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The State of Recruiting: Examining Wisconsin's relationship with in-state high schools

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?

Dan Sanger/Associated Press

Since the beginning of time (for the purposes of this article, and most Wisconsin football-related posts on the internet, time begins in 1990) Barry Alvarez has had a plan. Alvarez became the head football coach at Wisconsin in 1990 and his plan included building a giant fence. This fence wasn't one to keep people out or exclude them, because people were still welcome to come into the great state of Wisconsin.

No, this fence was built to keep people in. Alvarez wanted the state of Wisconsin, and more importantly the state of Wisconsin's high school football players, to know that if they were good enough, the Badgers would not let them leave home.

Wisconsin will never be confused for Texas, Florida or California, or any school south of the Mason-Dixon line, really, when it comes to high school football talent, but there is talent in the Dairy State nonetheless. And it is important to let that talent know that it's appreciated.

"It probably started with Barry Alvarez when he came on board as the head coach," says Dan Brunner, executive director of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WIFCA). "The number one thing he wanted to do, and he told the HS coaches, was build a fence around the state and lock up all the top Wisconsin high school recruits for the Badger program. And he did that."

Gary Andersen became the Wisconsin head football coach in 2013 after the shocking departure of Bret Bielema to Arkansas. Andersen was an under-the-radar selection who had never been a head coach at a school bigger than Utah State. Despite this, the hiring was generally met with positive feelings. Andersen said all the right things, recruited well and seemed to be on a path to keep the Badgers competing for conference titles (and maybe more) for the foreseeable future.

Madison East High School head football coach Steve Erato was among those who met Andersen on occasion and came away impressed.

"Coach Andersen seemed like an outstanding person with high character," Erato said of meeting Andersen two years ago.

When Andersen came on board, he met with Brunner, because the WIFCA puts on a clinic every spring in Madison in conjunction with the Badgers.

"We had a very cordial conversation," Brunner said. "Gary Andersen said he wanted to sit down with the hierarchy of the WIFCA. We had a great meeting, a lengthy meeting and we thought we had established a really good relationship between he and the high school coaches association. He was very instrumental in helping us have a successful clinic at the end of March."

Andersen was saying and doing all the right things to keep the state on the same course Alvarez set 25 years ago: lock down Wisconsin and pick some recruits up from the rest of the Midwest, and maybe Florida and the East Coast, as well.

A peek, however, at the number of offers to in-state recruits from 2013-16 reveals an interesting trend. In 2013, the last year of full Bielema recruiting (which Andersen had to keep together), the Badgers handed out 110 reported offers, according to Eleven of those offers went to Wisconsin prospects and seven of them committed to playing for the Badgers, including defensive end Chikwe Obasih out of Brookfield Central, the second-highest rated player in the class.

For the 2014 class, the first full year of Andersen offers, UW offered 250 recruits, including 12 in-state players. Again, seven Wisconsin natives signed on to play for their home-state team, most notably Jaden Gault, the top-rated recruit in the class and a four-star offensive tackle from Monona Grove. While 2014 was Andersen's first year at the helm of recruiting, there were obviously some offers still out there from Bielema's reign.

The 2015 class was shaping up to be one of the best in Wisconsin's history. Andersen was building pipelines into Texas and the tricky DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia) area. He handed out 264 offers and a mere two went to players in the state of Wisconsin. A similar ratio appears if you look ahead to 2016, where Andersen had made 83 offers and only one in-state.

There is also something to be said for protecting your home.

We've already established that there are more fertile recruiting grounds to till than Wisconsin, but there is also something to be said for protecting your home. Most dominant programs recruit their home states first and then go out-of-state to fill any holes. Alabama's 2014 class was comprised of 25 percent in-state recruits and Florida State had over 50 percent of their 2014 class come from its backyard. You might argue that these are two national powers in excellent recruiting states and they should be doing this, and to that I'd say, "Sure."

But, look at Andersen's old team, Utah State. Utah is no better than Wisconsin at producing Division I talent and the Aggies' 2014 class had nine recruits from Utah in it (just under 25 percent). Lest you've forgotten, Wisconsin's 2015 class had three in-state commits (one, Zach Baun, is a greyshirt).

The point is, for Wisconsin to continue to win, it can't abandon recruiting its own state. The relationship that Alvarez cultivated and Bielema, for all of his faults, continued quite well with the high school coaches in Wisconsin is paramount to the success of the Badgers. "I have to say our coaches were very happy with the relationship that had been developed. And that's a priority to us. They're the only show in town in terms of D-1 football," Brunner said during our chat.

"Kids in this state grow up wanting to play football for the Badgers," Erato added. "Connecting the university to the high schools helps recruit more kids into the program either as scholarship players or walk-ons."

