Gary Andersen had every intention of staying at Utah State. A few other suitors had come calling, but after four seasons in Logan, he had his program right where he wanted it: 11-2 WAC champions with a move to the Mountain West on the horizon.
Then Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez called.
“The second Coach Alvarez contacted me I knew that I was going to take this job,” said Andersen. “When Coach offered me the job, I just said yes. I think I shocked him a little bit, I didn’t ask any questions.”
Andersen got a chance to take a long, close look at the Wisconsin program in preparing throughout the summer for Utah State’s visit to Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 15. He liked what he saw.
“You could see how a team plays, the commitment, the toughness,” Andersen explained. “It was very easy to see on film.Tough minded kids that care about growing academically, care about growing socially, football’s important to them.”
Andersen plans to be a fly on the wall as Wisconsin prepares for its third straight Rose Bowl. In that time, he will go about building his staff and future rosters.
He will make recruiting within the state of Wisconsin a priority, stating that he plans to reach out to as many Wisconsin high school coaches as he can in the coming days.
“When I went to Utah State four years ago, there were 18 young men from the state of Utah. Now there’s 55,” said Andersen. “There’s something special about playing in your own state. You can’t underestimate that.”
Before his hiring was announced by Wisconsin, Andersen took the time to call all 106 of his players at Utah State. He explained the how and why on Friday.
“(Utah State Director of Football Operations) Zach Nyborg and I agonized for hours over how we were going to contact the kids but somehow respect Coach Alvarez and get to Wisconsin without everyone in the world knowing.
“The kids deserved that. If they’re frustrated, they deserved to tell me they were frustrated. They understood the situation. They were able to be on that field and see the stands, the crowd and the city. It was emotional 106 times. I never said goodbye and I won’t say goodbye, I’ll be there for them if they need me, and they know that.”
A pair of hires to his Wisconsin staff have already been confirmed by Andersen. He told BTN that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will follow him from Utah State and serve in the same capacity, and Andersen also stated that former Badger and current secondary coach Ben Strickland will stay in Madison. “Ben Strickland, he’s going to stay. I want him on the staff in the worst way. He is Wisconsin, if you will.”
In looking for his assistants, Andersen demands that his players-first mentality permeates throughout the staff.
“When I look for an assistant coach, the number one priority that can guarantee me he’s going to put the kids first,” he explained. “Last time I looked, there’s no one coming out on Saturdays to watch nine coaches walk the sidelines.”
Andersen wants his staff to be a mixture of current Wisconsin assistants, his Utah State assistants and outside hires, saying, “I’m highly interested in retaining coaches on this staff. I’d be crazy not to be. I’ve got to understand how and why and who’s important in Wisconsin. I will bring three or four of them (Utah State) and then I’ll reach out to some coaches at other programs.”
The most important hire awaiting him is the offensive coordinator. Utah State offensive coordinator Matt Wells has since been promoted to head coach. Andersen has a clear vision for what his Wisconsin offense will look like, and it won’t be a great difference from Badger offenses of the past.
“At Utah State, we had the opportunity to be a physical run team,” said Andersen. “The biggest thing I can tell you, I had to work all summer to find a way to hang in there against this offensive line and running backs. We’re going to be run-first, and our goal will be to wear you down and out-physical you. I don’t want to be predictable. I do want to have a touch of option in the game plan to force teams to prepare it.”
Much has been made of Bielema’s decision to leave and the loss of assistant coaches that followed, but Andersen sees everything he could ever need already in place at Wisconsin.
“The new facilities are unbelievable,” he said. “The kids are in one place, their academic world, they can eat, they can get treatment, they can get to the weight room and the coaches offices in one building. I think that’s very important as far as building a family.”
Alvarez served as a steadying hand in an uncertain two weeks for the Wisconsin program. Their head coach had surprisingly departed, but with the Badgers’ third straight Rose Bowl just weeks away, Alvarez knew things weren’t broken. In the end, the Wisconsin athletic director summed up his decision to hire Andersen in one sentence, telling BTN, “He built his program at Utah State on the things we built our program on.”