Two years ago, Gary Andersen stood in front of Wisconsin for the first time as the new head coach of the Badgers. His introduction followed two weeks of turmoil after Bret Bielema, three days after winning his third straight Big Ten Championship, marched south to Fayetteville to become the new head coach of a rebuilding Arkansas program.
Andersen's first interactions with Wisconsin media were well-received. He spoke about "wrapping his arms around" players "academically, socially and athletically" in his introductory press conference -- in fact, he referenced the phrase "wrap" six times. He spoke about engaging his players and treating them like his own kids. He was mild-mannered, well-spoken and appeared to bring a stark -- and generally welcomed -- difference in personality from Bielema.
Nine days ago, and in similar fashion to Bielema, Andersen bolted west to Oregon State with a shocking resignation after two seasons that left assistant coaches, players and fans in shock. Andersen had begun to leave a significant mark on the program, though his handling of certain situations and a murky exit out of Madison have left his era incomplete and subject to varied interpretation.
On the field, Wisconsin went 19-7 with a pair of nine and 10-win seasons. If not for a botched call by Pac-12 referees at Arizona State, Kyle French would've had an opportunity in 2013 to make it two 10-win seasons under the former Utah State head coach. Andersen's Wisconsin teams went 5-0 in trophy games, including beating an increasingly tougher Minnesota program the past two years. The Badgers kept Paul Bunyan's Axe and the Heartland Trophy in cases at Camp Randall Stadium, while also claiming the inaugural Freedom Trophy in a rout of Nebraska in October. Not to mention, they won seven straight games to claim the inaugural Big Ten West division title.
Change Comes to Madison
Examining UW's in-state recruiting relationships
The state of Wisconsin had a fence built around it by Barry Alvarez. Some holes appeared under Gary Andersen. Is Paul Chryst the man to mend them?
Change Comes to Madison
Changes were abundant, especially with the defense transitioning from the 4-3 seen with Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash to a 3-4. After Dave Aranda came to Wisconsin as defensive coordinator, nine contributing seniors bought into Andersen's system and made for a seamless transition period. Even more impressive, Aranda replaced those nine with a "no-name" group of hungry players in 2014 that had continued success while transitioning to a more aggressive, one-gap system. In both seasons, Wisconsin ranked in the FBS' top-20 in the four major statistical categories of total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and scoring defense.
Offensively, though there was scrutiny (more on that later), there were many positives. The past two seasons have yielded the two best years in Wisconsin rushing history behind Melvin Gordon, James White, Corey Clement and, this season, Tanner McEvoy with 3,689 and 4,082 yards, respectively. In 2013, the Badgers ran for 3,500 yards and passed for 2,500 -- one of only four FBS teams to do so. Gordon broke the FBS single-game record for rushing yards (though only for a week) against Nebraska and has had arguably one of the best seasons in college football history -- all while finishing second in the Heisman Trophy race. Let's not forget, as well, that the Badgers' offense did install, albeit with highly limited success, some spread offense, read-option looks. McEvoy broke Brooks Bollinger's quarterback rushing record with 574 yards on the ground this season, along with averaging 8.8 yards per carry.
In recruiting, Andersen expanded Wisconsin's reach in hopes of attracting more athletic players to help take the program to the next level. Assembling a driven coaching staff, the Badgers went into Texas -- where five 2014 verbal commits currently reside -- California and New Jersey. They also kept up Wisconsin's connections in Florida, which in this year's class alone has three commits.
The staff's hard work paid off. Scout.com has Wisconsin ranked 17th in the nation, while 247Sports.com, and Rivals.com have the Badgers 24th and 25th in the nation, respectively.
With these positives also came some rough patches. In 2013, a surprising Senior Day loss to Penn State with a Mike Caputo-less defense was a sour ending in a game that could've vaulted UW back into BCS bowl consideration if Michigan State hadn't upset Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
This season, Wisconsin had a 17-point lead against LSU in the opener, but injuries to a young defensive front and a highly one-dimensional offense opened the flood gates for the Tigers, who stormed back for a 28-24 victory.
