After settling in, Gary Andersen making his mark at Wisconsin
There are The Igniters, and there are The Huntsmen. There is Team Kekua, which should not be confused with being All That and a Bag of Chips, among others. They are all Wisconsin football players. But since winter, they have been partitioned into several 10-man teams that compete in every domain into which competition can be crammed, because in Gary Andersen's universe, there is fun to be had but inextricably there are winners and losers, and he is keeping score.
So these subdivisions of Andersen's first Badgers team earned points during weight-room work, mostly in relay races. They earned points by giving blood or reading to elementary school students or participating in an afterschool program. They earned points -- not necessarily of the style variety -- during a pre-practice dance-off to "Teach Me How to Dougie." Assistant coaches assigned to each unit clashed in a heated round of Simon Says.
Also, there was dodgeball. Football players, playing dodgeball. There is intrasquad scrimmage, and then there is intrasquad hemorrhage.
"They made the no-head-shot rule," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "But I don't think guys had much regard for aiming low."
Nor does Andersen, who has settled in, and not just because he finally closed on a house three weeks ago. His first spring practice as Badgers coach concludes on Saturday with lingering questions about quarterbacks and line depth and schematic adjustments, but apparently without any doubt as to whether his players would be fatigued by another, more seismic round of change this offseason.
The program saw Bret Bielema furtively depart for Arkansas in December following two years in which nearly a dozen assistants shuttled in and out of Madison. But the 49-year-old Andersen's forthrightness counteracted any cynicism over coaching loyalty. Then his devotion to competition and a brisk pace of film work and practice swept everyone up like a rip current through spring ball. Move on, Wisconsin.
"I wanted winners and losers every day in practice, and I wanted them to carry themselves with some physicality, and I wanted them to have fun out there," Andersen said. "We've had some days that are better than others as a whole football team. But I think we have had 15 consistent practices and we've created a winner and a loser every day, and that's real important to me. Bottom line, there is a winner and a loser when you play a football game, and I wanted to teach them who we are."
That Andersen migrated from Utah State and avoided marrow-deep change is not surprising. Wisconsin has a formula, and the man who created the formula was doing the hiring, and Barry Alvarez was not going to pick a guy who didn't think the way Barry Alvarez thinks. So the power-run game stays -- "That's who we are," Andersen said -- even if it will stretch defenses to the boundary more and, by fall, probably incorporate some option looks. The defense is now a base 3-4, but Andersen notes that the Badgers' spring cut-ups would reveal just a 60-40 lean to the odd front.
All Andersen revolutionized was wall décor; pictures of Wisconsin seniors hang on the left side of a wall maybe 15 yards from his office door, and every space from offices to meeting rooms features a sign stating the program's "core values." But that doesn't mean he wants anyone to be comfortable.
With that 10-man team contest, he created divisions to bring everyone closer and underline that players would be appraised whether they were reading defenses or reading children's literature. "That's what you play football for, is to compete," said tailback James White, who, alas, could not win the dance-off for his team. "The more you compete, the easier it's going to be on game day."
But it's rarely easy. So, often this spring, Andersen scripted practice only to shave a minute off of five periods to add an impromptu session of his own choosing -- without even his assistants knowing beforehand. He'd blow a whistle and announce a third-and-long period. Or a two-minute drill. Or a goal-to-go battle: one play, have to score or stop a score. The Badgers, initially, didn't know which sideline to run to. Andersen's staff, meanwhile, had to conjure play calls on the spot.
"Practice can be so structured and so organized, initially, kids look at it like, whoa, what are we doing? Where are we going?" Andersen said. "And that's exactly what I want.
"It doesn't matter if all of a sudden we get stuck in a traffic jam and all of a sudden we have to jump out and jog with our pads in our hands to get to the stadium to be able to play -- we have to be able to deal with it."
New on-field philosophies produced, especially on defense, a bit of overreaction. The difference for a nose guard or a three-technique tackle going from a 3-4 look to a 4-3 alignment is, fundamentally, about six inches. Coverages are coverages. And the defense evidently outpaced the offense in spring's latter stages, even without 333-pound nose guard Beau Allen, who said he's cleared to play 13 weeks after ankle surgery but is being held out as a precaution.
"It may be in a different spot, it may be at a different pace, but everything we're doing now we've done before," Borland said. "We've had a lot of change, at least defensively, within the same scheme, which I think can be almost harder. This is kind of an overhaul. It's entirely new, fresh for everyone. You can't mistake it for anything you've done in the past."
There will be more movement and deception. There will be personnel-group matching. And there will be aggression, or at least more than there was last year. "One second they're in one look, the next second they're in a different look, sometimes right before the snap," White said. "It kind of gets you off balance a little bit."
Offensively, besides a few good linemen -- Wisconsin had just eight at its disposal at times during spring -- Andersen simply needs a quarterback. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips won't separate themselves by Saturday's spring game and Andersen said incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy "deserves that opportunity [to start] and he will definitely get that opportunity."
In 2011, when Andersen went through this process at Utah State, he revealed his choice when quarterback Chuckie Keeton took the first snap against Auburn. "I don't have a magic time," Andersen said of naming a starter. "To play the best we can play, we gotta know 10 days before kickoff -- I don't believe in that."
He is here because Madison seemed to be a place where beliefs can incubate in the kind of player he is accustomed to coaching. After Alvarez called about the open gig, Andersen hung up to find another interested party: His son, Keegan, who asked if that was Wisconsin on the line. Andersen replied that it was.
"Dad," Keegan said, "you're going to Wisconsin, if you get a chance to go to Wisconsin."
Andersen has met with each Badgers player twice, with another round of individual confabs set for after spring practice. Every two weeks, a player and his position coach must convene for what is termed an "academic meeting" that can address any and all topics -- except football.
His wife, Stacey, has made appearances at practice in order to get to know each player while toting icebreakers: Borland stopped by to say hello and received a Kit Kat bar.
"These kids -- some of them have been on coach No. 4," Andersen said. "That's tough, in a short period of time. Eventually you build up a wall for anything. ... Some kids are going to let you get into their lives real quick, and other kids are going to put up a barrier and it takes longer. But we're going to keep banging down the door until we can break down those barriers so we can be involved in their lives."
Wary Badgers waited to see if the new coach seemed genuine. "After everything we've seen during spring ball, that's the general consensus: He's honest with us, he's up front with us, there's no B.S. involved," Allen said.
There's no call for it. The town reminds Andersen of the Salt Lake City he grew up in decades ago, with the same blue-collar feel and camaraderie. He fit the program as much as the program fit him. It all seems like home, especially now that he's out of a hotel and in an actual home, with a garage-door opener and a deck to sit on with his wife, surveying everything before him. Gary Andersen is comfortable, at least until the next whistle.