Gary Andersen is hoping to win hearts and minds before he messes with the X's and O's.
The Wisconsin loyal, unlike almost any other fan base, are strongly sentimental about their scheme. Badger fans will regale passers-by about how an I-formation package, resplendent with hard-blocking tight ends and tackles, is the Wisconsin way.
Other teams can keep their pistol, their spread and their wishbone—Wisconsin will stick to a formula that reflects the attitudes of a state grounded in blue-collar values.
So when Andersen was introduced as the new head coach, a few eyebrows were raised and a sense of protective nostalgia emanated from all corners of Badger nation. Every reporter seemed to ask, "Will he commit to running the ball?"
Andersen was quick to offer peace of mind during his opening press conference, as recorded by ESPN.com:
"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."
The new guy on the block was very smart in allaying the fears of a skeptical base. It is becoming clear, though, that Andersen has had a plan from the beginning. Once players and fans buy into him as a person, he could start to deviate—even if it is subtly at first—from the Alvarez-Bielema legacy.
So, the former Utah State coach has gone on an aggressive "Get to Know You" tour.
He has headed to places like Weston, Wisconsin, where he spoke to 300 people on the state of Wisconsin football. He has been flipping burgers. During practice, he has even shaken up the format to include impromptu dance-offs. In short, he has tried to be different outside of the game for a chance to be different during the game itself.
Little by little, the Badgers have come to realize that the Wisconsin brand of ball is changing—and yet the calls for Andersen's whistle have been nonexistent.
The first bombshell came when Andersen switched the Badgers defense to the exotic 3-4, a scheme rarely seen in college. Next, hints of a more spread-friendly offense began to surface. Players like dual threat Tanner McEvoy have signed on, echoing those changes. News from practices highlighted three-tight-end sets that are less power-oriented and more focused on creating mismatch opportunities.
Yet if people fear losing the program's bruising bloodline, they are keeping it to themselves.
Andersen has a clear strategy at play. Win over skeptics with personality first. Win over players with spontaneity second, and then hopefully win on Saturdays.
If the last third of the plan does not work though, it will take more than a few burgers to keep Andersen in Madison.