Has Badger Football Peaked? Can Gary Andersen Save It?

by Richard Branch

Spring practice is a fun time of year.  It’s a little taste of college football after the glow of national signing day wears off and before the distractions of warm summer days take the mind off the fact that any meaningful football is still months away.  In spring, every team goes undefeated.   Every team is looking to get better; everyone is promising improvement.

In Madison, rather than with carefree excitement, spring practice is being watched with great consternation.   A new coaching staff takes over a winning program looking to build on a track record of success stretching back over two decades.  While Gary Andersen has navigated his first weeks effectively, many look at his history and coaching philosophies with trepidation. 

Much talk has centered on Wisconsin’s identity as a run-first, power football team and how that might change with new leadership.  Andersen ran a spread attack at Utah State, is a disciple of spread champion Urban Meyer, and brought in an offensive coordinator whose most successful years as a coach were with a spread offense at Utah. 

Fans are unlikely to see wholesale change to Badger football in 2013 but perhaps new blood and a fresh perspective are necessary for the long-term growth and prosperity of Wisconsin football.  Perhaps Wisconsin needs to look beyond traditional power football in order to compete on the national level.  Some new wrinkles sprinkled into what the team already does could make the team that much better.  Call it sacrilege, but it may be time for the Badger offense to expand it’s repertoire beyond the scheme and philosophies that Barry Alvarez put in place in the early 90s.

To be clear, diminishing Barry Alvarez’s legacy is not intended.  It can’t be done.  He's captured in bronze outside Camp Randall for good reason.  Despite having been off the field for seven seasons, his ability to unite the football team and fan base behind this year’s Rose Bowl run reaffirmed his position as more than a well loved former coach; he is Wisconsin football.

The Godfather of Badger Football

The Godfather of Badger Football

Alvarez built a winning football team from the ground up.  In the 1970s and 80s the program was a model of consistent mediocrity winning only 46 wins in each decade.  After three years forging a program identity, the Badgers won an astounding 80 games between 1993-2002.  Alvarez was able to take a conference afterthought and make them into a three time Rose Bowl champion.    

Barry Alvarez is a Hall of Fame coach for good reason.  Few coaches (Bill Snyder – but that’s about it) did more than Alvarez to instill a winning culture in a football program that didn't have it before.  Wisconsin football was irrelevant, now the Badgers are counted amongst the nation’s best programs.

Even more to his credit Alvarez’s hand picked successor maintained the winning traditions he put in place; Bret Bielema’s 10 win machines of 2009-11 were as good as anything that has been put on the field at Wisconsin. 

The key to this sustained success were how closely aligned Bielema’s coaching philosophies were to Alvarez.  Barry Alvarez built his program around hard-nosed, power football recognizing the challenges he would face recruiting elite skill players to a program without a long winning tradition. 

Both coaches built teams through coaching up overlooked and undervalued players - only Wisconsin thought Ron Dayne could play tailback in college.  Since Rivals and Scout started tracking this sort of thing about a decade ago, Wisconsin has consistently averaged a recruiting class ranking in the 40’s with no real difference between coaches.  To augment scholarship athletes, Wisconsin built a walk on program the equal of any program across the country - six players who began their Wisconsin careers as walk ons started the 2012 Rose Bowl against Oregon.

To their credit, both coaches built teams that performed beyond the expectations of the raw talent on their rosters.  The Badgers ended the season in the top-25 eleven times in the past 20 years, including 6 top-10 finishes.  From Wisconsin’s 1993 season onwards*, the Badgers have won nearly 70% of their games.  Whatever their secret, they identified players who could thrive in their systems and developed them to a high level. 

To put it in other terms, if Wisconsin football were a business its return on investment would be the envy of its competitors.  Other companies boast bigger profits, but Wisconsin’s margins are killer.  Badgers fans get a lot of bang for their buck. 

These winning ways speak for themselves and cannot be dismissed.  In the 20 years since Barry’s first Rose Bowl campaign, the team has shown steady, marked improvement.  Between ’93-’02 the team won 65% of its games.  Bret Bielema won nearly 75% of his games during his tenure in Madison.  Wisconsin is a program without a rich history comparable to traditional powers – there is no Knute Rockne mythology to wow recruits with - but the coaching staffs did an admirable job building off the success of the last two decades.

