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The fine art of program building

A week of cautionary tales reiterates the importance of identity.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation’s Jason Kirk posted a great column Tuesday about why a coach should never, ever leave Wisconsin, examining the troubles that drove Gary Andersen from Oregon State and those that plague Bret Bielema down in Arkansas.

There’s been plenty of schadenfreude to go around and we won’t be piling on here. Those coaches made their choices and it all seems to have worked out better for Wisconsin in the long run.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Andersen’s departure came the week after Wisconsin waxed Nebraska, an event that has become strangely pedestrian, even under the lights of Lincoln.

Hey girl.
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Clustered together, one can’t help but look at Arkansas, Oregon State, and Nebraska and see cautionary tales about the importance of programmatic identity.

It’s been said innumerable times before, but the blueprint that Wisconsin football relies upon—power running game, focus on player development, roster peppered with talented walk-ons—was ripped whole-hog from the great Nebraska teams that Barry Alvarez grew up on.

For those Husker teams of yore, it was a clear identity, built specifically to maximize the talent that was coming into Lincoln at that time.

Both Bielema and Andersen went into their new gigs with their own models that they wanted to build. For Bielema, it was Wisconsin-esque power run and defense. For Andersen, it was Utah State redux. Their failures, along with those of the Huskers, show just how hard it is to build and sustain a competitive, high-level college football program in the current environment.

Their inability to execute their program goals goes beyond scheme. They also highlight the peril in not reading the local landscape correctly.

Most programs have inherent limitations. For most, it’s not just important to have an identity, but that identity has to match up with a number of program-specific factors. What recruits can you get regularly? Can those recruits get into school and stay eligible? Does the identity actually get you an advantage over your conference peers?

Ironically, it was Andersen’s tenure with Badgers that both reinvigorated the model at Wisconsin and reinforced its criticality. The 3-4 defense has been woven into Wisconsin’s identity. It creates some unique tactical advantages and better suits the recruiting base. Conversely, the loss of in-state relationships and the systematic recruitment of smaller, quicker offensive linemen did temporary but real damage to the program.

In the long run, Andersen would have broken Wisconsin because his philosophy would have eroded away critical, Wisconsin-specific infrastructure that could not be mitigated by tactics or schemes.

For programs able to recruit nationally, whether because of the coach or the location or the under-the-table-Adidas-money, this is less of a challenge. Well-coached talent will usually beat well-coached, slightly-less-talented talent.

But the majority of programs need a special alchemy that goes beyond X’s and O’s to have sustained success.

I don’t know enough about Arkansas or Oregon State to tell you what the inherent advantages of those programs are and whether Bielema or Andersen’s program designs fit those advantages. The results seem to shout no, particularly when their predecessors had more success.

Nebraska is living this right now. The in-state talent is too bare (and bizarrely, they seem OK with letting a rival poach their No. 3 recruit without even making an offer). The Blackshirts are still there, but after Jonathan Taylor became the latest Badger to run wild on them, one wonders if that once-vaunted unit exists in name only.

The Huskers are a program adrift under Mike Riley (a state of being destined to be remedied by the end of the year). I suspect whoever comes to Lincoln next will be asked to rip things down to the studs and rebuild the program with a distinctly Nebraska flavor.

I don’t think it is coincidence that, under Paul Chryst, Wisconsin football is having evolutionary success while at the same time core, foundational, programmatic elements are being reinforced. As someone who has been a part of Wisconsin football since his teen years, Chryst has an inherent understanding of the program’s needs and what works in the state.

It doesn’t always have to be a lifer who carries the torch. Innovation and evolution are critical to sustained success, and sometimes too much focus on what used to be can lead to stagnation. But having someone who knows what works—and why it works—at a specific school, in a specific state, in a specific conference sure does help.

If he wants it, Andersen will work again. So too will Bielema, once he gets bought-out by Arkansas. I suspect that they will both hew a little closer to what they know in their next gigs (something Andersen thought he was doing when left Wisconsin, but obviously didn’t, if his text messages are to be believed). I wonder if Bielema is not Lincoln-bound after this year.

The Badgers know who they are and use that to their advantage. Watching the cautionary tales unfolding around them, that’s a pretty enviable place to be.