At Utah State, he stressed the importance of Sunday night family dinners and a one-week summer vacation. He said those will be just as important at Wisconsin.
It’s a lesson he learned the hard way, he said, during his second year at Utah State, after a 41-7 loss to San Diego State.
“It was probably the worst game we ever played,” he said. “I just felt like I kind of lost focus for a short period of time and ended up in the hospital.
“I forgot about everything. I forgot about eating. I forgot about sleeping. I forgot about taking time away. Nothing else mattered but football, and because of that I wasn’t as good of a football coach.
“It took a doctor to look at me and go, ‘You’re pretty much going to kill yourself if you don’t stop.’ That day changed me dramatically.”
Andersen scaled back the hours he expects his assistants to stay in the office and reduced practice times by 20 minutes each day.
“The same stress I was feeling was on the assistant coaches,” he said. “It was on the football players. It was on everybody who cared about the program.”
Plenty to offer
It should be easier selling recruits on Madison than Logan, Utah. The Badgers just overhauled their facilities, giving the football team a new locker room, weight room, training area and academic center inside the bowels of Camp Randall.
That will only add to what recruits see on visits this fall to the 80,000-seat stadium. Andersen got his taste last Sept. 15.
“I remember we were on the team bus, and the [Wisconsin] band was playing in the parking lot,” he said. “We’d been driving through people for goodness knows how long, trying to get to the stadium. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. On that day, you’re trying not to be distracted by it, but it was special.”
Wisconsin fans are “good football fans, period,” Andersen said. “It’s not over the top. It’s the way it should be.”
After leaving for the SEC, Bielema further agitated Badgers fans by saying he wanted a better chance to win the national championship. In the past 20 years, Wisconsin has won or shared the Big Ten title six times but hasn’t finished a season ranked higher than fourth nationally.
Andersen knows his Utah State players left everything they had on Camp Randall’s field. Beginning Aug. 31, against UMass, he expects the Badgers to do the same.
“I think anywhere you go, there are expectations,” Andersen said. “Winning is very, very important, but it’s not the most important thing to me.
“I get asked a lot what I would consider a successful season or a successful tenure? That’s easy. I want the seniors to walk out of here with their heads held high. I want them to be proud of their university, and I want them to have a degree.”