In Gary they trust: Wisconsin seniors like new coach
Gary Andersen hasn't won a game as Wisconsin's head coach.
His predecessor averaged 9.7 victories per season during his seven-year run in charge of the program and guided UW to the Big Ten title in each of his final three seasons.
Regardless of how UW's deep-pocket boosters and the Badgers' casual fans view Bret Bielema, particularly after he bolted for Arkansas just days after the 2012 Big Ten title game, most reasonable people can agree his teams excelled on the football field.
Andersen, 49, has taken over a program that should be considered among the top four of the Big Ten. Winning is expected, from the athletic director down to the managers, beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday when No. 23 UW hosts UMass.
Yet without toppling a top-ranked rival (Ohio State), or pounding Michigan in Ann Arbor or keeping entire classes of Minnesota players from touching Paul Bunyan's Axe—all feats achieved by Bielema's teams—Andersen has already scored a critical victory.
Andersen and seven new assistants have gained the trust of a group of players who have endured a ridiculous amount of coaching departures since the end of the 2010 season. The departures include 17 assistants, including four coordinators.
“I was one of the biggest skeptics,” fifth-year senior defensive end Tyler Dippel said. “I'll tell you that right now. We had a new coach coming in. I didn't know who he was. I didn't know anything about him.
“But to be honest, he has proved above and beyond that he is that guy that everyone talks about. And there is a reason that there is consistency in what people say about him.
“He is a guy who will fight for you, whatever it is, from the smallest thing to the biggest thing. You bring him an issue, and he is going to do something to help you solve it.”
Players such as linebacker Chris Borland and offensive lineman Ryan Groy, both fifth-year seniors, had grown numb to the coaching turnover by the time Bielema decided to leave for Arkansas.
They understand the business side of the game, but both are on their fourth position coaches at UW.
Individuals react to constant turnover according to their own makeup.
Consider the members of the defensive line, who had one position coach since they came to UW. That was Charlie Partridge, who joined Bielema in Arkansas.
“I think it was especially tough for the D-line, because we had the same coach for all those years,” said Ethan Hemer, a fifth-year senior defensive end. “We had built such a strong relationship with coach Partridge.
“We really felt like it was more than just a business when he was here. And then after he left, we felt like: 'OK, college football really is a business. It is tough to really stay connected to people. They move and that's just how it is.'”
Andersen, who took the time to call more than 100 Utah State players to explain his decision to take the UW job, understood what his new players had endured.
“They had gone through so many different coaches and handled it so well,” he said. “It was a bump in the road to them and they handled it, which was impressive.
“The thing that concerned me was that we were going to walk in and say we're going to be here and they were going to say: 'Yeah, right.'
“They liked their coaches. It was all good, but I really want more of a relationship with them. I think we finally have that, and it is nice to see.”
According to several players, getting an unexpected phone call from their new head coach has become the norm. The conversation rarely touches on football. Rather, Andersen is just checking in to see how the player's day is unfolding.
“He will call out of the blue to see how things are going,” Borland said.
As the spring progressed, Andersen noticed players were more willing to mingle with coaches during meals.
He noticed the players became more comfortable coming up to the coaches' offices to do more than talk football. Gradually the players started dropping in just to visit with the assistants and the new head coach.
“Moving through the hallways, they'll come in my office now and they'll joke around and grab a piece of candy,” Andersen said. “It is like walking into a home where you're comfortable with your brothers and sisters instead of a place where you don't know anybody.
“That is important to me. I want to be part of that trust. You want to be in the middle of that.”
Andersen established the team's leadership committee, a tool many teams have, that allows the players to handle a variety of internal matters.
He instituted a Big Brother program that pairs veterans with first-year players. The first-year players were given helmets without the motion 'W' decal. They had to earn that decal with their work ethic and performance.
Their big brother played a role in determining when the decal was awarded.
In general, veteran players in past seasons tutored younger players within their position group, but that wasn't guaranteed.
“I think it is a great addition,” Hemer said. “I wish I would have had it when I was younger, someone you can rely on to go to with issues and questions.”
The question that remains is obvious. Will Andersen be as successful on the field has he has been in winning over the UW players, fans and boosters?
UW is the three-time defending league champion, but Ohio State is favored to win the Leaders Division and Big Ten title and compete for the BCS crown.
The teams are to meet Sept. 28 in Columbus in a critical early-season game.
“It feels like we're kind of starting all over,” senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. “We have three Big Ten titles to defend, but at the same time we're starting from square one.
“We're not really favored in our division. We kind of like being in that spot. It is a spot we feel comfortable in.”
Andersen knows the fine line the 2012 UW team straddled for most of the season.
The Badgers beat Northern Iowa and Andersen's Utah State team by a combined seven points. Their six losses—three in overtime—came by a combined 25 points.
If either Ohio State or Penn State had been eligible for postseason play, the Badgers would not have represented the division in the Big Ten title game. The 70-31 thumping of Legends Division champion Nebraska, which secured Wisconsin a Rose Bowl berth, would not have happened.
“Trust me, these kids understand that if they do exactly what they did last year, that will not get them to the championship,” Andersen said. “I don't have to tell them that. They don't need the fans telling them that. They don't need the media telling them that. Their expectation level is higher than that.
“But the other point is they got to that game. No matter how they got there, they got there and they played their tails off and they got themselves to the Rose Bowl.
“Great accomplishment. When you had to and your back was against the wall, they bowed up and played a tremendous football game.
“The good thing about it is I don't have to tell those kids about it, because they get it. So I never really addressed it with them. Nor will I, because every year is different.”
Different year, different coaching staff for the UW players.
According to the veterans, Andersen and the seven new assistants have helped make the transition as smooth as possible.
“I think it can be touchy at times,” Borland said. “Guys have been in the program a long time and are used to doing things a certain way.
“But coach Andersen has been so accommodating. He has reached out to all of our players, which is incredible. He really values player input. He leans on our seniors and our leaders for a lot of decisions, which guys really appreciate.
“He could have came in here and did whatever he wanted, and no one would have asked any questions. But he did care about what we felt and what we thought.
“Coach Andersen is perfect for us. He is one of us. He seems like a Wisconsin guy through and through.”