The Badgers’ brand of hard-nosed power football consistently overwhelmed lesser opponents.  They were a combined 45-3 against FCS, MAC, WAC, and Mountain West opponents. Against lower tier conference foes, the Badgers were able to do much the same as they consistently steamrolled the likes of Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota to the tune of 42-9-1.  In all, the Badgers faced a ranked opponent only eight times in those 100 games and rarely gave away a game they shouldn’t. 

Despite these successes, a close review of the Alvarez/Bielema dynasty does point to certain limitations in doing things the “Wisconsin Way”.  Although the Badgers have been able to consistently steamroll lower tier teams, both coaches found the going much tougher against higher-level competition.  Against ranked teams they couldn’t reach .500; Bielema and Alvarez combined for a record of 36-44-1.  Against top-10 teams they were even worse: 9-20-1. 

During his time in Madison much was made of Bret Bielema’s struggles coaching “the big game” when compared to his predecessor, but their record against ranked opponents are remarkably similar.  Alvarez won 44% of his games (24-29-1 vs. the top 25) with Bielema - the “choker” –only 2 percentage points behind at 42% (10-14).  Against the top 10 they won an identical 30% of their games.  Perhaps most damning, against traditional conference powers Michigan and Ohio State the coaches were a combined 11-18-1 even with the Rich Rodriguez years in Ann Arbor.  The statistics are quiet telling.  Maybe a dogged, grinding pro-style offense and a bend but don’t break defense have their limitations.

Bielema took the system Alvarez put in place and honed it into an offensive juggernaut

Bielema took the system Alvarez put in place and honed it into an offensive juggernaut

Wisconsin’s practice of recruiting unheralded or overlooked players, coaching them up through their redshirt and underclass seasons before letting them loose as upperclassmen can only make the team so good.  Higher talent teams are simply able to run up, over, and around the Badgers no matter how well disciplined or coached they are.  Based on past performance, it’s reasonable to ask if Badger football has peaked?  The “Wisconsin Way” produces consistent, winning football, but is it fair to expect further improvement without changes of some kind?

Given all this, Bret Bielema’s departure may have come at the right time.  Despite the upheaval caused by his move to Fayetteville and the scattering of most of the staff during the ensuing coaching search, bringing in a new head coach and like minded assistants from outside Madison - outside the Alvarez coaching tree - may be best for the long term growth of Badger football. 

Gary Andersen comes to the program as an experienced head football coach with a proven track record.  In a story that parallels Alvarez's rise at Wisconsin, Andersen took Utah State from being one of the worst programs in the FBS to having the best season in school history in four short years.  His experience allows him to rely on his own experience and identity in a way that his predecessor never could as a coordinator promoted from within.  Rather than being next in succession in the Alvarez dynasty, Andersen comes in with his own worldview and methodology to sustain a winner.

Gary Andersen’s personality and career perspective seem well matched to the idiosyncrasies of the Wisconsin job.  Wisconsin is one of the few jobs in the country where the athletic director has firm beliefs about what the football team should look like. 

Alvarez has not been shy in sharing them either.  During the hiring process he made it clear he would not hire someone who would “go five wide” running an air raid style of football.  Given his history with the program, Barry’s philosophies have trickled down to the fanbase that’s fearful of a “spread guy” getting away from what made Badger football great.

Andersen has made it a point since he was hired to praise the resources he’s been given to “compete at the highest level”.  He’s gone out of his way to praise Wisconsin’s past success running power football and promises to make extensive use of tight ends and fullbacks.  To steal a line from the headlines Andersen has lead a “charm offensive” to allay concerns that massive changes are coming to Madison.  While the core will stay the same, it’s unlikely that the offense won’t undergo some modifications in 2013. 

Andersen’s offenses at Utah State were traditional spread option teams heavily reliant upon a mobile, athletic quarterback.  Looking further back at his time as an assistant, he was no doubt influenced by successful Utah teams he was a part of where mobile quarterbacks were a staple of the offense – offenses run by Wisconsin’s current offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.  In his introductory press conference, Andersen has made more than one reference to having a “touch of option” in his offense and promises the extensive use of multiple formations.  Wisconsin’s offense will be more multi-faceted that its been in the past. 

