In collegiate athletics, turnover is simply unavoidable.
Athletes come and go as they graduate or cash in on professional deals. So at the start of the 2011 season, the Wisconsin football team — with all its high hopes and expectations riding on the shoulders of a senior class, which instantly gained more strength with the addition of transfer quarterback Russell Wilson — could not have guessed that after the season was all said and done they would also have to replace six coaches.
“This is like a cycle that goes on every year,” safety Shelton Johnson said. “When you look at it individually it looks like, ‘Oh we’re missing … so and so.’ I mean, there’s always a person waiting at the No. 2 spot waiting to get their time to shine. It’s just about getting better at this point in time.”
Players may leave all the time, but news that a coach was leaving was a whole new experience for a few players, including center Travis Frederick.
“It’s definitely different. I’d never been through anything like that in high school or college so it was little different for me to hear the coach that I had been with for three years was leaving and I was going to get a new guy,” Frederick said. “Coach [Mike] Markuson has come in and he’s done a great job trying to adjust to us, we’re trying to adjust to him — it’s been certainly different and it’s been a process, but we’re still working through it … it’s just been a different opportunity.”
While the Badgers are only three practices into spring camp, many players said the transition has been pretty smooth.
“A lot of it’s just getting acquainted with your new coaches and trying to get a new system,” tight end Jacob Pedersen said. “Coach [Matt] Canada and them, they did a great job — the system, it’s easy to catch on. Once you catch on, stuff just starts falling into place.
With the departure of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst — and the slew of Badger assistants he took along with him — head coach Bret Bielema faced the task of replacing his offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, tight ends coach, receiving coach, linebackers coach and his secondary coach.
It was a seemingly tall order, but there’s a confidence that suggests everyone has already meshed well in their short time together.
“In my mind, it’s the players who really run the team,” quarterback Joe Brennan said. “No matter who the coaches are that they bring in, we’re still going to play that Wisconsin football no matter what. We’re a sound group that’s got high character and I don’t feel that’s ever going to change.”
With Wilson gone and quarterbacks Curt Phillips and Jon Budmayr nursing injuries, Brennan has been able to work very closely with offensive coordinator Canada.
Setting the foundations of this new relationship, Brennan already feels as if he’s gained a renewed sense of confidence.
“It’s been great so far,” Brennan said. “He’s a really smart coordinator, he has a lot to teach us as a quarterback coach and so far things have been going great.
“I feel he’s doing a great job making sure I understand the system. He has no problem answering all my questions with the offense and I really feel comfortable and confident going into each practice.”
Linebacker Chris Borland was similarly positive about his new position coach, Andy Buh — at least so far this spring.
“We’re still early in practice but everyone’s getting along with their coaches — working hard and getting better — same goes for the linebackers, we all like coach Buh right now,” Borland said. “The fall is a different animal sometimes. But no, he’s great for us and I think he’s going to make us a great team, a great linebacker corps.”
But Borland believes Buh has a lot to bring to his position, especially considering that Buh played the same position.
While Borland and Co. are still embracing the coaching changes, some players are used to the consistent turnover.
For Johnson, a new position coach is nothing new.
“Every year I’ve had a new position coach when I think about it, so for me, it’s kind of a routine thing now,” Johnson said. “I know coach [Bielema], every year he’s always picked a great position coach for me so I didn’t think it’d be any different for anybody else.”
Secondary coach Ben Strickland has been a part of the staff for three years as a graduate assistant after playing defensive back for Wisconsin from 2004-2007.
Johnson has already established a strong relationship with Strickland when he was a graduate assistant and said he was stoked to work with Strickland one-on-one.
“Coach Strickland’s been around for a little while and I’ve always had a lot of respect for him,” Johnson said. “Even last year as a [graduate assistant] I’d repeatedly go up to him and ask him questions because I know he knows his stuff. I was very ecstatic when they said they were going to move coach Strickland up rather than hire another person that has to come in here and re-learn the defense. That made the transition as smooth as it ever could be.”
While most players are fully embracing the changes — since it is a yearly circumstance — Frederick is taking a more realistic approach.
Frederick did say he was looking forward to learning new things from his new offensive line coach, Markuson, but the transition has had a few bumps along the way.
“Some parts have been smooth, some parts have been rough,” Frederick said. “We didn’t get our playbook until pretty late … trying to learn the plays in a couple weeks is a little bit different. They’re pretty similar to what we were doing before, but a lot of the calls are different so we’ll have a lot of stopping and jabbering back and forth trying to figure things out. As far as that standpoint, it’s not as smooth as we’d like it to be, but as far as the transition, everybody’s just trying to take over and jump in as much as we can.”
Regardless of those mishaps, the Badgers felt confident Bielema would get the right guys for the job, and now it is just up to them to step up and fill in roles of the departed players.
“Obviously you want to make sure that you got the right people in the right spots, but coach B’s done a great job of that during my time here,” Borland said. “All the players like their respective coaches that have come in. We’re always going to have good coaches at this place because it’s a good place to coach, so not too concerned about it and it’s all worked out thus far.”