So, there has to be a reason that offers to in-state kids were trending downward for Andersen, right? It's not like Wisconsin suddenly stopped producing D-1 talent. Brunner said that he and the rest of the WIFCA executive board had been fielding a number of questions asking this same exact question. Why weren't Wisconsin kids getting offers from the University of Wisconsin?

Attempts to reach Andersen for an interview were unsuccessful.

"The one thing that was a little disconcerting was just the lack of offers to in-state players for his next recruiting class." -Dan Brunner, on Gary Andersen

"The one thing that was a little disconcerting was just the lack of offers to in-state players for his next recruiting class," Brunner said, "With coach Andersen departing, we never got a chance to get an answer to those questions. That's the one thing that has left us a little bit puzzled. If you look up and down the roster, the success the Badgers have had this year, the names that pop out on both sides of the ball are Wisconsin high school products."

Running back Melvin Gordon (Kenosha Bradford), wide receiver Alex Erickson (Darlington), linebackers Vince Biegel (Wisconsin Rapids), Derek Landisch (Arrowhead) and the Trotter brothers (Marcus and Michael, from Marquette), as well as any number of offensive linemen are all Wisconsin high school alumni.

"[Andersen's] soundbites were great to hear and confirm with my players," Verona head coach Dave Richardson said via email. "The bad news is that he seemed to go against what he was saying when he abruptly left his players and program. It must have been a difficult decision."

The Badgers have long had a tradition of getting the top players in Wisconsin, and even if they weren't highly rated by recruiting services *cough, J.J. Watt, cough*, turning them into all-conference performers. In my talks with Brunner and Erato, the ideal candidate that emerged to patch up the fence around was Wisconsin was Paul Chryst.

"Myself included, as soon as [the WIFCA] heard Gary Andersen was leaving, the first name that popped into everybody's head was Paul Chryst," Brunner said.

"He understands the state, the football program and the city of Madison," Erato added. "He will be able to sell that. Plus, I think Paul would make this his final stop. He would be fully committed to the program and the state for the long haul."

Being "fully committed to the program and the state for the long haul" is something that is extremely valuable, and rare, in college football these days. High school recruits, and more importantly their parents, are looking for a coach that will be there for the entire time they will be. Players don't want to have three coaches in four years. Wisconsin needed to find a head coach that will be in Madison for a while. Paul Chryst is that man.

"Everyone who's anybody in football in Wisconsin knows Paul Chryst and they know the kind of character he has," Brunner said. "He's a Midwest guy, he's a Madison guy. Played there, coached there, lived there."

It was important for Wisconsin to get a leader that could mend the relationship between UW and the rest of the state's football programs. During Andersen's tenure, and the subsequent interregnum, only cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland was left to cover the entire state.

"He's been a standout in terms of holding down the fort," Brunner said. "In terms of not having the coaches abandon the Badger program, I think Ben has worked extremely hard to maintain that relationship that was built by Barry and then by Bret."

While Strickland's efforts are admirable and should be commended, you can't truly be the No. 1 option in your own state if the head coach is distant and unavailable.

"Again, [Andersen] was busy and I understood that, but it did make it seem like a disconnect with the coaches, especially since he was not recruiting a lot of in-state players," Erato said. "I think he is a high-character person and a good coach, but I don't think his interest was in Wisconsin and it's high schools."

When asked about Chryst as a potential replacement for Andersen, Erato shared another positive reaction.

"Paul would strengthen that relationship between the high school coaches because he understands they provide the players needed to make the program a success. I believe he and his staff would be more welcoming and inviting to us and would make the program stronger."

Winning at Wisconsin hasn't really been rocket science since Alvarez became head coach. Recruit a bunch of enormous offensive linemen, many from in-state, and allow the running game to pound defenses into submission. On the defensive side of the ball, recruit players that can stop the run and one outstanding player in the secondary to keep opposing quarterbacks off balance.

Chryst understands this, and as the engineer of some of the most successful offenses in Badger history, knows what to do with this knowledge. He has even shown the ability to adjust schemes to his talent, like when Russell Wilson was under center and provided more of a threat than any signal caller in Wisconsin history.

Wednesday night was the start of a new era in Wisconsin football, but it was also the continuation of a longer era that was briefly interrupted. Chryst knows that the key to keeping Wisconsin football atop Big Ten West Division and eventually the entire conference is mending the fence around the state.

Erato ended with this: "He would also recruit this state hard because he knows the kinds of kids we have and knows they can help UW win. Paul would strengthen that relationship between the high school coaches because he understands they provide the players needed to make the program a success."

Brunner, the man in charge of the state's high school coaching fraternity, summed up many Wisconsin fans' thoughts with a simpler sentence.

"I think if there's one thing that can reconnect all the coaches in the state of Wisconsin, high school coaches, with UW, that person would be Paul Chryst."