Gary Andersen: Settling in
Aug. 29, 2014
With his family firmly entrenched in Madison, year two of the Gary Andersen era is marked by familiarity.
Photo: Varsity Magazine/ESPN Images
This story first appeared in Varsity Magazine, the official digital magazine of the Wisconsin Badgers. You can download the Varsity App for iOS or Android devices. Varsity Magazine is also available for web viewing.
By Mike Lucas, UWBadgers.com
Behind Gary Andersen’s office desk, there’s a framed picture of Andersen hugging wife Stacey after his 2010 Utah State team upset BYU, 31-16, snapping a 10-game losing streak in the series that dated back to 1993.
“That’s the one picture,” said Andersen, the second-year Wisconsin coach, “that completely keeps me grounded.”
A week earlier, San Diego State had completely dismantled Utah State, 41-7.
The Aggies’ record fell to 1-3 in Andersen’s second season in Logan, Utah.
The pressure was taking a toll; Andersen was pushing himself to the limit, and beyond.
That following Monday morning, Andersen blacked out and fell in the bathroom of his home.
Stacey heard the loud noise, found him on the floor and was petrified.
He was lucky. He cracked two vertebrae in his neck. It could have been much worse.
“You realize that it,” he said of his all-consuming job, “is not that important sometimes.”
It was a hard lesson to learn for Andersen, who was forced to wear a neck brace for a month.
“I missed most of the week of practice and the kids came out and played their tails off (against BYU),” he said, still marveling at the memory of that home win on Merlin Olsen Field.
“That picture,” he said, pointing to a shelf behind his desk, “reminds me, ‘Don’t push yourself too hard … nor the kids … nor the assistant coaches.”’
There are framed pictures of the kids throughout Andersen’s eighth floor office in Camp Randall.
Oldest son Keegan played tight end at Utah State, got married this summer and moved to Madison to be a graduate assistant on defense for the Badgers. He’s coaching linebackers with his dad.
Badger coach Gary Andersen was one of just five first-year head coaches to win at least nine games at his new school last year.
The Andersen twins are both living at home now, too.
Chasen Andersen is a freshman linebacker at Wisconsin, while Hagen Andersen is planning on taking on-line classes. He recently left Weber State after transferring there from Utah State.
“He went through two-a-days at Weber,” Gary Andersen said of Hagen, a wide receiver. “And to make a long story short, it was the third time that his knee has gone out on him.
“I’m glad that he has made the decision (to quit football), much like Vontae (Jackson, a sophomore tailback who made the same decision after suffering another knee injury with the Badgers).
“He (Hagen) is going to get started in school again and find a direction in his life where he wants to head. It’s football season now, he might hang around here (Madison) for a little bit.”
Keegan and wife Jennifer live less than 15 minutes from Gary and Stacey and the twins.
“It been awesome,” Gary Andersen said of the entire family relocating to Madison. “It’s something that I never guessed would have happened.
“When we accepted the opportunity to come to Wisconsin and be a Badger, we just thought it was going to be Stacey and me. Now, we’ve got our three kids with us and a daughter-in-law.
“That’s a pretty good deal,” he said, breaking into a big smile.
The candy jar on Gary Andersen’s desk is full. The one on the other side of the room is empty.
“That’s not good,” he said.
There are two doors to Andersen’s office, the “back door” leads to the assistant’s offices.
The back door is always open and the players pop in and take candy on their way to meetings.
“I would hate this office if that door wasn’t right there,” he said, motioning to the back door, “because I couldn’t leave it open and I couldn’t see the kid’s faces. That would bother me.”
There used to be a “curse cup” or jar on Andersen’s desk.
“We don’t have it anymore,” he said. “We’ve improved in that area.”
The more he thought about it … “We probably still should have it,” he added, laughing.
Any coach who swore was obligated to throw a buck into the curse cup.
“The most important thing to me is the relationships that you can build and the things that you talk about. Family. Trust. Belief. That takes time.”
“When we made bad decisions with our language,” Andersen confirmed, “we’d put it in there.”
Whatever money was collected was earmarked for the group and lunch at the end of the season.
“Kids are far from perfect, just like our coaches,” Andersen said. “But it does matter (the type of language that is used) especially when we have little faces and little ears around us (at practices).”
