The Wisconsin football program officially went two-plus weeks without a head coach after Bret Bielema departed for Arkansas on Dec. 4. Unofficially, though, the coaching foundation that athletic director Barry Alvarez laid never fractured as the search for a new coach unfolded.
Two days after Bielema's unforeseen departure, Alvarez formally accepted players' requests to coach the team on an interim basis in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 8 Stanford. In addition to brandishing his coaching whistle for the first time in seven years, Alvarez commenced with a coaching search to fill the permanent position that he largely defined as coach of the Badgers from 1990-2005. When asked about the offensive philosophy that the new Wisconsin coach should possess, Alvarez told reporters: "You know what the plan is. It starts with those 'big palookas' up front."
The Burgettstown, Pa. native won a trio of Rose Bowls for Wisconsin in a span of seven years largely with a pro-style offense that featured a fullback and tailback along with a serviceable quarterback who managed the game. Alvarez often remarked that it was a lunch-pail mentality that he liked his team to exude, and the workmanlike approach was spurred by the mammoth linemen who anchored the Badgers' offensive line—the aforementioned "big palookas."
Bielema successfully followed the Alvarez blueprint for seven years in Madison, accumulating a 68-24 record and winning three Big Ten championships in his final three seasons with the Badgers. Despite losing five games during a 2012 campaign that featured three different starting quarterbacks, Wisconsin earned a trip to Pasadena by rushing for 539 yards in a 70-31 dismantling of Nebraska in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 1. It was the fourth-highest rushing mark in school history and it was the first time two Badgers ran for 200-plus yards in the same game.
Badgers fans got antsy in the ensuing two weeks without a coach-in-waiting, a title Bielema assumed during the 2005 season as Alvarez's handpicked successor. But a state job opening in Wisconsin is required to be posted for two weeks, so Alvarez calmly combed the college football ranks for someone to pass the baton to.
After interviewing two other candidates, Alvarez invited Utah State coach Gary Andersen to Madison after guiding the Aggies to an 11-win season, capped by a 41-15 victory over Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Little did he know at the time, but Andersen staged an audition in a two-point loss at Wisconsin in September—a game in which Andersen arguably out-coached his counterpart. The outcome wasn't decided until a potential game-winning field goal for Utah State sailed wide right in the final moments.
The turnaround that Andersen orchestrated at Utah State closely mirrored the resurrection that Alvarez scripted at Wisconsin. In his first four years, Alvarez's teams went 1-10, 5-6, 5-6, 10-1-1. The 10th win in his fourth season came as an underdog against UCLA in the Rose Bowl, the first time Wisconsin qualified for a trip to Pasadena in 31 years. The Badgers finished No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll.
In his four years at the helm of the Aggies, Andersen's teams went 4-8, 4-8, 7-6, 11-2. The 2012 win total is a school-best, and the bowl victory is just the second in program history.
A day after Alvarez and the Wisconsin associate athletic directors interviewed Andersen for the Badgers' job, Alvarez remarked to his underlings: "I think he is a slam dunk." One of the junior ADs admitted to his boss: "If I would have had a blindfold on, I would have thought that was you [Alvarez] answering the questions."
What better man to lead the Badgers than a virtual clone of Alvarez himself? Some would argue that Andersen's offense at Utah State was more of a spread scheme, but he told Alvarez that the personnel largely dictated the plan of attack. Translation: The athletes he recruited were put in positions that best utilized their talents.
Andersen will follow a similar philosophy at Wisconsin. He's smart enough to know that if it's not broken, don't fix it.
With 11 former Wisconsin offensive linemen and tight ends currently on NFL rosters, the NCAA's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (senior tailback Montee Ball) and three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances, it's obvious that the "big palooka" plan is working. Expect Andersen to master it.