As a 6-5 former offensive lineman, T.J. Woods could use the extra leg room that comes with flying in first class.
But that’s not the way the Wisconsin football team does things. Woods, the Badgers offensive line coach, sits in coach, with the rest of the coaching staff on the team charters.
First class is reserved for the seniors. That’s the way it always has been on Gary Andersen-coached teams. Zach Nyborg, the director of football operations, hands out seat assignments and gives himself a middle seat, between Andersen and freshman linebacker Leon Jacobs.
“It’s really all I’ve known,” said Woods, who spent the previous four years with Andersen at Utah State before joining him in Madison. “I thought that’s how it was everywhere.”
It’s a small gesture, perhaps, but one that carries meaning for the Badgers, who are 8-2 and ranked No. 16 heading into Saturday’s game against the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. There is a hierarchy on a football team and on Andersen’s teams, the players come first — with the seniors on the top of the pyramid.
“Coach Andersen makes sure the players in the program are taken care of,” Woods said. “They’re far more important than the rest of us. Because, ‘Players make plays and players win games.’ ”
In fact, the last thing players see when they walk down the tunnel and onto the field is that slogan. It’s more than words.
“If you talk to the players, they get treated right, everything they do is first class,” said safeties coach Bill Busch, who also was on the staff at Utah State. “It’s never a browbeating type of thing. They get coached really hard. But they also know, there are times you can enjoy, you can laugh.”
That was evident on Halloween, when Andersen, 49, dressed up in a football jersey, with the No. 55 he wore as a senior center at Utah in 1986. A picture of Andersen from that year shows him with a prodigious mullet. So, Andersen attached some fake hair to a head band, which came out the back of his helmet.
Two seniors, defensive end Tyler Dippel and nose guard Beau Allen, were in on the gag. They were summoned to the coach’s office by a graduate assistant, with Allen wondering what he had done wrong. “We go up there [to the office] and Coach Andersen is giggling about this idea,” said Allen, a former Minnetonka High School standout.
Dippel dressed up like Andersen, in his coaching garb, and addressed the team, using several of the head coach’s favorite phrases and urging the players to “wrap their arms around each other.” Then Andersen trotted out in full football gear and snapped the ball a couple of times, while lined up against Allen. This was two days before a big game at Iowa — which the Badgers won 28-9 — and the head coach was rolling on the turf with the star nose guard.
“I think we have to have fun playing the game of football,” Andersen said. “I think it’s important. If that means you do something other people might think is a little crazy, that’s a good thing to do.”
The same but different
So much of the Wisconsin football program looks the same, from the outside, since Andersen was hired last December. The power running game is more potent than ever, averaging 307.9 yards per game, which would be a school record by 20 yards.
Andersen also has added some new twists, bringing in the 3-4 “Okie” defense he used at Utah State, which has befuddled most opponents. Five teams have failed to score a touchdown against it.
But the biggest change of all has been at the top. What makes Andersen unique is how ordinary he seems — a sincere, unpretentious guy who took part in a belly-flop contest at the urging of his players during a pool break from fall camp.