MADISON, Wis. — Barry Alvarez elevated Wisconsin's football program to previously unknown heights as its head coach, then extended that dominance throughout other sports when he became Wisconsin’s athletic director in 2004. Even as the Badgers' football team endured the loss of 12 assistant coaches over three seasons, the program was bolstered by its reputation of stability and consistency.
Then Bret Bielema, Alvarez’s hand-picked successor as head coach, abruptly left for Arkansas.
“Abruptly” hardly does the situation justice. Just three days before the news broke, Wisconsin had trounced Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten championship game, earning the Badgers their third-straight Rose Bowl berth, albeit thanks to the ineligibility of both Ohio State and Penn State.
Without a head coach to lead a program unfortunately tabbed as good-but-not-great, Alvarez took his time conducting a coaching search. Beyond the comings and goings of widely favored candidates, the very existence of a coaching search unsettled Wisconsin fans. The Badgers would have loved the man that emerged from that coaching search from the start. After all, Utah State coach Gary Andersen was personable, up-and-coming and had experience building a program. But fans just didn’t really know who he was.
Utah State went to Madison in mid-September 2012 and nearly pulled off an upset, but Wisconsin fans had generally forgotten about that game. Andersen’s track record as the head coach of Utah State and previously as an assistant was impressive, but his introductory press conference in late December went a long way toward endearing him to a fan base that isn’t known for criticizing — but is largely inexperienced when it comes to embracing change.
Since his arrival, Andersen has made a point to bring the best of Utah to Wisconsin. In doing so, he’s developed a new recruiting pipeline for the Badgers. Earlier this week, Andersen secured a verbal commitment from Jordan High quarterback Austin Kafentzis. Regarded as a top quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, Kafentzis was named the MaxPreps National Freshman and Sophomore of the Year the past two seasons and the Deseret News Mr. Football in 2012. As it turned out, the Kafentzis family’s personal connections with Andersen were enough to outweigh offers from BYU, Hawaii and Utah.
In May, Andersen also secured a 2014 commit from East High running back Ula Tolutau. An offer is also out to Brighton High School running back/outside linebacker Osa Masina, widely considered the state’s top prospect for 2015.
While Utah has never been considered fertile ground for recruiting, the state's top prospects have steadily improved, drawing increased interest from nearby Pac-12 schools and other BCS programs. BYU, Utah and Utah State have always faced that competition, and now it appears Wisconsin will be joining in the fray.
Andersen’s continued interest in his home state has also magnified interest in the Wisconsin-BYU game coming Nov. 9. An oddly timed nonconference game against a big-name opponent was already enough of a draw for both fan bases, but now there could be some additional stakes at play. If the Badgers beat the Cougars, their pull on Utah recruits could grow even greater. But if BYU can manage an upset, the win could go a long way in making a statement to the contrary.
Andersen won’t receive a full review until he has one year under his belt in Madison, and unforeseen issues could obviously diminish his hot start. For now, Wisconsin fans are grateful for the early positive returns and a coach that, at the very least, has proved capable of making a strong first impression.
Mike Fiammetta operates the SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter and resides in Chicago, Ill. Follow him at Twitter.com/b5q