The road to Madison: Gary Andersen's path to Wisconsin
CHICAGO -- In September 2010, in the pre-dawn darkness, Stacey Andersen awoke to a loud thud. She bolted to the bathroom and found her husband, Gary, splayed out across the tile floor. He broke two vertebrate in his neck, but all he remembers from the incident is his wife screaming. Even with a scratched face and cracked neck, he refused to allow Stacey to call 911.
"He was delirious," Stacey recalled. "He needed to be checked out."
Then the head football coach at Utah State, Andersen fell on the night of a 41-7 loss at San Diego State. Doctors told him that stress was the cause. Andersen needed to eat better, exercise more often and carve out some time to relax. Only after that happened did he author one of college football's most underappreciated coaching jobs -- leading the Aggies to an 11-2 record in 2012. In order to move up, he needed to slow down.
"If you let it overwhelm you, it will," Andersen said. "And you'll pay the consequences."
Now 49, Andersen will debut as Wisconsin's new head coach when the Badgers host UMass on Aug. 31. Yet while he's moved to a big-name program, there may not be a more anonymous coach in college football. His career path traces through nearly every possible corner and directional school in the Mountain time zone: Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, Utah and Utah State. Andersen attended junior college and began his coaching career at Ricks College in Idaho, which is known more for being immortalized by Napoleon Dynamite than for being a cradle of coaches.
Andersen is such a relentless perfectionist that he not only mows his lawn during the offseason, but he's coached up his three dogs -- Mokie, Aggie and Big Blue -- to avoid peeing on the grass. "We have them trained," Stacey said, "to go on the rocks." (Always thinking ahead, Andersen plans to name his next dog Bucky after Wisconsin's mascot.) He and director of football operations Zach Nyborg built a patio by hand at his old house in Logan, Utah. For exercise, Andersen walks his dogs for 45 minutes to take time to decompress away from football, and at his new house in Madison, he installed a hot tub with a television and stereo on the porch, a way to ensure that he unwinds. After his tumble, Andersen rewired himself to ascent.
"That changed me," Andersen said of his fall. "That's why we practice less. That's why my coaches won't be in the office past 10 p.m. -- I won't allow them. I want the players out between 6 and 7, I want the coaches to have a life and my kids to have a life."
The changes in Andersen's life have resonated as changes in Wisconsin's program, both on and off the field. Just take a listen to the din of the music from practice. Everything from "We Built This City," by Starship to "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by Def Leppard to "Electric Avenue" by Eddy Grant blared from the speakers during spring ball. Andersen mixed in rap and country and did his best to create an energized environment. The games, after all, aren't played in the library.
Andersen also mixed in everything from throwing to dodgeball to dance contests. The changes brought a wave of fresh air to Badgers practices, and nearly every session now is less than two hours. Meetings are shorter. Practice periods are fewer and competition is greater. There's an emphasis on maximizing time while minimizing monotony.
"Guys have loved it," said senior linebacker Chris Borland. "There's a lot more energy than we've had in the past. Not as much of a grind, we're just playing football."
The players certainly got more out of practice than goofy team-building exercises. Andersen often blew the whistle in the middle of a given session, sending the first-team offense against the first-team defense on a simulated third-and-seven. He pulled kickers cold off the sideline to attempt potential game-winning 43-yard field goals. Andersen figures that in-game situations are unpredictable; why let the players know what's coming next in practice?
"You weren't thinking about it as a coordinator, you weren't thinking about it as a player," Andersen said. "But if your ass doesn't get it, you're going to lose the game.
"It's repetitive enough without us making it the same thing every day."
Repetitive would be one way to describe the formula Barry Alvarez used to spark this generation's revival of Wisconsin football. The Badgers have white-knuckle clutched to their beef-and-dairy roots, and Alvarez and former coach Bret Bielema ushered the program to Rose Bowls and Big Ten titles largely behind a simple power equation: giant linemen, oversized tailbacks and a smashmouth culture in which spreads were more readily available at training tables than in the playbook.
During Andersen's coaching life, he has seen just about every different type of football. He was the defensive line coach on Urban Meyer's undefeated Utah team in 2004 that popularized spread-option offenses. He coached under Ron McBride at Utah, who favored a power-run game. Andersen ran a spread offense at Utah State with talented quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who engineered near-upsets of Auburn and Wisconsin and helped the Aggies stun Utah last season.
