While addressing the local media after his team’s 6 a.m. Friday morning practice, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen was asked a question about the program being more open to the public this spring.
For Wisconsin, more open really means open at all. Because how many times had a practice been open to the general public during the Bret Bielema era? Spring games not included, zero would be a very safe guess.
Now with Andersen, there seems to be something, well, new about the way the football program is handling its relationship with the general population of fans. April 6 at Camp Randall Stadium, 850 fans showed up to watch the Badgers scrimmage in the team’s first open to the public practice of the spring. Again, this Monday at 4 p.m., Andersen and his team will open up their doors for fans to watch an entire practice at Camp Randall.
Coming up this Saturday the Badgers will play their annual spring game, but one that has a new scoring system and multiple activities to get fans involved more than ever. For example, if the defense records a turnover, it’s worth five points. A tackle for a loss of yards is two points, and there are several other plays worth points.
You get the drift, more scoring means even the most casual fans will actually pay attention rather than marvel at how (hopefully) wonderful a sunny day in Camp Randall is after a long, dragged out Wisconsin winter.
Three special assistant coaches, or three selected kids between the ages of 10 and 14, will have the chance to stand with Andersen on the sidelines and get close to the action. Badger students who submit their dance videos to the Wisconsin football Twitter handle may get an opportunity to show their moves against members of the team for a chance at season tickets.
“It’s something we’ve done for a number of years,” Andersen said of the fan activities. “I just believe it’s a football community, it’s not a football group of 110 individuals. It’s everybody. I want people to be involved that want to be involved. … Our kids have a chance, every single time they’re around fans, it gives our kids a chance to give back and [reach out to] a little kid. Who knows who they’re going to touch as they go through the day, and that matters to me a lot.”
Is this real life? In today’s day and age of “me, me, me” and emphasizing the individual, somebody is instead thinking about the community, about making a bigger impact? Bravo, Mr. Andersen.
But, this isn’t exactly surprising behavior from Wisconsin’s newest man on the job.
This is the same guy who called every single one of his players at Utah State to let them know he was leaving. It is the same guy who routinely takes time out of his day to text players, current or former, and is the same guy who tries his best to remember every birthday.
This is the guy who already has Madison gushing over its new head coach.
When you have a head coach who you know is in your corner, who you know you can trust – a word that Andersen put an important emphasis on establishing when he first arrived at Wisconsin – it makes learning a new system and buying in to a new group of coaches much easier for players. And when you have a head coach who is willing to open up practices to the fans, well, it seems pretty obvious you have a man who cares about getting people on board.
Andersen seems to understand what it takes to make a great program. Winning hearts and minds not because it’s necessary for support, but rather, because of who the person and the team is, will serve Andersen well in the long run.
Think about the dance video of the Wisconsin players during practice. Where most teams might be going through another day of tiring drills, the Badgers saw players like defensive tackle Warren Herring busting moves that would make many out-of-shape students pop a hammy.
That same video went viral and ended up on ESPN.
“Publicity is a very positive thing,” Andersen said. “That stuff is fun for the kids. I think it brings energy and excitement and when you get out there for recruiting … if I’m a player, I want to have fun playing football and I think it also helps on the recruiting side of things.”
It’s not a secret there were plenty of Wisconsin fans who disliked Bret Bielema. So Gary Andersen only had to be a bit different to be accepted by the Badger faithful. What they probably didn’t count on when they first heard the surprising name of Barry Alvarez’s hire in December was that they’d be buying in a lot sooner than they planned on.
Nick is a fifth year senior and law school hopeful majoring in history and English. Besides serving as the sports editor of The Badger Herald, Nick hosts “The Badger Herald Sports Hour” and is a member of the WBA award-winning show “The Student Section” on 91.7 WSUM. Know other reasons to love Gary Andersen? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.