Sometimes it’s unavoidable; especially because it’s such an emotional sport.
“That’s part of the drill,” Andersen agreed. “But it still doesn’t make it right, either.”
After a recent practice, the players were “penalized” because of a sloppy locker room.
The penalty was a series of crunches.
“Coach Simon,” he said of the UW’s strength coordinator Evan Simon, “assured me that his little workout would remind them to throw their cups in the garbage can or straighten up a chair.
“I would hope the people who donated the money (for the locker room) could walk in there at any time and be proud. If not, it’s an issue. And it was unacceptable to our standards of what we want.
“It helps you stay organized,” he said of the lesson that he was teaching. “It gives you responsibility. It’s kind of who you are. I’m not saying you have to be the neatest person in America.
“But they’re borrowing that locker for a short period of time and it’s their responsibility to take care of it. Almost every locker in there has a name plate of a former player.
“It’s the same way I feel about my office. It’s our house, right? So it should be clean.”
Andersen is feeling much more comfortable in his eighth-floor office.
“A year does amazing things,” he said. “The most important thing to me is the relationships that you can build and the things that you talk about. Family. Trust. Belief. That takes time.
“You just don’t make that stuff up. I think our kids believe that now. So, in turn, we can push them harder in life, we can push them harder academically, we can push them harder in football …
“And we can also hug them harder,” he emphasized.
Photo: Varsity Magazine
Andersen’s office has many framed pictures of his kids.
There are pictures of Jared Abbrederis, Chris Borland and James White, among others.
“It just reminds me of that first senior class that was here that helped us get through the adjustment,” Andersen said. “They were loyal kids and those pictures are going to stay up there.”
When did Andersen feel like he “turned the corner” in his first season at Wisconsin?
“About halfway through the year,” he said. “We had been through some good days; we had been through some bad days. But I felt I could go to the seniors on the leadership committee.
“I could go to Chris Borland and communicate with him. I could do likewise with Ethan Armstrong, Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer. I could really go up to Ryan Groy and communicate.
“I could ask him, ‘How are you feeling, Ryan?’ and he would really tell me instead of just, ‘I’m good coach.’ There was a point where I felt we were starting to sink in as a staff, a team, a family.
“There’s a point where you feel the kids believe in you and I suppose part of that is being accepted by them. You have to let them understand that you really are what you say you are.
“I think there’s a process that goes into that with the fans, too,” Andersen continued. “You just don’t come in and make yourself a Badger in one day to a fan that is a true Badger fan.
“There’s a point where you feel the kids believe in you and I suppose part of that is being accepted by them. You have to let them understand that you really are what you say you are.”
“There’s going to be a wait and see. Are you going to win games? Are you going to take care of our kids? Are you going to do things right?
“We’re invested to make the fans happy with what the kids do. We’re also invested in changing kid’s lives. And, ultimately, if we do that then we’ll be successful coaches.”
So how successful are the Badgers going to be in 2014? Does Andersen know what he has?
“We know a lot about them,” he said of the players, “but to say, ‘This is who we’re going to be’ or to say ‘This is how many games we think that we can win’ … I don’t think we can say so (right now).
“How we are going to handle adversity with the senior leaders and our youth will be a defining moment. How athletic are we? We’re pretty athletic against ourselves. But how are we against others?
“Overall, I would say we have better team speed, which we need because we don’t have a linebacker who plays like Borland or a wide receiver who plays like Abbrederis and can replace them.”
What do they have? Andersen was asked to fill in the blanks or complete the thoughts.
Your strongest position group is …
“Offensive line. Hands down. Some may say the running backs. I would say the O-Line.”
You will be balanced on offense if …
“We can throw the ball on third down consistently.”
You will hold up physically against the run if …
“We have six defensive linemen that can be technically and fundamentally sound snap after snap.”
You will be better defensively because …
“We’ll make more big plays … more TFLs, sacks, fumbles. We’ll not necessarily be more aggressive. But we’ll have more big plays.”
“We’re also invested in changing kid’s lives. And, ultimately, if we do that then we’ll be successful coaches.”
Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave will give you an opportunity to …
“That’s a good one. We have two quarterbacks who can play and they will give us an opportunity (to have success) so we won’t have to adjust the offense during the season for a youthful quarterback who’s not prepared for the moment.”
