Wisconsin's new head coach kicked off the spring football season with an interesting media session that covered the sudden vacancy for a tight ends/special teams coach, his thoughts on Big Ten expansion and his adjustment to Madison.
It feels odd viewing a press conference -- or any media session, really -- as a performance. After all, these 20- to 30-minute gatherings mainly feature canned questions and relatively banal coachspeak.
Yet, when Gary Andersen opened Wisconsin's spring football season with a Monday afternoon press conference (transcript here, video here), it felt like he really was performing. Not in a superficial sense -- more in that with the spring just starting, snow still coming down in Madison and Real Football still a ways away, he knew people would be hankering for a glimpse at their new head coach. Combine the first coaching change Badger fans have endured since 2006 with Bret Bielema's abrupt departure and the volatile response it spurred, and you have an instant made-for-Twitter spectacle.
So in that regard, aside from a few tidbits of Real News, the most natural takeaway from Andersen's presser wasn't his recap of the winter or how he's been getting around town, but rather how he addressed the media and how much he was like Bielema. Or really, wasn't like Bielema.
I don't know if I could handle myself if I "graded" the presser, but in regard to that last sentence, the answer was immediately provided once Andersen's first comments were a short but honest wish of good luck to Wisconsin's other sports teams currently in competition. That includes everything from men's and women's hockey to softball and track and field, and if nothing else, the simple recognition of it being nothing more or less than a good idea to show some awareness of the world outside of Wisconsin Football. Heck, Bielema didn't even know when President Obama came to town.
Anyway, this is all to say Andersen was interesting, engaging and clearly not his predecessor. The on-field results, of course, will soon be the most relevant characteristic of what we talk about regarding Andersen's beginning in Madison. But until we have some games to break down, this is all we have. In that regard, Andersen earned himself some points today with honest answers, a few laughs and a very natural presence that has you (or me, at least) believe he already feels very, very comfortable as Wisconsin's head coach.
The Real News
-- What with basketball having its Senior Day fiasco and everything else that happened this weekend, the departure of Jay Boulware to Oklahoma sort of feels like it happened much longer ago than Friday. Nevertheless, Andersen suddenly has another tight ends/special teams coach to hire, and that was the first question he faced on Monday.
"I told the kids, ultimately, I hired him," Andersen said. "It's my fault. It's upsetting, and I brought the wrong guy in here. We'll be better off as we move forward."
The "wrong guy" part stuck out most prominently, and was a refreshing bit of mild candor that we should be able to count on Andersen for moving forward. Whether Boulware's move was motivated by desires financial or otherwise (he is from the South), he likely didn't have a strong desire to be at Wisconsin. In a to-each-his-own kind of way, that's fine, and that's essentially what Andersen followed with.
"I don't like the timing of it," Andersen said. "I don't like the situation that we're in at all, but we'll get a coach in here that's as excited about Wisconsin football and wants to be here in the worst way, and he'll do a tremendous job. We'll rebound very quickly.
"At the end, when did I find out? I found out probably about four hours before you guys found out because it was in the world that we live in today; it gets out there pretty quick. It went -- it was a little bit back and forth for a second. But, again, my philosophy on that is a little bit different. I will never beg a coach to stay. And I feel the same way in recruiting. I will never beg a kid to come to Wisconsin. If you have something you think is better, then so be it."
So there is it. Andersen was caught off-guard by Boulware's decision, and he definitely didn't like it. As first-year coaches are prone to do (as they should), Andersen's being very careful to iterate not only his pride in being here, but his requirement that his assistants share the same thing.
There's been very little scuttlebutt as to who Andersen could peg to fill the void -- last year's tight end coach, Eddie Faulkner, jumped to N.C. State in in December, though his name has been thrown around a handful of times on Twitter. Definitely nothing to run on, though Andersen did say he expects to have a coach hired before the first spring practice on Saturday.
-- Jon Budmayr has missed the last two seasons with nerve problems in his right throwing elbow and seemed poised to at least (and likely, at most) stick his name into the six-man quarterback competition the Badgers will begin the fall with (JuCo transfer Tanner McEvoy won't join the team until the summer -- I'll have a separate post on the QBs tomorrow). Yet, Andersen announced Budmayr will instead serve as a student coach this season, the last remaining year of eligibility the Woodstock, Ill., native has.
