MADISON, Wis. — Gary Andersen doesn’t mind taking a back seat with his new team when it comes to the Rose Bowl.
Andersen was formally introduced Friday as the new head coach at Wisconsin and he made it clear right away that he will be more of a “fly on the wall” as the Badgers prepare for the Jan. 1 game against Stanford.
That’s because his boss, athletic director Barry Alvarez, is already handling the coaching duties at the request of the players following the departure of Bret Bielema, who left after seven years, for Arkansas. That allows Andersen, who left Utah State after four years, to evaluate players and prepare for next season.
“These kids need to go win a Rose Bowl,” Andersen said after walking past a bowing Bucky Badger mascot and pep band playing the Wisconsin fight song. “The last thing they need for me is to hang around coach Alvarez.”
Alvarez, who won three Rose Bowls during his Wisconsin coaching career, said he interviewed three candidates in person for the job but didn’t offer it to anyone but Andersen.
“Gary has impressed me as the right person who believes in the things we have done to be successful in this program,” Alvarez said. “It was such a great fit, it was like he was in my head.”
Andersen drew interest from California, Colorado and Kentucky in November, but decided to pass on those opportunities and received a contract extension from Utah State. Andersen said he accepted the Wisconsin job without asking any questions and pointed to a game earlier this season when his visiting Aggies missed a 37-yard field goal in the final seconds and the Badgers escaped with a 16-14 win.
“Coach Alvarez didn’t have to make any pitch to this guy,” Andersen said. “The pitch was made when I spent three hours out on that field a long time ago.”
At Utah State, Andersen took over a struggling program and led it to an 11-2 record this season, Western Athletic Conference title and a bowl victory over Toledo.
At Wisconsin, he inherits a team fresh off winning the Big Ten and headed to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year. Wisconsin is 8-5 this year.
Andersen said he spent two days personally calling all 106 players on the Utah State team to let them know he was leaving. He said that was “probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my coaching career.”
Andersen met separately with some Wisconsin players and addressed the entire team at practice Friday. He told players that he would not be a distraction at the bowl game, junior running back James White said.
Center Travis Frederick said that’s unlikely to happen.
“Right now our focus is really on winning the Rose Bowl,” he said.
Players said they were glad the search for a new coach was over and that Andersen made a good first impression.
“He seemed like a great guy,” said junior linebacker Chris Borland. “He’s a straight shooter.”
Everyone on the Badgers roster has played only for Bielema. Borland said having a new coach gives everyone a chance to re-establish themselves or make a fresh start.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said.
The Badgers lose running back Montee Ball, who set the major college record for career touchdowns this year and tied the single-season mark last year. Also leaving are linebacker Mike Taylor and standout defensive backs Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith.
But the team has plenty of talent returning for Andersen to work with, including White and Melvin Gordon, who rushed for a total of almost 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Andersen said he didn’t anticipate any players from Utah State transferring to play for Wisconsin, but he will bring “three or four” coaches with him. He didn’t say who. The Aggies’ offensive coordinator, Matt Wells, has replaced Andersen as Utah State coach.
Andersen also said he wants to keep some Wisconsin coaches on board to keep ties with Wisconsin high school coaches and stay strong recruiting in-state. He singled out defensive secondary coach Ben Strickland, a former Wisconsin player who joined the team as a full-time assistant coach this year, as one he wanted to keep.
The 48-year-old Andersen said Wisconsin will continue to be a power-run team under his leadership.
“That will be the mindset and that’s the way it’s always been,” he said. “We’re going to line up and let those big kids work. That’s what they like to do. ... I sure hope my stamp at the end of the day is to have a football team that is physical, tough minded.”
Andersen, who was defensive line coach under Urban Meyer when he was coach at Utah, said he reached out to the current Ohio State coach to talk about the Wisconsin job.
“His first thoughts were, obviously it’s a tremendous job and great opportunity,” Andersen said. “I have an unbelievable respect for coach Meyer, his family, the way he has moved himself throughout this profession.”
As for the upcoming bowl game, Andersen said he looked forward to checking out the players and being a fan.
“I and my coaches need to evaluate the young men in the program so we can get a head start building for the next year,” he said.