The thing that you really like about this team is …
“Is the way they care for each other. I would say right now that’s the No. 1 thing.”
Andersen, like most coaches, is married to certain phrases or sayings.
“These are all things that I always try to hit the kids with as we go forward,” he said.
You will find some of his favorites on his office wall.
One reads, “The chief cause for failure (and unhappiness) is trading what you want most for what you want at the moment.”
Said Andersen, “I’ve had that one forever.”
In other words, his own words, he said, “Set a goal and don’t lose sight of those goals.”
There’s more handwriting on the wall, such as, “Don’t follow your passion, follow your effort.”
Noted Andersen, “These sayings are all something that I’ve asked the kids to understand.”
Nobody, according to Andersen, has been giving greater effort than tailback Melvin Gordon, who returned for his junior year because he wanted to be “great.” He has shared that goal with everyone.
Gordon has a higher profile today than he had at the end of last season and interviewers have walked off impressed, including one national writer who was blown away by Gordon’s presence in comparison to all of the other top players in college football that he had interviewed.
“Melvin has handled it all – I hate to use the word professional – but he has handled it all like a professional,” Andersen said of the growing media attention for the Kenosha native. “He has put this team first. He doesn’t have an agenda.
“A few nights ago, Melvin texted me out of the blue. He just wanted to communicate what his expectations were for himself and what he liked or didn’t like about that day’s practice as far as his own performance. He pushes himself now, and it matters.
“My response to Melvin was, ‘I know how hard you’re working. I know what you’re doing out there. You’re a great team leader. Just keep going on through the process.’ He has been awesome.
“It’s fun to be around a kid who will communicate that to you,” Andersen went on. “The care factor is there and that goes back to the whole thing with the kids. I hope they feel like they all can communicate with us as coaches. We want to help them be the best that they can be.”
UW running back Melvin Gordon (25) carries the ball against Purdue at Camp Randall on Sept. 21, 2013. “(Gordon) has put this team first,” Andersen says. “He doesn’t have an agenda.”
Andersen served up one final thought on Gordon, whose name has surfaced on many preseason Heisman Trophy lists. “Melvin has been great with these young kids,” he said. “They look up to him in a good way, and that’s a good guy to look up to.”
Andersen had one of those guys in his life – his dad, Phil Andersen; a good guy and mentor.
The most meaningful keepsakes in Gary Andersen’s office are the American flag that draped his dad’s casket and Phil Andersen’s dog tags; he was a World War II vet, the Battle of the Bulge.
There’s also a football on the shelf that the Utah players signed after Andersen’s father passed away (Gary Andersen was then a Ute assistant).
“That means a lot to me,” said Andersen. “Those things are important.”
Phil Andersen surely wondered what his son was thinking in 1988 when he took a job with Wally English at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.
Gary Andersen had just left the University of Utah and was working as a grad assistant/volunteer coach at Ricks College, where he had been a JUCO All-American.
Ricks (now BYU-Idaho) was in Rexburg, Idaho; a world away (1,818 miles) from Hammond, which is about 50 minutes from Baton Rouge and the campus of Wisconsin’s first opponent, LSU.
But when English called with an offer – $10,000 – Gary Andersen couldn’t refuse.
“Yeah, I’m ready to go,” he told English.
English was trying to revive football on the Southeastern Louisiana campus. Andersen, one of two assistants, began making contacts and recruiting players for the start-up the following season.
“How we are going to handle adversity with the senior leaders and our youth will be a defining moment.”
“We tried to bring back the program, but it didn’t happen,” Andersen recalled. “They pulled the carpet out from underneath us before we really got started and canceled the program. We got the word maybe two or three days before Thanksgiving.
“That was my first taste of coaching. I’ll never forget it. Stacey and I loaded up the car, grabbed a U-Haul and drove straight back to Utah from Hammond (a 28-hour drive). A couple of days later, I told my dad that I was going to keep coaching and he was like, ‘You’re crazy.”’
Gary Andersen thinks about his dad just about every day.
“He just taught me to be who I am,” he has repeatedly said.
He may also think about that saying on the wall: Don’t follow your passion, follow your effort.
After all, it has led Gary Andersen, now 50, to that eighth-floor office in Camp Randall Stadium.
“I feel comfortable,” he was saying now. “I feel like we’re in a very good spot.”