Kragthorpe: Gary Andersen reunites with BYU in Wisconsin
After a long day of introductions and interviews last December, Gary Andersen settled into his hotel suite and learned what he was getting into as the University of Wisconsin's football coach. And there it was, in the middle of the Badgers' 2013 schedule.
"You gotta be kidding me," Andersen exclaimed to his wife and son.
Yes, BYU. Not "Bye." BYU.
"I thought it was a typo," Andersen said this week from Madison, Wis.
So here's Andersen, 1,400 miles from his childhood home in Salt Lake City, having made a remarkable climb to the top of his profession, leading an iconic Big Ten program. And this Saturday, he'll reunite with the rival that produced some of his best and worst moments of the past 17 seasons.
Andersen marveled, "They followed me here."
"Here" is Wisconsin, with tradition and support that make Andersen's position "one of the best college jobs in the country," said Ron McBride, his longtime mentor. "It's a good gig, I'm telling you. I'm just excited about what he can get done there."
He's thriving so far, with a No. 21 ranking and a 6-2 record blemished only by a controversial ending at Arizona State and a seven-point loss at No. 4 Ohio State. The Badgers are projected for a fourth straight BCS berth, if they can win their remaining four games.
Andersen will turn 50 in February. At 30, he was Park City High School's coach. At 40, he was returning to his old job as Utah's defensive line coach after one season as Southern Utah's coach. At 45, he was taking over Utah State's downtrodden program. At this time last year, he was coming off a victory over Texas State in the Western Athletic Conference.
His career trajectory is stunning, and he knows it. In the Big Ten's famed venues, including Ohio State's "Horseshoe" and Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium, Andersen has looked around during games and been struck by it all.
"I've done that quite a few times this year," he said. "It takes your breath away."
Part of his USU legacy was spoiled by his departure, 18 days after he made a point of saying he would stay. Yet Andersen generally made a great impression in four seasons in Logan, and he's doing the same in his new job. His personable, unpretentious nature plays well with Midwestern sensibilities.
"I haven't had one negative comment. â¦ In football, that's impossible. People have really embraced him," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said in a Tribune interview.
Alvarez, who built the Badgers into a Big Ten power as coach for 16 seasons, is predisposed to like Andersen, having hired him after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. Even so, Alvarez said Andersen's knack for treating players well and getting the most out of them is "tenfold of what I anticipated. â¦ The kids have responded well."
With the core of his staff having worked at USU, Utah or both, Andersen applied his usual methods to the Badgers.
"The plan works," offensive line coach T.J. Woods said. "It's been that way ever since I've been with him. I knew it would all be the same."
Unlike the Aggies, whom Andersen inherited in 2009, the Badgers already knew how to win. Yet gaining some trust in the staff was necessary for the players, with some of the 24 seniors having gone through three or four position coaches.
"They did accept us," Andersen said.
The Badgers play hard and have fun. Andersen staged a dance-off competition during spring practice, with star running backs Melvin Gordon and James White competing in one memorable sequence. Andersen a former Utah center dressed in a full uniform, complete with a fake ponytail flowing out of his helmet, and blocked a defensive lineman on Halloween last week. Another player wore a coaching outfit and addressed the team.
So now comes BYU. Preparing for Saturday's opponent "actually makes me feel at home a little bit," Woods said. "We've got a lot of history with those guys."
Not as much as Andersen. He's coached in two rivalry games that completed Utah's unbeaten regular seasons, lost with two schools via some legendary comebacks for BYU, and beaten the Cougars the week after his personal health scare in Logan.
After this weekend's meeting, Wisconsin and BYU will play a home-and-home series in 2017 and 2018.
"I love competing against them," Andersen said, laughing, "but I wouldn't mind taking a few years off."
Twitter: @tribkurt Local flavor in Madison
Gary Andersen's Wisconsin staff includes several members with experience at Utah, Utah State or both schools:
Coach Position Utah ties
Dave Aranda Def. coordinator USU 2012
Andy Ludwig Off. coordinator Utah 2005-08
Bill Busch Safeties Utah 2001-03, USU 2009-12
Chad Kauha'aha'a Def. line USU 2009-10, Utah 2011-12
T.J. Woods Off. line USU 2009-12
Evan Simon Strength Utah 2006-08, USU 2009-12
Zach Nyborg Football ops. USU 2010-12
Kite Afeaki Asst. football ops. USU 2012 Andersen vs. the Cougars
Gary Andersen is 7-8 as an assistant or head coach vs. BYU. The breakdown:
Years School Position Record
1997-2002, 2004 Utah Def. line 4-3
2005-08 Utah Def. coordinator 2-2
2009-12 Utah State Head coach 1-3