Wisconsin brings in winner, tabs Utah State's Andersen as coach
Some ADs go into hiding during a coaching search. Barry Alvarez did not have that option. As Wisconsin's interim coach for the upcoming Rose Bowl, Alvarez has been on the practice field regularly, which means he's been speaking to the media regularly, which means Wisconsin fans have been waiting on his every word.
"I'll hire a good coach," he told reporters Sunday. "This program will continue being very good. For those that are panicking, don't panic. We'll take care of business here and this program will be in excellent hands."
Never doubt that man.
Alvarez has indeed hired a good coach, and the program is in fact in excellent hands. Two weeks after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas, Wisconsin will reportedly replace him with a man that nearly beat Bielema's team three months earlier.
Over the past four years, Utah State's Gary Andersen orchestrated one of the great turnarounds in college football. The Aggies were worse than afterthoughts for a decade-plus prior to Andersen's 2009 arrival from Utah. They'd gone 1-11, 2-10 and 3-9 the previous three seasons. In 2008, they lost 66-24 to Oregon, 58-10 to Utah, 44-17 to Nevada and 49-14 to Boise State.
Two years later, in 2010, Andersen's team put a scare into Oklahoma (losing 31-24) and beat rival BYU for the first time since 1993. A year later, they came within a fluky onside kick of stunning defending national champion Auburn en route to a 7-6 season that culminated in the school's first bowl trip in 14 years. This season, Utah State went 11-2, won the WAC, knocked off Utah and, more notably now, came within a missed field goal of beating Wisconsin in Madison.
Andersen is a big-time coach. Alvarez, after two weeks of secrecy, just made a big-time hire. And now, Wisconsin is positioned to remain a big-time program for years to come.
Andersen, whose team completed its season with last Saturday's 41-15 bowl win over Toledo, was initially pursued by a pair of Pac-12 schools with openings, Colorado and Cal. Andersen, 48, not only rebuffed them but made a point of issuing a public statement that "I plan to remain the head football coach at Utah State University."
Funny how plans change when the reigning three-time Big Ten champion calls.
Some were beginning to doubt whether Alvarez could back up his pledge. Two logical candidates, former Bielema coordinators Paul Chryst (now at Pittsburgh) and Dave Doeren (NC State), weren't feasible options due to timing. Miami's Al Golden, who would have been similarly well received, reportedly declined Alvarez's overtures. Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who formally interviewed last week, became the designated fallback candidate. He would have generated zero buzz.
Andersen doesn't necessarily bring the level of instant credibility that, say, Bielema does at Arkansas, but he's just as respected, if not more so, by those that follow the sport closely.
Andersen's biggest calling card is his defensive mindset. Most mid-major darlings come in having won primarily with a high-powered offense and little regard for defense. Andersen, the defensive coordinator for Utah's undefeated 2008 team, is the opposite. While quarterback Chuckie Keeton has become the face of the Aggies and running back Kerwyn Williams the star of last weekend's Potato Bowl, Utah State produced a top-15 defense this season. WAC teams don't normally do that. He'll need to have a similar impact at Wisconsin, because the Big Ten is only becoming more of a defense-first conference with coaches like Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan's Brady Hoke, Nebraska's Bo Pelini and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio.
As for offense, it may be that Wisconsin will have a new look for the first time in 20 years. It's not that Andersen doesn't share Alvarez's and Bielema's affinity for the running game -- Utah State ranked sixth nationally in rushing offense last season (behind star Robert Turbin), 25th this season -- but he'll likely employ the system he knows best. Both Utah and Utah State employed spread-option offenses with mobile quarterbacks, a departure from Wisconsin's traditional pro-style attack.
It's going to be quite the makeover in Madison, at least after the Rose Bowl, which will feature one last taste of both Alvarez and his blueprint (and star running back Montee Ball). After New Year's, the transformation will begin. A championship-caliber coach will take over a championship-level program.