"He's excited about it, and so are we," Andersen said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for young men who want to turn around and coach one day. So he'll use that window of opportunity."
Tough break for Budmayr, though it really seems like this is the best possible outcome for him. The battle he'd face to see any playing time at all this season would've been extraordinary, and now he'll get to get some legitimate coaching experience to carry forward. Here's hoping it works out for him.
-- Andersen opened the presser with a slightly awkward, but understandable request for reporters to hold off on asking questions pertaining to individual players since the coaching staff really hasn't spent much significant time with them yet. Naturally, that didn't happen. After asked about possible position changes, Andersen said "one or two possible" tweaks could have players moving around.
"There are a couple of young men that we have sat down, discussed possible situations," Andersen said. "Nothing drastic, not really flopping over from one side of the ball to the other, but a couple DBs that may turn around and get a safety play. There was a corner that may play safety or vice versa. Linebackers moving from what was a defensive end to really what we call the "B" linebacker now."
The secondary will be very interesting to watch moving forward, considering last year's starters, Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith, both graduated. That was likely a factor in Andersen tabbing the cornerbacks as the position group that will face the most changes.
"I would probably say, No. 1, corners, man coverage," he said. "There's the challenge to walk in and play man coverage and be into those positions is a big challenge. How much we can do of that and how much we can handle, we'll see as we move through spring."
-- Back to Boulware: Andersen said he didn't want to disrupt the balance of coaches on the staff by having another assistant double up by taking over the special teams duties:
"The spacing of the staff is very important with nine coaches. The five and the four is a big component to where you want the special teams to fall. [Secondary coach Bill Busch] could take the special teams and run with them in one second and wouldn't have any problem at all. He'd do a great job.
"But there's four guys on the defensive side of the football, and we're learning a new scheme. The new coach that comes in will handle the special teams, will handle the tight ends. He will have a lot of experience, and he'll be a tremendous recruiter, and he'll care about the kids."
-- On if the players feel any added pressure after establishing themselves as a consistently top-10 team over the past few years, despite last year's 8-6 season:
"No added pressure at all. This team wants to be great. It's interesting, as you go through the cycle of the last couple months, you sit down and talk to kids. They have high expectations. We have high expectations as a staff. That puts us all on the same page there. I do know this -- as much success as the young men have had in the program, when I sat down individually in their meetings two weeks ago and had each young man have a 10-minute meeting and just let them talk and get to know them better and understand their family situations, it came out time and time again that at 8-6, they don't feel like that's a tremendous year for them."
-- On potentially changing college football's recruiting rules:
"I think we made it pretty apparent in the Big Ten as a group of coaches that we'd like to keep it status quo and take a deep breath and sit back and think about what we're doing.
There's a lot of stress that goes into young men's lives if these rules change. There's a lot of stress that goes into coaches, financial burdens on each one of the schools. I could go on and on. So I think that there's change is change, but these are fairly drastic.
And maybe most important, in the whole scheme of this, the change to me is the stress it's going to put on high school coaches and the young men that are getting recruited. It will do nothing but give people more access to them, if you will.
It's pretty hard in a high school environment to be teaching an English class and get 55 text messages every class period and try to help the young man in your program that's highly recruited and also handle the young men and young ladies that you're trying to educate. So there's a lot to think about. I'm right there with all the Big Ten coaches in the statement that's come out."
-- On whether the Big Ten should play nine or 10 conference games once expansion is settled:
"If we go to 10, there's going to be a lot of sore kids, I'll tell you that much. If you're in this league and you're going to play that many games, it's going to be very difficult. There's a lot of games to be played."
-- Can you believe I'm saving an Urban Meyer-Wisconsin spat for the bottom? Perhaps that's a good thing. Consider it your reward for making it all the way down here. On Meyer's comments regarding Big Ten coaches needing to pick up the pace of their recruiting (after a few good-natured laughs):
"I talked to Urban about that a couple days after, and he said it was taken out of context. So it was not an issue at all. I think we all want to compete and recruit at a very, very high level. We're all excited about doing that. To my knowledge, there was no falling out or any issues with that whatsoever with any of the coaches in the Big Ten."