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.
“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.”