A new coach armed with new rules made for a remarkable day on Saturday as the Badgers officially kicked off the 2013 football campaign with their first practice of the spring season.
It’s been nine weeks since the painful loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl and the team’s first practice was striking for who was present — and who wasn’t.
Making his on-field debut, head coach Gary Andersen was joined by his newest hire, special teams and tight ends coach Jeff Genyk, along with five players competing for the starting job as quarterback, with yet another to join the competition when Tanner McEvoy officially transfers from junior college in June.
At this moment, Andersen’s challenge is to take 98 players, along with 13 coaches, and meld them into one team, one family and one incredible wrecking machine.
Music, which had been banned under previous administrations, will apparently be one of Andersen’s tools in practice.
With Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” blasting throughout the McClain Center Saturday, the first practice of the post-Bielema era got underway.
The music was Andersen’s own playlist — with a few suggestions from the players sprinkled in — and ranged from Michael Jackson to Skrillex to Kool & the Gang and was extremely popular with the players.
“I like it,” sophomore running back Melvin Gordon said. “It takes your mind off of the pain and you’re just vibing with the music, so I’m definitely digging it.”
“Whether or not the guys liked the songs, it was still pretty cool to have music playing from start to finish of practice,” said Chris Borland.
Coach Andersen explained the reasoning behind playing music during practice was not simply so the kickers could take a break from stretching to do the “Gangnam Style” dance.
“From a football standpoint it’s a game of distractions and a game of repetition,” Andersen said. “We want to do everything we can to force the kids to continually communicate at a high level. If you’re in a controlled environment where there’s no crowd noise or music then you get a little soft in the voice and you don’t communicate the way you need to.”
With little time between the end of last season and the beginning of the spring season to get acquainted with the new coach and his staff, word of mouth and first impressions were all Badger players could use in their assessment of the new man at the helm.
“Before coach came [to Madison] I heard about his exit from Utah State,” Gordon said. “So I was able to just trust him from day one after hearing that.”
The exit Gordon alluded to was how Andersen reportedly called his players at Utah State when he decided he was going to take the Wisconsin position.
Borland vividly remembers the first time he met Andersen.
“It was during bowl preparation in Coach Alvarez’s office,” Borland said. “He had Mike [Taylor], Ethan [Armstrong] and myself come in and we talked for about 10 minutes. My first impression was that he’s a very personable, straightforward guy. He actually complimented us on having beaten him [last season vs. Utah State] and he was able to joke around a little bit and rip [Utah State’s] kicker.”
Borland was also impressed by how Andersen was able to do so much with so little at Utah State.
“I mean, honestly,” Borland said, “[the Aggies] were a bunch of overachievers.”
Along the same lines, senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis pointed to the on-the-field effect having a personable coach can have on your team.
“He’s the type of guy who appreciates his players,” Abbrederis said of Andersen. “And that affects how we play because you’re going to want to play better for someone who appreciates you. We all wanted to come out here today firing from the start because we appreciate what he does for us.”
Coming out of the gates and playing well for a new coach is something not so unusual around these parts—just ask Borland. In his four years at UW, Borland has had four different coaches at the linebacker position.
“There are pros and cons with it,” Borland said. “Obviously you don’t get in sync with a program over the years, but you’re more adaptable. In today’s game with the spread offenses, you’re responding to the offenses anyways so it’s different than you being in the same set all season.”
Adapting to the cards they are dealt is something this group is used to and it has created a tighter bond between the players.
“I feel like we’re extremely close and the coaching change is where we all got close,” Gordon said. “Now we do a lot of team bonding things that I like that gets us ever closer and helps create more of that chemistry.
“[My favorite bonding moment] was when we all came here in the lounge for the Super Bowl and had pizza together, which was a nice time.”
Another example of the team-bonding activities is what Coach Andersen called “Badgers Taking Accountability,” or BTA, where the coaches “have to intermingle with different units on the team.” The coaches also reach out to the players and “have some occasional meals where it’s just a given coach and their group,” Andersen said.
After practice Saturday, Andersen said the transition to a new group of assistant coaches is going well because he sees “a lot of kids who are very interested in coaches who are interested in football and are excited about where things are headed.”
Andersen’s relationship with his players has already led to many players, especially seniors, taking on more responsibility.
“Coach says all the time that this is our team and that he’s just driving the ship,” Borland said. “We have to police ourselves and make sure we handle our business but we absolutely love having him at the helm.
“We had a great day of practice today. You can’t ask for much more than that.”