As good as the offense has been on the ground, Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig miscalculated the quarterback competition. Joel Stave and McEvoy were the front-runners this season -- after the spring game, Andersen noted those two would go head-to-head in the summer. Many thought Stave was the overall better quarterback in the portions of summer camp practices open to the media. Without any true receiving threats to hurt opposing defenses on the third level after the loss of Jared Abbrederis, along with the desire for a mobile quarterback, Andersen and Ludwig went with McEvoy.
Though the move intended to add an extra dimension to the offense, it severely hampered any opportunity to keep defenses honest with the passing game. McEvoy's effectiveness on the ground was neutralized at times by his ineffectiveness throwing the ball. Granted, some of the play-calling early in the season by Ludwig suggested he tried to insert a square peg into a round hole, as Wisconsin still tried to present its bread-and-butter power-running, play-action offense rather than really optimizing McEvoy's mobile talents in a spread look. Outside of a 283-yard passing performance against FCS opponent Western Illinois, McEvoy threw for over 150 yards only one other time, against South Florida in early September.
The quarterbacking situation reared its ugly head against Northwestern, as the ineffective play of McEvoy in the first half (4-of-10 for 24 yards) and four interceptions between he and a reemerging Stave stifled the Badgers' offense in a 20-14 loss.
Though Wisconsin is on track to have its best recruiting class in ages, reports surfaced in recent weeks about Andersen being unhappy with the admissions standards the university has for its student-athletes. Though he declined to comment on those reports in his introductory press conference last Friday in Corvallis, losing out on talented recruits like Craig Evans, Chris Jones, and Mohamed Barry couldn't have sat well with Andersen, and Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez mentioned as much during his press conference last week.
Another interesting layer seems to be the relationship, or lack thereof, between Andersen and Wisconsin high school coaches. During his introductory press conference in 2012, Andersen stated he would call high school coaches to establish relationships with them. According to some, they're still waiting on that call. To give the benefit of the doubt, however, cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland has worked extensively within the state as the Badgers' primary recruiter and is widely respected within the Wisconsin coaching community. Still, for a program built on putting up walls around its home state as seen through its two previous coaches in Alvarez and Bielema, there seemed to be a disconnect.
Fair or not, Andersen will be remembered for the moments of miscommunication in this 2014 season. After Gordon was held to a handful of carries in the second half against LSU, Andersen didn't tell reporters post-game that Gordon had a hip flexor issue. Instead, he said, "I don't know," which led to a firestorm of criticism. Days later in his Monday press conference, he noted Gordon's injury but was adamant he wasn't pleased he had to disclose a player's personal injury.
A day later, the situation with Stave arose. Initially, it was labeled an "injury" to his shoulder per a team release. Not even a half-day later, both Andersen and Stave met with reporters separately, having to come forward that the former walk-on was dealing with psychological issues on the field rather a physical injury. Andersen noted he always looked out for and tried to protect his players. These two instances showed that, though they may have both been missteps in the process of doing so.
The relationship between the players and Andersen seemed strong. The team bought in last year, as seen with the defense and its performances, but also through lighter sides of the former head coach. Last Halloween, Andersen brought shoulder pads to practice. That apparent closeness seemed supported by many of the players' shocked responses on social media last Wednesday when it was reported Andersen was leaving to Oregon State.
Andersen's a good coach and a good human being. He treated the media with respect each time he spoke with us. Andersen -- himself a former walk-on -- gave B5Q a few minutes of his time after a Thursday afternoon practice for our walk-on longform last year, though he didn't need to.
Andersen headed out west for a position many believe is less than a lateral move only four days after losing 59-0 to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. After the game, Andersen told reporters that he told the players he "failed" them.
That game, some missteps in communication and the simple fact he didn't travel out to Corvallis to visit Oregon State before accepting the Beavers' offer -- leave a cloudy picture of what was going on inside and a big "what if" in what could have been for Wisconsin football.