College Football Insider

Andersen doesn't want to lose that small-school feel at Wisconsin


MADISON, Wis. -- When Gary Andersen met Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez in Minneapolis for his job interview, he carried a portfolio nearly 100 pages thick.

Labeled "Respect the process" with a red "W" in the middle of the cover page and a white image of Camp Randall Stadium behind it, the portfolio encapsulates his approach to football and coaching.

"Players make plays, players win games" is displayed below his name. The core values are on the back page: "Honesty, Treat Women with Respect, No Drugs, No Stealing, Consistently Improve my Mind and Body, Respect and Care for My Teammates."

Andersen clings to his principles with a stubbornness that helped him win 11 games with Utah State last year and become a coaching target for several high-profile jobs during the December silly season. In four seasons in Logan, Andersen ended the Aggies' 13-year bowl drought with back-to-back appearances.

That stubbornness almost cost him his career, too.

The new Wisconsin coach took himself out of coaching nearly 20 years ago because of his own conviction, instead taking a job as an in-school-suspension teacher at Highland High School in Salt Lake City.

Andersen has always connected with his players, and he expects a lot of them. ( Original)
Andersen has always connected with his players, and he expects a lot of them. ( Original)
During the 1993 season, Andersen was climbing the coaching ladder as a defensive line coach at Idaho State. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was the defensive coordinator.

The two were tight. They shared dinners together and visited Raiders training camp to learn from Kyle's dad, then-Oakland linebackers coach Fred Whittingham.

So when Whittingham left Idaho State because of what Andersen calls a philosophical football issue, Andersen felt uneasy.

Whittingham won't go into detail about his departure other than to say he resigned because "it wasn't a good situation." Andersen had made up his mind that, if Whittingham was gone, he was, too.

Only one problem: He didn't have a safe landing strip like Whittingham, who became Utah's defensive line coach.

Andersen took a job as a teacher at Highland in the spring of 1994 with the potential to coach the team at some point.

Instead of planning defensive line drills, Andersen was making $12 an hour and telling troubled teenagers they couldn't take cigarette breaks. He taught English, science, math and, at 3:30 p.m., drove home.

Wife Stacey was home, pregnant with twins. To pass time, Andersen planted petunias in the yard -- caring way too much about landscaping than a football coach should.

"It was a cloudy time," Andersen said. "I really didn't have a backup plan. I knew coaching was what I had to do. I had to find a way back in."

He took heat from all angles. His father-in-law grilled him for moving his daughter around the West Coast without a steady job, Stacey said. Andersen's father, a district manager at Mountain Bell, questioned Andersen's career path and urged him to get serious like his two brothers, who also worked at Mountain Bell.

Instead, Anderson's phone business was cold-calling schools about job openings while visiting local junior college practices.

Whittingham had warned his friend of the risks of leaving a college job. Former Vandals coach Brian McNeely said he had his share of philosophical disagreements with Whittingham but attributed the departure of Whittingham and Andersen to natural attrition at a small football program. He credits both coaches for their tenacity that led to BCS-level jobs.

Those close to Andersen say he can't let go when he senses a problem, even if his impatience consumes him as a result.

Stacey kept reminding him of the lofty football path that awaited him eventually.

"He was kind of lost, kind of searching," Stacey said. "I just stood by him. Whatever you've gotta do, we've gotta do."

That fall, Andersen landed the Park City High School head-coaching job and lifted a struggling program to the playoffs. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, then Northern Arizona's co-defensive coordinator, had followed Andersen's work and hired him as NAU's defensive line coach in 1995.

Andersen had rediscovered the enthusiastic coach who tries so ardently to connect with players that he doesn't huddle with them on the field, he calls it "hugging them up."

Whittingham got the chance to reciprocate Andersen's loyalty in 2004 when recommending then-Utah coach Urban Meyer hire him as defensive line coach. After replacing Meyer a year later, Whittingham elevated Andersen to coordinator.

The promotion was hardly a thank-you gesture.

"It's simple, his ability to build rapport with players is unbelievable," Whittingham said.

Andersen always knew he could connect with players. When Park City made the playoffs, he let players shave his head. At Wisconsin, he keeps practices tight (he doesn't want to go longer than 1:45) and gives applesauce breaks in between sessions. He rarely touches X's and O's during the week in order to connect with players about class, family, whatever. His wife made sure he never lost sight of that when his joy was almost taken away.

"Thank goodness I have a great wife who is understanding," Andersen said. "We base a lot of things I do on loyalty, and we had to take a step back to stay that way." That's why Andersen's job prospects in late December caused him heartache, despite a career that was taking flight in front of him.

Utah State gave Andersen a contract extension in 2012, and Andersen said in a late November press release he was staying in Logan.

That was days before Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas in early December and Alvarez suddenly needed a coach. Andersen was a target.

It was the best kind of problem, but still a problem. Andersen was about to go back on a promise, and that ate him up. A faction of the Utah State fan base was fired up about his move. Andersen understands that, but called the decision to announce his decision to stay a "slam dunk" at the time based on the knowledge in front of him, so much that he said in the release, "I am humbled and excited to continue to be the coach here."

When Andersen's son Keegan told dad he would go to Wisconsin, Andersen listened.

"I reached out to what I believed in," Andersen said. "I'm a prayerful guy. I believe I'm going to be told where to go. I had the unbelievable support of my own kids and felt it was exactly where I was supposed to be."

That meant it was time for director of football operations Zach Nyborg to fire up the laptop where he stored Utah State player phone numbers.

The night Andersen-to-Wisconsin became official, Nyborg called out while Andersen and Stacey started dialing. Most of the 106-man roster answered on the first try, and Andersen did all the talking.

Saying sorry wasn't enough. So Andersen simply asked each player to support him.

Players were frustrated, but most said "thank you," Andersen said. Andersen couldn't speak to every player by 2:30 a.m., so he slept a few hours and called some more when he woke up.

"Once you hit 10 calls, it gets really hard emotionally," Andersen said. "When I heard, 'Coach, we'll keep it going and carry it on,' that was encouraging."

Andersen had a jar in the Utah State facility where players could drop loose change. Andersen would use that money to buy ramen noodles, candy or protein bars for the facility (Andersen didn't use his own money -- gotta stay NCAA compliant, he says).

Anderson doesn't want to lose that small-school feel with Wisconsin. He'll never oversign recruiting classes, beg players to come to Wisconsin or beg them leave the program no matter the pressure to win, he says.

Alvarez says Andersen accepted the job without talking contract terms. Andersen has embraced Alvarez's edict that Wisconsin should still build around big linemen and physical play because of the lack of elite skill players in the area.

Andersen considers the presence of Alvarez, the subject of a bronze statue outside Camp Randall, an asset and not a looming presence. Andersen makes his coaches eat dinner while watching film so they can get home as quickly as possible. He wants players out of his facility by 5 p.m. most days.

This is Andersen's way. He's probably not going to budge on what got him this far.

"Football's never really changed who he is," Stacey said.

Jeremy Fowler is a national college football insider with Fowler joined CBS in 2012 after covering the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for two seasons and covering the Florida Gators for the Orlando Sentinel for two years. Fowler is also a contributor to the CBS Sports Network.

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