ORLANDO, Fla. — During the final days of the University of Wisconsin football season, a familiar scene has played out repeatedly involving athletic director Barry Alvarez.
One by one, members of UW’s large senior class have gone to Alvarez to thank him for hiring Gary Andersen as the football coach.
And then the kicker, which helps reinforce for Alvarez how he made the right move 12 months ago to bring in Andersen, who had spent the previous four years as the coach at Utah State.
“I can’t tell you how many of the seniors have come up to me, to thank me, then to say they wish they could play for him another year,” Alvarez said.
“When the kids have that attitude and you see the product on the field, yeah, I feel like we hit a home run.”
Andersen might have been a little premature in suggesting this was a great team prior to losing the final regular-season game against Penn State. For this to be considered a truly successful season, the Badgers (9-3) probably need to beat South Carolina (10-2) on Wednesday in the Capital One Bowl.
But 12 months after former UW coach Bret Bielema shocked everyone in the program by bolting for Arkansas, it’s fair to say Andersen has been a great fit.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody work harder to get to know the players, and vice versa, than he and his staff have done,” Alvarez said.
Andersen came in with a reputation as a player’s coach, but that’s a title that is earned, not given. Asked what has impressed him the most about Andersen’s first year, Alvarez said, “I just think how everyone has embraced him. What you see is what you get. It’s very straightforward.
“Being a player’s coach, there’s no lip service. It’s legitimate. He truly listens to the kids and lets them have input. Yet, he still holds them accountable.”
That was evident recently when Andersen removed freshman cornerback Jakarrie Washington from the team for multiple team violations.
“I think some people think being a player’s coach means you’re soft,” Alvarez said. “That’s not the case. He holds kids accountable.
“If some of the kids haven’t lived up to his standards, they’re not around long. He’s not going to allow somebody to be deceitful with him. He’s not going to allow anybody that’s going to embarrass the program, and he’s going to act on it.”
Andersen might not have been Alvarez’s first choice, though that’s not a path the athletic director cared to venture down.
“I’m not going to get into that,” Alvarez said. “I had a short list. I probably talked to six people. It doesn’t make any difference what choice it was. … He was on my short list to start with.”
Among the coaches that sources said Alvarez likely contacted were Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden, Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, Oregon State coach Mike Riley, Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson (now at Wake Forest) and former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, a former UW defensive back who played under Alvarez and is now the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears.
“You go through and some people, because of their situation, aren’t interested,” Alvarez said. “They don’t want to leave their situation. (Andersen) is the only one I offered the job to.”
However it came about, it seems apparent now Andersen was the best choice.
“I have no qualms,” Alvarez said. “If I had it all to do over again, I’d go right back and hire him.”
Not only has Andersen quickly fit in with the players, he has developed a strong relationship with Alvarez.
“It has become very clear, if you have something the kids need and it’s expressed, if there’s any way of getting it done, it’s going to happen,” Andersen said.
There has been much speculation in the past about whether having a College Football Hall of Fame coach as the AD can be slightly daunting for the head coach. But Andersen has been consistent, embracing the arrangement from the start.
“This is (Alvarez’s) school, this is where he’s going to retire,” Andersen said. “He wants nothing but this school to be successful. What more could you really ask for as far as a job description, from an athletic director to a football coach?”
The relationship between Alvarez and Andersen was destined to be different from the start than the one between Alvarez and Bielema.
“Different situation,” Alvarez said. “Bret came in with no experience as a head coach. Gary came in with his plan in place.
“Early on, the year (2005) when Bret was a coach-in-waiting, every Thursday I’d go over reasons why I made decisions during the week ... because unless you sit in that chair, there’s no book you can read to prepare you for it.”
Those discussions turned into weekly Thursday walks, which Bielema wanted to keep going out of superstition.
Alvarez said he hasn’t spoken to Bielema since he left and doesn’t sound like he is any closer to reaching out.
“I’ve got enough to do,” Alvarez said. “I’m just too busy, and I’m not a telephone guy. I’m not a guy who goes through his Rolodex.”
When Alvarez and Andersen chat, it’s often about things other than football.
“It could be family,” Alvarez said. “It could be what’s going on at other places. ... Probably most of the time it’s not football.”
Suffice it to say, Andersen is about as low-maintenance as they come, especially for a coach at a top program such as UW.
“I’d say that’s pretty accurate,” Alvarez said. “I think (Andersen) is very appreciative of what we have and what he has here. That’s important.”
When Alvarez’s head hits the pillow at night, he never has to worry about what his coach is doing. That wasn’t always the case in the past. An exciting evening for Andersen is staying home with his Great Danes.
Alvarez was asked if he thinks Andersen could be happy at UW for a long time.
“Sure seems like it,” he said.
Last weekend, the football team had a Christmas party and Andersen brought in a Santa Claus. The coaches’ children were running around and Andersen might have been the happiest one of the bunch.
“I said to my wife (Cindy), ‘Look at Gary over there,’ he’s having more fun with Santa Claus and laughing with the reaction of the kids than the kids were,” Alvarez said. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
It’s hard to find coaches with small egos at this level of the profession, and Alvarez is appreciative of what he has in Andersen.
“There’s not much of an ego there,” Alvarez said. “He has fun, he enjoys people. He really enjoys kids and likes to coach football. He’s been fun to work with.”