PROVO — In his first season at the helm of the historic Wisconsin football program, Gary Andersen has been facing new teams, and playing in new venues, almost every week in the Big Ten Conference.
Despite that unfamiliarity, Andersen has directed the Badgers to a 6-2 record and a three-game winning streak, as well as a No. 21 national ranking.
But Andersen is very familiar with his team’s next opponent.
When BYU invades Camp Randall Stadium Saturday (1:30 p.m. MST, ESPN), it will mark the 10th consecutive season that the former Utah State and Utah coach has faced the Cougars.
“Having BYU on the schedule was probably one of the most shocking things that I looked at when I took this job,” Andersen said. “It’s amazing they follow me all the way here. It’s a great challenge to play them.”
And Andersen will see a friendly foe on the opposite sideline, as he and Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall share a special bond. Andersen credits Mendenhall for giving him his big break into college coaching.
Nearly 20 years ago, when Mendenhall was the co-defensive coordinator at Northern Arizona, he reached out to Andersen, who was coaching at Park City High School. Mendenhall and Andersen knew each other from their playing days in junior college, when Mendenhall was at Snow JC, and Andersen was at Ricks JC.
Mendenhall wanted to hire Andersen as Northern Arizona’s defensive line coach.
“I had nowhere to go,” Andersen recalled. “I didn’t have an ‘in’ in college football at that point. I was hoping to get back in. I owe Bronco a lot for that phone call. We were good friends for a number of years. In the last few years, it’s definitely grown since my time at Utah State. I think we’ve become, what I would say, close coaching friends. We text back and forth quite a bit. I have great respect for him. But he gave me an opportunity.”
Andersen coached at Northern Arizona for two seasons before joining the staff at Utah as an assistant in 1997. In 2003, Andersen took the head coaching job at Southern Utah before returning to the Utes in 2004. Prior to the 2009 season, Andersen became the head coach at Utah State.
Mendenhall describes his relationship with Andersen as “really good.” So good, in fact, that Andersen’s son, Chasen, a former linebacker from Logan High, signed with the Cougars last February.
On signing day, Mendenhall said, “I love Chasen. He came on a junior day two years ago. Even though his hair was long and all that, when he plays, he flies around and he loves BYU for what it is. That's really fun for me. I have extra responsibility to the parents of those type of kids, to make sure they make it. I like that."
But then, last summer, Chasen Andersen experienced a change of heart and decided he wanted to play at Wisconsin, for his dad. Mendenhall granted him a release from his letter of intent.
Mendenhall said his relationship with Andersen improved dramatically after Andersen took the Utah State job.
“As soon as he left (Utah), it changed, and he was much more open and normal, actually — in terms of public relations and our friendship and then we recruited his son, and that was a great relationship. So we've gotten to know each other well, and there is mutual respect and admiration. It just took him changing schools."
As for Andersen taking over at Wisconsin last winter, Mendenhall said he is qualified for the job.
"He did a really nice job with Utah State, and did a nice job at Utah as the coordinator,” Mendenhall said. "He deserved (the head coaching position at Wisconsin), and he's done a nice job with it already. It doesn't surprise me. He has coached them to be tough; he has coached them to be physical; and I see some things of what he likes to do, defensively, already. Offensively, they're very similar to what they were prior to (Andersen’s staff) arriving."
All time, Andersen’s teams have posted a 7-8 record against BYU, dating back to 1997.
“Those games against BYU, I’ve had many great victories. I’ve had many, many tough defeats,” Andersen recalled. “That’s the rivalry game. Our goal when we went to Utah State was to find a way to create a rivalry game again between BYU and Utah State, which had not been there forever and ever. There had been lopsided games. We were fortunate enough to win a game against them and created a rivalry again in that situation.”
His friendship with Mendenhall “has grown through that rivalry,” Andersen said.
Andersen also expressed admiration for the way Mendenhall’s teams play.
“They’re going to take their best players and put them in positions to make plays. That’s what Bronco’s done there for years,” he said. “He does a great job with it. The way they play, the physicality they bring to the game, their love of football — you’ll see it. A lot of things that I stand for and believe in in coaching, their kids play that way.”
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