Whether Wisconsin is fine depends on what your definition of what "fine" is. This past football season was a success on so many levels -- the team went 3-0 against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, won the Big Ten West, and nearly won Melvin Gordon the damn Heisman. It was such a success that even a bowl game loss doesn't really sully the longview. Ten wins is as many as Wisconsin has had in all but four of the 25 seasons since Barry Alvarez assumed the head coaching position in 1990. Four losses would be about par for what Alvarez established as Wisconsin's baseline after the third of three Rose Bowl victories in 2000.
A 10-4 record couldn't possibly encapsulate Saturday's sucker punch, however. Nor could it capture the disbelief I felt when -- six hours ago at the time I'm writing this -- I found out Gary Andersen had decided to leave Wisconsin for Oregon State. The decision was so similar to Bret Bielema's. Both occurred right after the Big Ten Championship Game, and both took steps down to seemingly get as far away from Madison as possible. But Andersen wasn't in town long enough to engender Bert levels of animosity among fans. The only common factor between the two decisions was Barry.
Coaching Search 2014
Coaching Search 2014
Any tangible reason doesn't make sense. Again, we could rationalize Bielema's departure. Arkansas is much closer to SEC speed, and has traditionally recruited on par or better than the Badgers. Wisconsin is in the midst of one of its best recruiting hauls in some time and Arkansas is still ahead of it in the 247 Composite team rankings. Thirty spots back of Wisconsin is Oregon State. To whatever extent that lax academic standards matter, it isn't doing the Beavers much good.
And forget about money. Wisconsin isn't paying its assistants as well as it could, but Oregon State isn't doing any better. It isn't likely to surpass Wisconsin, either. Wisconsin brought in more total revenue last season than any athletic department except for Texas. The Badgers aren't making full use of their largesse, but their spending potential is much higher than that of the Beavers.
Andersen's departure feels personal. Either he wanted to be closer to home (though Corvallis is still 733 miles from Logan), or something about his time in Madison drove him away. He couldn't have made the decision lightly, assuming that Andersen is like all of us and hates upending his life if he can help it. Before going to Madison, Andersen spent 23 years never moving further away from Utah than Northern Arizona. The only thing that ever made him flighty was Wisconsin.
The draw two years ago is the same as it is now. There will be access to top-notch facilities and a backyard of linemen. Wisconsin isn't coming off three straight Rose Bowl appearances like it was in early 2013, but recruiting is as strong and was seemingly picking up momentum. Madison is still considered a great place to live, with lakes and green space and amenities to help you raise children like ... daycares, I guess.
The drawbacks are the same, too. This isn't a recruiting powerhouse, but it has powerhouse expectations on the field. The fans are fickle like that. That's Barry's fault, and he is still around.
Alvarez's press conference Tuesday sounded much like the one he gave when Bielema left. He used the word "surprise" in both instances, and sounded appreciative of the jobs they did. Whether they appreciated him is unknowable, but beside the point. Alvarez is immovable. Whoever coaches here will have to find a way to work with him, around him or keep a close eye on whether, let's say, Iowa State has an opening in a year or two.
Alvarez's success as a coach is the reason anyone with some clout would consider Wisconsin a premiere place to work. He also makes the job significantly harder than it looks, because he was on the sideline the last time Wisconsin had a season that wasn't bittersweet in some way, and his shadow has only grown larger because of nostalgia in the intervening years. If expectation was part of the reason Bielema and Andersen left, perhaps it's for the best that they did.
But Wisconsin can't continue to turn over coaches like this and expect that it will continue to be fine. If Barry is the problem, then Wisconsin is doomed to do this until he willfully leaves because Barry means too much to Wisconsin athletics and is too good at his job to kick aside just because he annoys his employees. It would help if Wisconsin used its coffers to pay its football coaches the going rate among its financial peers.
Either this is a fluke, or something is systemically wrong. The solution is even hazier. Both are probably open for interpretation. One thing we can all agree is that this can't happen again.