The second practice of a two-a-day is about to start as new coach Gary Andersen addresses the Wisconsin football players in a meeting. His serious tone about the practice coaxes the players into thinking they’ve got some agonizing hours ahead. The stone-cold face turns to a quick smile as Andersen directs them to board the bus. He’s taking them to a nearby waterpark and it seems like years since Bret Bielema left.
In early December when Bielema left, it seemed as though the timing couldn’t be worse. Wisconsin had just demolished Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game on its way to a third consecutive Rose Bowl. It was not the right time for a coaching change.
Yet less than a month later, Andersen was the newbie, hired from Utah State, where he’d just led the Aggies to an 11-2 season and a victory in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
His first appearance on a Wisconsin sideline came in early January at the Rose Bowl, with his new boss, athletic director Barry Alvarez, serving as temporary head coach. Andersen was the new face appearing just briefly on the sideline, but Alvarez was still calling the shots. One day later the torch would be passed and Andersen would assume control of the Wisconsin program. But before Andersen could feel comfortable as a Badger, he first had to say goodbye to the Aggies.
After announcing his departure from the program, Andersen reached out to every player on his Utah State squad. The landscape of college football coaching changes doesn’t foster much time for turnaround, but Andersen knew that in order to accept a new family, he needed acceptance from his one.
“I’d also like to thank the kids at Utah State for handling it the way they did,” Andersen said in his introductory press conference in late December. “I was able to reach out to every one of them, and that was important to me to be able to do that.”
The task took hours to complete, as Andersen started with phone calls to players from the East Coast and moved west as the night carried on, handling each emotional call with equal integrity and compassion.
After his arrival at Wisconsin, Andersen felt a similar responsibility to a new group of players.
“What the priorities are for me right now is, number one, the kids in the program,” Andersen said. “It’s important for me to let them know one thing … Here’s my phone number. If you have questions, please call me. If I can help you in any way, shape, or form, I will be there for you.”
That was right before the Rose Bowl, and since then, his open door policy has been one constant for his players. Jesse Temple, Wisconsin beat writer for FOX Sports Wisconsin, has tracked the Andersen hire from day one and sees a coach committed to the student-athletes in cardinal and white.
“Andersen has brought a level of genuineness with him from Utah State and has created an atmosphere of family and fun,” Temple said. “Andersen seems to treat all his players as though they were his sons and has a good grasp on the importance of life outside of football.”
It’s hard to disagree as Andersen teeters on the end of the diving board. He is doing everything the freshmen are doing, because, in the end, he’s a first-year as well. This mindset gets him into some temporary trouble as he obliges to the beckons for a head coach belly flop.
“What do you do,” Andersen ponders later. “100 kids yelling at you to do a belly flop, you do a belly flop.”
He’s made quite the splash in Madison.