A complete rework of the offense isn't practical in year 1 as Andersen needs to build credibility with the administration and instill confidence in the fan base before tweaking the bedrock of Badger football.  Radical change will come on the defensive side of the ball.  Aside from the well publicized shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, the entire defensive philosophy will undergo a transformation. 

Over 20 years fans had grown accustomed to seeing the Badger secondary playing soft one coverages well of the receiver at the line of scrimmage.  The danger of a big play was mitigated by allowing a defense to make short plays underneath the coverage.  Under the new regime an attacking defense with corners playing tight man coverage will look to disrupt offenses and cause mistakes that force turnovers and negative plays. 

Changes in defensive philosophies or formations will not cause great consternation so long as the group performs reasonably well.  To a fan base a sack is largely a sack, a turnover a turnover.  No one really cares how many down linemen were in on a given play; results will speak for themselves.  If changes can be successfully implemented on defense, more drastic changes on offense are an easier sell.

Gary Andersen.jpg

In short, Andersen is looking to make Wisconsin into a more dynamic and aggressive team on both sides of the ball.  His scheme will require players who are able to win one on one battles with opponents whether it’s quarterbacks making plays with their feet or cornerbacks neutralizing receivers without help from safeties over top.  While some of the current roster can adapt, new types of players need to be brought into Madison for Andersen’s system to succeed. 

Andersen gave us a glimpse into the future with the few players he added to the 2013 recruiting class.  To a man, the players he added were fast and athletic.  After striking out on several dual threat quarterbacks, Andersen was able to convince Tanner McEvoy to sign with the Badgers; he should be considered the favorite to win the starting job in the fall. 

Filling gaps in an inherited class is one thing, but building his own will be another.  The systems being installed require top tier talent for it to be successful against the level of competition the Badgers face in the B1G.  Big Ten Network’s Gerry DiNardo puts it best:  “For the Badgers to become an elite program they must recruit like one”.

Andersen has built a reputation for bringing good talent into every team he's been a part of.  Twice as an assistant at Utah he was recognized as a top-10 non BCS recruiter; his hires since taking over the Badger job clearly reflect the high priority he puts on bringing top talent into the program as they are all known to be strong recruiters.  The Badgers are more aggressive in recruiting than they’ve been in recent years.  In the entire 2012 recruiting cycle (Bielema’s last from start to finish) Wisconsin extended 81 confirmed scholarships.  Through mid-March Andersen has already extended 72 for 2014.  

Wisconsin has long played down the importance of recruiting rankings, and it’s fair to criticize recruiting class “worship” on the microscopic level, but as an overall trend teams that compete for and win national championships consistently put together top recruiting classes.  To be great teams need to recruit at the top level. 

For Wisconsin to truly become a legitimate national power the program needs to make adjustments.  It will be hard work, as Andersen will have to swim upstream against deeply entrenched beliefs.  Change cannot come overnight; for this to work a coach needs to be in for the long haul.

While every new coach makes well rehearsed remarks at their first press conference as a new head coach about the job they were just hired for being the last one they plan on taking, Andersen was quite open about what he views the ceiling of Wisconsin football to be implying he likely won’t be looking to move on any time soon:  

"[I] Would not have entertained the thought in any way, shape, or form of taking a job at this point in my career [my emphasis added] if I didn't think we could come in and compete and play for championships. 
    
I'm not a prediction guy. I'm not going to reach out there and say we're going to do this or we're going to do that. I just let the results speak for themselves when we get out on the field. I think this football program I don't think. I know this football program has everything it needs to compete at the highest level. In everybody's mind, I'm sure the national championship is at the highest level."

His actions leading up to his hiring by Wisconsin seem to back up these statements.  Andersen landed in Madison only after turning down other opportunities.  Before Barry Alvarez came calling, Cal and Kentucky reached out to Andersen.  In both situations Andersen elected to stay in Logan. 

His likely calculations are telling.  The coaching opportunities at Cal and Kentucky are very similar.  Both are large schools in major conferences well positioned geographically for recruiting.  Despite that, they are at best mid level powers in their respective conferences.  Cal is probably the 4th best job in their state alone (think USC, UCLA, and Stanford) and Kentucky is far more focused on basketball than they are on anything that goes on in Commonwealth Stadium. 

