Carson, Calif. • Gary Andersen stands on a practice field at Home Depot Center, slightly leaning back with his arms folded. He is dressed in a red pullover with a white Wisconsin “W” stitched into the left breast, just opposite the blue Utah State logo forever inked onto his shoulder blade.
His eyes hidden by sunglasses, he looks calm considering the whirlwind he has been through in the last two weeks: He led the Aggies to their best season and second bowl victory in school history before bolting to become the Badgers’ head coach.
He was introduced in Madison, Wis. just six days after winning the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl with Utah State, and now, a week later, has arrived in Southern California to watch his new team prepare for its third straight Rose Bowl Game.
“When the [Potato] bowl game was over and it went 00:00, I walked off that field thinking I had three weeks to get ready for the next season,” Andersen said. “Then, the world flipped upside down. This was not a difficult decision at all. When I was asked if I wanted to be the head coach, I said, ‘Absolutely yes’ with no questions asked.”
He is a fly on the wall, “incognito” as he calls it, watching athletic director Barry Alvarez — his boss and a former longtime Wisconsin coach — prepare his future players. Andersen doesn’t want their focus to deviate from the game but the Badgers can’t wait for him to take over.
“He’s a players’ coach,” says junior defensive lineman Beau Allen. “That’s something that we’ve all heard from other sources and it held true in our first conversation. He has some skill to work with and I think we’re all excited to see what he can do with — no offense to Utah State — a little more.”
The Wisconsin faithful saw first-hand what an Andersen-coached team looked like. Wisconsin narrowly snuck past Utah State on Sept. 15 at Camp Randall, a game most Badgers agree they should have lost.
“If we hadn’t played them, I would have been like, ‘Utah State? What the heck?’” said third-leading tackler and redshirt junior linebacker Ethan Armstrong. “But we were familiar with them. They gave us all we could handle.”
Andersen was blown away by the short time he spent in Madison.
“Those three hours have been played back in my mind many times prior to even being involved in the job search at the University of Wisconsin,” Andersen said. “For me to be able to see the quality of the young men on the opposite sideline — I’m a big believer that I can get a feel for the program when we play somebody — it was special.”
A soon-to-be assistant of Andersen’s looks on and quietly critiques the manner in which the current staff administers a drill. He greets his future pupils, constantly glancing down at his “cheat sheet” — a twice-folded piece of notebook paper with each of their names and numbers scribbled on it.
Amid several hand shakes, Andersen says it is not difficult to fight the urge to coach. He’ll have plenty of time for that when he takes over a program that returns 13 starters and hasn’t endured a losing season since 2001 — a far cry from the turnaround Andersen engineered in Logan. In 2011, he secured the Aggies first winning season since 1996.
“It’s a different dynamic than it was at Utah State but it’s still coaching football and I’m surrounded by great people here,” Andersen said. “What more could you ask for?”
Aggie fans were left wondering the same thing. The school extended Andersen’s contract until 2018 and he released a statement after the final game of the season saying he “planned to remain the head football coach at Utah State University” and Logan was “the right place for myself and my family.” But Andersen says some are forgetting the last three words of the statement: “at this time.”
Andersen made the statement on Nov. 30. Former Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema didn’t announce his intention to leave Wisconsin for Arkansas until Dec. 4.
“At that point, I was staying and I felt they needed that for bowl practices,” Andersen said. “We needed it for focus. We needed it for recruiting and I wasn’t planning on going anywhere at that time. I never came out and said, ‘I’m going to stay at Utah State for the rest of my career and I’ll never leave.’ I simply said, ‘I’m not leaving.’”
Andersen’s successor — former offensive coordinator Matt Wells — said the Aggies won’t soon forget Andersen’s work. Wells and Andersen speak at least once per day and Andersen tried to lure Wells to Madison until it was clear he had the head job in Logan.
“When people ask me about mentors in my life and coaches that have shaped what I believe in, Gary Andersen right there at the top,” Wells said. “The foundation has been laid but my staff and I will bring some new ideas.”
Andersen hopes to do the same, noting that he’s not trying to “reinvent the wheel.” He took the job because there are many similarities between the two programs.
He will watch Tuesday’s game from the sidelines — as the Badgers try to win their first Rose Bowl since 1993 — before hitting the recruiting trail and continuing to assemble his staff.
But he’ll always remember how he got here.
“I don’t forget about places,” he said. “I’ll do everything I can to support that team. I plan on keeping a house in Cache Valley for a long time. I have a kid in the program. Cache Valley will have a special place in my heart forever and so will Utah State University.”
O Tuesday, 3 p.m.
• Wisconsin vs. Stanford
TV • ESPN