When Andersen arrived at Wisconsin over the winter, he brokered a peaceful compromise with the program's old-school tradition and the modernization of the game. Senior receiver Jared Abbrederis said the offense, which is coordinated by veteran Andy Ludwig, reminds him of the one run by former coordinator Paul Chryst during quarterback Russell Wilson's one-year stint on campus. That means it's wide open, and there even promises to be an option element.
On defense, coordinator Dave Aranda has switched the Badgers to a 3-4 formation, which is run by the majority of Pac-12 programs but is considered a sweeping change for the Big Ten. Abbrederis can see the difference in practice: He used to just sprint to space in zone defenses on every rep, where now he's dealing with press coverage on the line, fighting for inches on each snap.
"As a wide out, that's a lot of fun," he said. "Now, every play, it's an actual battle."
Echoed Borland: "The No. 1 thing that I've seen change is how aggressive we are. Not that we haven't been in the past, but philosophically everything is geared toward putting pressure on the offense. There's more pressure man and more blitzes."
An aggressive philosophy makes sense given Andersen's background. How else does a guy who started his career teaching archery and bowling in a fitness course at a junior college in Idaho end up as a head coach in the Big Ten?
"I don't know if I taught archery," Andersen said, "but I stood back and made sure the arrows went the right way."
Andersen's career turned in 1994, when he stepped down as an assistant coach at Idaho State because his friend and defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham was let go. Andersen could have stuck around, but he left out of loyalty to Whittingham. That meant briefly moving back in with his parents, taking on COBRA insurance and working with troubled youths at a local high school in Salt Lake City. Andersen soon landed the head-coaching job at Park City (Utah) High, but he couldn't afford to live in the affluent ski community, so he commuted 40 miles every day. Stacey took care of the three kids, including newborn twins, while Andersen turned a perennial loser into a playoff team.
"I was the Lone Ranger," Stacey said. "He'd come home at night and sit on the couch and fall asleep."
Gary and Stacey met as 16-year-olds at Main Street 1910, a fast-food burger joint -- think Wendy's -- in Salt Lake City. They married at age 20 and have three sons, including Keegan, a current tight end at Utah State.
Their marriage, like those of many coaches, has been defined by moving. From 1992 to 2004, Andersen switched jobs seven times. McBride hired him in his first stop at Utah in 1997 because he was "the right mix of attitude and personality." During a game at Arizona State, Andersen took the Utah flag, ran it out of the tunnel and planted it at the 50-yard line. "He wanted to make a statement," said McBride. "If I remember that day, Arizona State made the statement."
Eventually, Andersen settled at the school again in 2004, serving as Meyer's defensive line coach on that undefeated team. Meyer called Andersen "the difference-maker" on the Fiesta Bowl champs staff, as he deftly handled the different personalities who made up the Utes defensive line.
Andersen got promoted to defensive coordinator when Whittingham took over for Meyer, and his highlight came at the end of the undefeated '08 campaign, when Utah rolled Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl. The Utes finished with eight sacks and held Alabama to less than a one-yard-per-carry average, an upset that becomes even more remarkable with the passage of time.
That night marked the final time that Whittingham and Andersen, who are the closest of friends, worked together. They began their careers racing each other home as assistants at Idaho State, even getting pulled over by police. They played racquetball together, and if either tried to clog the middle of the court they'd end up with a ball squarely in the back of the head. Andersen had already accepted the Utah State job prior to the Sugar Bowl, but he agreed to coach the game when Whittingham asked.
"For him to be able to win that game and win it he way we did it," Andersen said. "That was a big moment. That was a big-time game. I'm so glad I didn't miss it."
Andersen had an in-person job audition for the Wisconsin job when Utah State missed a late-game field goal during a 16-14 loss in Madison last September. But to bring everything back full circle, one of Alvarez's most important calls upon hiring Andersen was to Meyer.
"I've known coach for a long time and love him to death," Meyer said of Alvarez. "I have a lot of respect for him. By the time he got to me, he'd already done his homework. We had a very good conversation."
Just three years before, Meyer and Andersen spoke about the balance between football and life. Meyer went through a similar health scare that began with a trip to the hospital after a loss to Alabama in the SEC title game and ended with him stepping down at Florida after the following season.
"I love him like a brother," Meyer said. "When those situations come up, you aren't thinking about football or jobs. We had a lot of conversations after that."
Andersen slowed down enough to revive Utah State and move ahead. He's a long way from the tile floor in Logan that scary morning three years ago -- a rise that may not have occurred without a fall.