Ron Dayne's record-breaking career almost single-handedly put Wisconsin football on the national radar.

Ron Dayne's record-breaking career almost single-handedly put Wisconsin football on the national radar.

Neither team is heavily committed to football; successful seasons at either school would be 8 wins and a December bowl.  In reality that isn’t much different than how things projected in Logan had Andersen stayed.  With continued success Utah State could carve out a niche as a Boise State 2.0: double digit wins most years and the ability to play the spoiler.    Even with limited bowl tie ins (the Idaho Potato Bowl isn’t exactly Pasadena) with enough sustained success at-large bids would open up in double digit win seasons. 

Andersen appears to be a coach with a long view.  He didn’t jump at the first major conference job that came his way as so many promising up and coming coaches who saw their careers derailed by a bad decision.  He views Wisconsin through a different lens than he does either Kentucky or Cal. Andersen calculates he can vault a very good one in the realm of an elite one.  If he recruits just a tad better, with slight tweaks to the product on the field he can break through the self-imposed glass ceiling of his predecessors. 

Where Gary Andersen sees opportunity, Bret Bielema sensed limitations too great for him to fulfill his goals as a football coach.  One is hard pressed to find an instance where the coach of a 3-time major conference champion leaves a very secure job for arguably the 5th best job in another conference under the premise of improving his odds at winning a championship.

No matter how he fares in the SEC, Bret Bielema’s greatest contribution to Wisconsin football may well be in his departure.  As he cleaned out his offices at Camp Randall, Bielema took some parting shots at the program that did little to endear him to the Badger fan base or his former boss. 

Regardless of how he left the program, Bielema did draw attention to troubling issues within the athletic department.  He complained of other programs picking off assistants with promises of higher wages. True or not, Wisconsin had the 2nd lowest assistant salary pool in the B1G in 2012.  Since his departure he’s made the case that recruiting to Fayetteville is easier than Madison; in recent years Wisconsin has consistently had one of the lowest recruiting budgets in the conference. 

The great irony of it all is if he was still in Madison, an acknowledgement of the issue by administration or any actions to address it would have been unlikely.  Had the program regained form in 2013 and returned to it’s 10 win ways there would be little for Bielema to claim was slowing him down.  But by airing the program’s dirty laundry on his way out the door it forces the athletic department to ensure no coach complains of these issues again for fear of drawing the ire of an angry fan base.  A program that drives coaches away by being cheap can’t turn around and tell fans they are fully committed to winning. 

Despite the general exuberance over Gary Andersen’s first months at the helm of Wisconsin football, there is no guarantee that he will succeed.  No matter how many glowing reviews by fans or the media, no games are won in a press conference.  Playing music in practice – fun or not, high energy or not – does not guarantee the team will get better. 

Andersen and his staff can’t improve the talent base in Madison simply by opening the phone book and throwing around scholarship offers.  They need to show they can close the deal.  Despite all his success as a recruiter at Utah, as a head coach Utah State’s recruiting classes were consistently amongst the lowest ranked in the country.  It’s obvious from his results he could spot overlooked talent but Wisconsin has demonstrated the limitations of doing that already.  He’s teaching a new scheme to a new group of players; 2013 and beyond could end up being a case of a round peg in a square hole. 

Given his past success and apparent comfort in his new job, it’s unlikely the Badgers will fall on their face in year one with Andersen.  He looks like too good a coach for that to happen.  Just as unlikely however is to see them transformed into an elite level giant killer in year one. 

Rather than shoot out the gate conference contenders, it’s more likely Wisconsin will fight through one or two seasons as players learn new schemes and personnel that match the scheme are brought into the program.

Things will change in Madison over the next few seasons.  There is little doubt of that.  Things may get more “spread-ish” on offense.  The defense will look different as players move all over the field.  But if things break right, if Gary Andersen is the right guy for the job, one thing will look the same…winning.

*Note:  Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited are from Wisconsin’s 1993 Rose Bowl winning season forward.  Wisconsin’s 1990-92 rebuilding seasons are not of value when assessing the success of Badger football in the modern era as it would make the team appear less successful than it was under Barry Alvarez.  All rankings are from the AP poll.