MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez really likes his new football coach.
Alvarez, talking with me after the No. 24 Badgers’ 41-10 romp against Purdue, excused himself to congratulate Gary Andersen on his first career Big Ten victory — not with a formal handshake, but a big ol’ bear hug and a whispered comment that left Andersen laughing.
“Gary has been so good for us,” Alvarez said. “He has handled everything just the way you would want.”
It didn’t take long for Wisconsin to get a look at the leadership skills of Andersen, who turned longtime doormat Utah State into an 11-game winner in 2012.
The officiating fiasco in the final 18 seconds at Arizona State nine days ago — which cost UW a chance at a game-winning field goal — had the Badgers fuming. None more than Alvarez, who scrambled out of the press box as the referee waved off Andersen and trotted away.
“I ran straight to the officials’ locker room,” said Alvarez, a former Nebraska linebacker. “No one could keep up with me because I wanted answers. That was brutal.”
During his chase, Alvarez called Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who was still up at 1 a.m. in Chicago watching on TV.
Andersen, calmly and straightforwardly, addressed the issue after the game; Sunday with his team; Monday with the media; again with his team during the week; and after the Purdue game Saturday.
“I hope we can put that to bed now,” he said, though he wants his team to carry that hurt and turn it into a positive the rest of the season.
Alvarez smiled wide upon hearing that.
“I don’t know anybody who could handle last week better than Gary did,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like that in my life.”
Andersen’s move from Utah State to Wisconsin has a “never seen anything like it” element, too.
“It may be the weirdest takeover job in the history of college football,” said UW safeties coach Bill Busch, a former Nebraska assistant.
After Wisconsin clobbered Nebraska last December to win a third straight Big Ten title, coach Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas. In turn, Alvarez coached the Badgers in the Rose Bowl while conducting a coaching search.
Few tears were shed over the cocksure Bielema’s departure. After seven years, he had worn thin in the athletic department and the community.
That doesn’t mean Andersen would have it easy coming in. Busch, who previously coached at Wisconsin under Alvarez, aided greatly with the transition.
“There is a ‘Wisconsin Way’ here,” Busch said. “There’s the support of the state and our students — they have to be as good as any in the country — and the tradition coach Alvarez built here.”
While paying heed to those guidelines, the new staff also had to win over a 23-man senior class that has played in three Rose Bowls.
Said Busch: “If we start telling them, ‘Here’s how we do it,’ it easily could have been from them, ‘Let me tell you something.’ ”
So what was the response?
“They totally accepted us,” Busch said. “They said, ‘Coach, if you say water runs uphill, we see it going.’ The kids bought in unbelievably.”
Wisconsin is off to a 3-1 start and heads to No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) on Saturday night. Don’t blink because this might be the best game in the Big Ten all season, even with nine weeks to go.
It’s still too early to know if the Badgers are league-title material or simply a challenger for best of the rest.
The close call at Arizona State lost luster when Stanford hammered the Sun Devils on Saturday. Also, Badger quarterback Joel Stave has been only serviceable so far, struggling to throw the deep ball which is needed to keep the Wisconsin running game on track.
“We’ve got to pitch it and catch it better for sure,” Andersen said.
First-year coaches aren’t supposed to win championships. Alvarez isn’t predicting one, but he’s not pooh-poohing the idea, either.
“I like Gary and I like our guys,” Alvarez said. “One thing about our guys — we’ve got 23 seniors. They’ve played in Rose Bowls and big games. They will not be intimidated going to Ohio State.”
So far, change has been good for Wisconsin.