By Adam Hoge-
MADISON, Wis. (CBS) When new Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen was asked Friday where he was going to take the Badgers’ football program next, athletic director Barry Alvarez couldn’t help but chuckle.
After all, Wisconsin is headed to its sixth Rose Bowl in the last 20 years and third in a row.
“As you look at a program rich in tradition, rich in winning, three Rose Bowls in a row, where are you going to take it next?,” Andersen responded.
The obvious answer would be to start talking about national championships, but Andersen obviously wasn’t going to promise anything. Instead, he went in a different direction.
“I sure hope my stamp at the end of the day is to be on a football field with a team that’s physical, tough minded, plays aggressive, plays the game the right way, is respected by their opponents, solid in all three phases, has one of the best graduation rates in the country. That’s what I expect,” Andersen said. “And socially young men that turn themselves from young men into men as they go through the program.”
In many ways, Andersen is a clone of the guy who hired him — the man who built Wisconsin football from the ground up — Barry Alvarez.
During the interview process with Andersen, Wisconsin senior associate athletic director Walter Dickey was in the room and when the meeting was over, he told Alvarez: “If I would have had a blindfold on, I would have thought that was you that was answering the questions.”
“That’s how our philosophies and our beliefs have meshed,” Alvarez said about his new football coach.
During the coaching search, many Wisconsin fans started to grow impatient as hopes of guys like Boise State’s Chris Petersen and Miami’s Al Golden fizzled out while current assistant coaches took other jobs to ensure security. But all along, Alvarez preached due diligence and the result was a home run from an unlikely power source.
When it was first revealed that Andersen would make the move from Utah State, the first reaction by many was probably to do a Google search. Upon closer look, however, it’s apparent Andersen is a perfect fit for Wisconsin.
“That first time that I noticed him a year ago, as I watched Utah State play defending champ Auburn — I really didn’t know much about Utah State at that time — but I was impressed by his demeanor on the sidelines, how his players played,” Alvarez said. “It was quite obvious they were not intimidated to go on the road and play in a very difficult environment. They were tough. They were fundamentally sound. They had Auburn on the ropes.”
Those are all characteristics that have defined Wisconsin football since Barry Alvarez started building up the program in 1990 — and he was about to get an even closer look when the Aggies visited Madison this past September.
“I started following him, what he was doing, how they were doing, and then saw up close and personal when they showed up at Camp Randall. I told Gary before the game how impressed I was with him, how he ran his program, and we all saw how well they played here at Camp Randall,” Alvarez said.
After Utah State’s kicker missed a field goal in the final minute to lose 16-14 to the Badgers, a disappointed Andersen went back to Logan, Utah, a place hardly anyone can find on a map. What he didn’t know is that he had just interviewed for a job that wasn’t open yet.
According to Alvarez, Andersen was the only person who received an offer for the job. He reached out to a number of candidates over the phone and interviewed two others, one of which sources confirm was Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Andersen’s Aggies toppled Toledo last Saturday 41-15 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to complete a 11-2 season and the head coach received his first contact from Wisconsin the next day. By Tuesday, he had an offer.
“When coach offered me the job, I just said yes,” Andersen said. “I think it shocked him a little bit. I didn’t ask any questions, just held my hand in the air and was ready to go.”
That’s saying a lot considering Andersen had a son on his Utah State team and two more verbally committed to play for the Aggies. He also reportedly turned downed offers from Cal, Colorado and Kentucky. So why Wisconsin?
“Coach Alvarez didn’t have to make any pitch to this guy, I’ll tell you that. The pitch was made here when I spent three hours out on that field (in September),” Andersen said, calling it a Top 20 job.
He was so enamored by Wisconsin that in preparation for his team’s game in Madison he blasted “Jump Around” in Utah State’s auditorium and told them, “Pretend that’s not happening.” And that was before he had even experienced the Badgers’ game day atmosphere.
As for concerns about his offensive and defensive philosophies (he ran a spread offense and a 3-4 defense in Logan this season) Andersen quickly quieted any doubters Friday.
“We will be a power run team. We will use tight ends and use multiple sets and multiple formations, absolutely,” he said. “I believe we’ll be a football team that will be run-first, and our goal and our mindset and our want-to will be to wear you down as the game goes on and to out-tough you and out-physical you.”
It will take some double-checking, but that may be a direct quote from Barry Alvarez’s introductory press conference in 1990.
And as for Andersen’s off-the-field qualities, he’ll fit in just fine if not better than his predecessor Bret Bielema. With his team on winter break, Andersen took the time to call all 106 of his players to tell them he was leaving Utah State, which says everything you need to know about his character.
“It was emotional 106 times,” he said.
So in a year with a relatively thin coaching pool and most of the 26 job openings across the country already filled, Barry Alvarez still managed to find the right fit — someone who sounds like he might actually be related to Alvarez somehow. Meanwhile, its starting to look like the athletic director may perform a miracle by keeping together some of the previous assistant coaching staff. Andersen said secondary coach Ben Strickland — a highly regarded recruiter — will stay on his staff and running back James White revealed that respected running backs coach Thomas Hammock told the team he is staying too. If Alvarez somehow manages to keep offensive coordinator Matt Canada and co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge around — both of whom have accepted other jobs but would prefer to stay in Madison — he will have pulled off one of the toughest, yet most impressive coaching transitions ever.
And oh yeah, Alvarez has also been busy preparing the Badgers for the Rose Bowl, in which he will serve as the interim head coach.
After Andersen was introduced to Badger Nation Friday, he stood on the sideline at Wisconsin’s practice, but stayed out of the way. He’s vowed “to be a fly on the wall and watch the practices as best I can” from a far to make sure the players are focused on their bowl game and not next season.
“These kids need to go win the Rose Bowl,” he said.
And if that happens, Barry Alvarez, who already is a College Football Hall-of-Famer with a 3-0 Rose Bowl record and a statue outside Camp Randall Stadium, will complete what could possibly be the considered the best month an athletic director has ever had.
Remember that extra $118,500 Alvarez gave himself for coaching the Rose Bowl? Feel free to a take few more dollars, Coach. You deserve it.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.