Deseret News sports writer Dirk Facer caught up with Wisconsin football coach Gary Andersen this past week while the former Utah State head coach and Utah defensive coordinator was in Layton for the annual All Poly Camp.
Q: How is Wisconsin and how has the transition been for you?
Andersen: Really good. Great people. Coach (Barry) Alvarez and his staff have made it really quite simple for the coaches to come in. You worry about building relationships with the kids and that takes time. Building trust just takes time, but overall the coaches are settled in. It's a tremendous place and there's good people there just like I'm used to in the state of Utah. So there's a lot of common factors, I guess I could say, in the quality of life and what drives people, which makes the transition even smoother and simpler. The kids in the program are much like the kids in Utah as far as tough, hard-working kids, blue-collar attitude and are driven in life as well as athletics.
Q: Was it tough to leave Utah State and the state of Utah?
Andersen: Absolutely. There's no question. It wasn't something I was looking to do. While everybody is pretty well-versed and everybody has their own opinions of exactly how it went down, but at the end of the day it was an unbelievable opportunity. It was an opportunity that I knew that I had to take. I think the kids on the football team at Utah State understand that. I'm very blessed and humbled to be the head football coach at Wisconsin. I've got a great staff with great kids, but it was a very, very difficult time. You make those decisions when you think the time is right and I believe I always get told where to go. When I woke up I believe that's where I was told to go and no question it's where I'm supposed to be.
Q: Are you happy with the staff you've been able to assemble at Wisconsin?
Andersen: It's a great mix. It's obviously a high level of football, but we were able to get a good group that was familiar with what we do at Utah State that had been with me for a number of years. To get Andy Ludwig back as the offensive coordinator, that was great. Evan (Simon) has done a great job in the strength room. Then we went out and got some guys that have been in the Midwest, which was important. The two guys that I retained — Ben Strickland and Thomas Hammock — have been outstanding as far as just giving us a grasp on the Midwest and then Henry Mason is also in the football office and he does an unbelievable job of kind of focusing in the Midwest and kind of where we're going in recruiting. So it's a very good staff. We had an opportunity to hire some very good football coaches. We have that opportunity because of the athletic department and coach Alvarez at Wisconsin.
Q: What are your expectations this season and long range at Wisconsin?
Andersen: My expectations are at the end of the day to send the seniors out so when they walk out that door for the last time they very proudly wear that Wisconsin hat and got their chest kind of puffed out and feel great about what Wisconsin football stands for on and off the field — get a group of men that succeed academically, socially and make football important and away we go. It's not ever measured by me with wins and losses. I know how important they are and they're a big part of this process, but it's about the kids first.
Q: Is this a much different animal than Utah State?
Andersen: No, it's really not. Kids are kids. There's tweaks to every recruiting plan, but the familiarities (are there) between the way coach Mac (Ron McBride) built Utah so many years ago and what we really tried to do. That was our blueprint at Utah State and it's the blueprint that coach Alvarez puts at the University of Wisconsin — recruit in-state; do a great job in your area; (and) make sure that you have a quality walk-on program.There's not very many programs in the country where you can go to where that's the core, that's the base of the football program, and it truly is at Wisconsin. All those things — when I went through the interviewing process — was why I knew it was the place I was supposed to go.
Q: Discuss life in the Big Ten and competing against Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, your former boss at Utah.
Andersen: It'll be fun. It's a big-time conference. Every conference has great teams and every conference has teams that are on the rise. It's a very competitive situation that we're in week in and week out. It's a very physical brand of football, without question, but it's amazing when you sit back and watch the film. What I saw was there's every type of offense other than Air Force's triple-option stuff that you have to be able to defend. So... it's a spread conference; it's a smash-mouth conference. There's big, powerful kids in the conference week in and week out and it's a high level of football. Football is very, very important there — just like it is in the state of Utah. But it's a tremendous conference. I think it's continuing to grow and get better every single year. You've got to be on your toes every week to have an opportunity to win. Like I always say, it's tough to win Division I football games and now in the Big Ten Conference that will be no different. It's going to be very difficult to win every week.
Q: Have you had a chance to speak with coach Meyer since taking the job at Wisconsin?
Andersen: We talk. Actually whenever we get a chance to go to any Big Ten meetings we try to maybe go to lunch or dinner and sit down and talk about things a little bit. We still talk quite a bit. I think it's a very good friendship. We both have great respect for each other and it's great to be able to kind of sit back and not talk to him about football stuff, which is nice. I do the same thing with Kyle (Whittingham). We don't always have to sit there and talk about football. We can just talk how friends talk.
Q: Will you continue to keep an eye on the Utes and Aggies?
Andersen: No question. Stacey (Andersen's wife) is all set. I think she's bought about 15 extra tickets for that Utah State-Utah game, that first one out. It's on Thursday (Aug. 29), so obviously she'll be down here to be able to see that and it's going to be crazy. She's back and forth quite a bit. She'll rack up those frequent flier miles here. But that's a huge first game of the year for Utah and for Utah State. It was a great battle last year and I'm sure it will be again. But I'll watch those teams very closely. I love the kids. Obviously at Utah State, I still stay in close contact with those young men and know so many of the coaches on both staffs. So they're very close to my heart.
Q: What are your thoughts on playing BYU on Nov. 9 at Camp Randall Stadium?
Andersen: I was surprised when I looked down and saw them on the schedule again. It was like, 'Holy Cow, here we go.' So the Cougars show up again. That's obviously way down the line, but we such tremendous respect on our staff for BYU. A lot of people may not know how good of a team they are but we surely do and who they can play. Just flip on the Notre Dame game last year and see what they did and how many games they were right there — tough-minded and very well-coached, great kids on the team. I love those kids on the team down there and the way they play. I don't know a lot of them personally, but the mutual respect you get when you compete against BYU — it's a special, special group of kids and that will be a big game for us.
Q: Is it surreal coaching at a place where Utah State suffered a heartbreaking 16-14 setback last season, nearly upsetting the Badgers?
Andersen: When you walk back into a lot of those situations, especially how that game went down — myself on the 19-yard line on the right hash — we've talked a few times to each other. You walk in to do some interviews and things in the visiting locker room and it takes you back. But it's just a crazy world. Again, I'm very lucky and blessed to be where I am. It's a tremendous place and I was at a tremendous place, too. I want everyone to truly understand that and know that. I loved my time at Utah State and I love my time now at Wisconsin. Not everybody can understand which decisions you make in life but you do it how you're supposed to do it, for me, and that's how I made the decision.