“I think everyone realized pretty quickly that Coach Andersen was a genuine guy and had a great program,” senior linebacker Chris Borland said. “[Twenty-two] guys as seniors, going into their last year, had a coaching switch. From the outside, it could have looked ripe for turmoil. But it was as smooth as a transition could be.”
It was understandable if those seniors were wary, at first, given what they had gone through. Six assistant coaches departed after the 2011 season, including popular offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who became the coach at Pittsburgh. But that was nothing compared with what was to come after the 2012 season.
Two days after the Badgers throttled Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten Championship Game to win a third consecutive conference title, Badgers coach Bret Bielema met his players and told them not to pay attention to rumors he was leaving. The next day, Bielema was gone, accepting the coaching job at Arkansas, without even discussing it with Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez.
It was a tense time, especially for the highly successful seniors, who wondered about the direction of the program. The new staff included a heavy influx of coaches from the West Coast, many of whom never had worked in the Midwest and had their own way of doing things.
“As a team, they were all skittish in the beginning with some of the things we do,” Nyborg said. “ ‘Is this guy [Andersen] really this open? Does our opinion really matter?’ In setting up the leadership committee, where we have 26 kids, ‘Is that something he just says or does he follow through?’ ”
The players quickly had their answer. Andersen reaches out to every player on his birthday, no surprise, given Andersen individually called every player at Utah State to tell them he was leaving. The leadership committee, made up of 11 seniors, seven juniors, five sophomores and four freshmen, helps make decisions on everything from uniforms to discipline matters.
“Giving them ownership is important to me,” Andersen said. “They’re a great group of kids that want to bond together and fight. … They bought into us and we bought into them from day one.”
All of the seniors are captains and they take turns going out for the coin flip before games. Seniors do bed checks at hotels before games, not graduate assistant coaches.
“It’s all about reminding them to take care of each other, ‘Wrap your arms around each other,’ which [Andersen] says a million times,” Nyborg said.
A track record
The new staff had a measure of instant credibility because Utah State nearly upset the Badgers last season at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin escaped with a 16-14 victory after the Aggies kicker missed a 37-yard field goal with 6 seconds left.
“First thing is, we did nothing but praise what was done here in the past, because they’ve been very successful,” said Busch, the safeties coach. “We tried to build on what they had done. The things we do different, explain why we do it.”
What the seniors helped establish this season, by embracing the changes, should pay dividends for years to come. Andersen pointed out to the team last week, the impact the seniors had in getting the new regime off on the right foot. Now, it’s up to the young players to keep it going.
Busch said it often takes until a second year, for a new coaching staff to truly connect to players. That has not been the case under Andersen.
“We view these seniors as if we had coached them for four years,” Busch said. “I feel like I’ve known them forever.”