New Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen is starting off his coaching career with words that harken back to his identity as a players-first coach.
Andersen repeatedly stressed when meeting with the media Thursday afternoon the most important goal for him before the start of spring football was his entire staff and himself earning the trust of and getting to know the team.
“Getting to know the kids is number one,” Andersen said of his priorities at this point of the offseason.
With his staff almost assembled, Andersen cited the newly hired assistant coaches on his staff have contacted most of their returning players for the 2013 season, with the lone exception being the wide receiver spot — no hire has yet been made to replace the departing Zach Azzani, who took the same job at Tennessee.
Andersen had an opportunity to watch the Badgers practice in Madison and Los Angeles during their preparation leading up to the 2013 Rose Bowl and came away impressed with the team’s chemistry and their love for the game.
“They just like to be around each other,” Andersen said. “This is just a group that loves football.”
Andersen talks new hires
Wisconsin’s new offensive and defensive coordinators both share strong ties to Andersen. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig spent time at the same position under now-head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes Urban Meyer from 2005-2008, the same time Andersen was with the program as the defensive coordinator.
On the defensive side of the ball, coordinator Dave Aranda served 2012 at the same position at Utah State under Andersen. A 2012 nominee for the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in college football, Aranda led an Aggies defense ranked in the top 10 nationally for touchdowns allowed and points allowed per game.
“The biggest thing with [offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig] and with [defensive coordinator Dave Aranda] is they do a tremendous job of identifying the talent. They’re tremendous teachers, I think they’re on the cutting edge with scheme both offensively and defensively.”
On top of that, Andersen brings offensive line coach T.J. Woods to Wisconsin from Utah State, joining Aranda and safeties coach Bill Busch as Aggie transplants with their head coach.
The Wisconsin offensive line job is largely considered one of the best in the nation, but the players went through quite a bit of adversity the past few years as far as coaching. After the departure of long-time coach Bob Bostad for Pittsburgh and eventually the NFL, former head coach Bret Bielema hired Mike Markuson, whom he promptly fired after two games when the Badgers struggled to produce a push up front.
Bart Miller took over as the interim line coach, helping turn around the struggling group and was considered a key component in the Badgers making it to a third-straight Rose Bowl. Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez endorsed Miller as a candidate for the opening on Andersen’s staff as the tight end coach, but Andersen decided to go a different direction, hiring Auburn University’s Jay Boulware.
“What Bart did was impressive, there’s no question about it,” Andersen said. “It came down to there was a special teams part of that that was a big factor. And the way this staff is broken down there’s nine coaches, there’s five on one side, there’s four on the other. We have four on defense and five on offense and we needed that special teams coordinator to be on that side of the football and that fell in the hands of the tight end position at this go-around.”
Besides serving as the tight ends coach at Auburn, Boulware was the special teams coordinator, a position he will also hold at Wisconsin, leading a group in 2012 that only allowed four punt return yards on 70 punts and allowed just 16.6 yards per kickoff return.
A New Recruiting Outlook
After a few years at Utah State, Andersen began to win recruiting battles against traditional state powers Utah and BYU, something that was unheard of in Logan, Utah.
But with a 2013 signing day approaching rapidly with recruits brought in by the departing coaching staff, Andersen and his assistants face the challenge of reaching out to each individual commit and reassuring them that their right choice remains at Wisconsin.
Andersen cited a preference to be honest with each recruit as to where he thinks they sit in the future of Wisconsin football with him at the helm and already has created a needs list based on his evaluation so far of the returning roster for 2013.
“The important part for us right now is to let them know who we are,” Andersen said. “Plans for the program, let them understand who we’re going to be as a coaching staff, kind of put our money where our mouth is if you will as far as what we’ve presented to them so far.”
“A chance for their mentors, their parents, their grandmothers or their grandfathers to sit in a room and look us in the eye and ultimately, me, to be able look them in the eye and walk out of the room and say, ‘I’m here to turn this young man into a man and with his help and your help I believe we can get this done and five years from now, hopefully that’s the case, with a quality degree. And he’s ready to move on into life and be successful.”