On the morning of Nov. 20, Gary Andersen greeted a visitor to the Wisconsin football offices. He sported a red button-down shirt and khakis. As the Badgers’ second-year head coach settled into a chair in his office, the state football playoffs unfolded outside his window and far below on the Camp Randall Stadium turf. During this particular audience, Andersen talked about the program’s abiding tradition along the offensive line and at tailback. Everything about the moment sung spot-on Wisconsin.
As of Wednesday, Andersen is the new head coach at Oregon State. Wisconsin is in the market for another replacement at the top. A coach left a program that is arguably one of the three or four best in the Big Ten to run one that isn’t even the best team within a 50-mile radius of its campus. So maybe it’s time for the hierarchy in Madison to assess properly what it will take to keep the next guy there for a while.
The move would be considered mind-blowing, were there any pieces of mind left un-melted by the initial blast of news. Anderson, 50 years old and a winner of 19 games in two years with a Big Ten title game appearance to boot, left town for one of the Pac-12’s toughest jobs. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told reporters he had “no idea” this was going to happen. As for why in the world it did, the explanations trickled in: Andersen, a Utah native, and his staff were West Coast time zone types. His family preferred it out West. Or he was frustrated with academic standards. Or he was frustrated with the pay package offered his assistants. Or some stew of all of it.
“I thought Gary was a good fit,” Alvarez told the media in Madison. “There was never any talk about, ‘Someday I’d like to get back to that part of the country.’”
It would behoove Alvarez and Wisconsin to adjust their thinking, and consider how the job fits the coach’s needs as much as that coach fits what they want.
Scroll down the list of assistant coach pay packages published by USA Today. Along the way to Wisconsin -- which among the schools that released data ranks 40th at $2,368,600 -- you pass Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. You also pass Rutgers. But those first three names are of primary concern to anyone in charge of the Badgers football operation, as they are the three central competitors in the Big Ten West each season. They are the only currently viable threats along a clear path to championship opportunities. And the head coach at Wisconsin is working with less than the teams he must beat every year. Maybe the well runs only so deep for the flagship state university, but if that’s the case, then no one, least of all Alvarez, should be surprised when there’s a turnstile installed outside the coach’s office.
It’s at least part of the reason why Bret Bielema coaches at Arkansas now, and it’s at least part of the reason why Gary Andersen will attempt to be excited about life in Corvallis, Ore., sometime soon.
If it’s a problem, it’s fixable. At least give the head coach of your program what he needs to dominate his division. Get creative. Find a way. Because for all the stability that Alvarez infused into this school, the instability of going on a third coach in four seasons threatens to undermine the entire thing. That is a fate worth every penny to avoid.
Any dissatisfaction with admissions policies is a murkier issue. The specifics matter, and we’re short on those. But anecdotally, we have a three-star linebacker prospect from Georgia named Mohamed Barry who decommitted from Wisconsin in October reportedly due to concerns that he wasn’t going to qualify academically in the end. It’s the sort of scenario that can burn up a coach and fester, especially if it happens more often than anyone knows. But to suggest that the school bend whatever standards it has to accommodate a coach suggests no real solution at all.
The answer, instead, is Alvarez and the school president having a direct, frank, honest discussion with their chosen candidate about what Wisconsin will or won’t do. It’s in describing in full detail what the standards are, without any fuzziness or room for interpretation. It’s in locating a coach that can agree to and live with that. Maybe Alvarez thought he had that with Andersen. He was obviously wrong if Andersen was indeed miffed by admissions or academics. Alvarez can’t misinterpret that again.
No one is mistaking Madison for a temperate coastal burg, so no one at Wisconsin could tug Andersen back if he, his family and staff so badly wanted to head west again. But that’s not why this change occurred. That’s not why a coach leaves a program coming off a championship game appearance (albeit one that ended in a 59-0 loss to Ohio State) for a program that lives in the shadows of Oregon. The Beavers offer a good family atmosphere, they’re renovating their operations building and demonstrating some desire to keep up with the rest of the Pac-12 that way, and Andersen can recruit West Coast talent to any style there.
But then there’s this: Oregon State is Oregon State, and Wisconsin is Wisconsin.
Andersen’s friends expressed shock with the move on Wednesday, with disbelieving calls and texts pouring in. They pinpointed the struggles admitting recruits as one reason and noted the same complaint that drove Bielema away: The school didn’t invest heavily enough in staff. These are Wisconsin’s problems, such as they are. These are the things to fix if the school doesn’t want to find itself in this position soon again.
On Monday and Tuesday night at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where he was in town for National Football Foundation events, Alvarez sat amid friends at the bar. He looked happy, laughing and joking with the likes of Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel and Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier. On Wednesday, the Wisconsin athletic director was back in Madison, saying his phone was “ringing off the hook.” And he’ll surely be able to peruse a list of candidates that could include former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, Pittsburgh coach and former Wisconsin assistant Paul Chryst, Miami coach Al Golden, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
But Alvarez had to know there are ways to avoid this predicament. He had to commit to a plan that would keep his phone silent for a long time to come.