For the second time in three years, Wisconsin has lost a coach to an equal-at-best program. Head coach Gary Andersen has left Madison for Oregon State, stunning the Badger faithful and leaving athletic director Barry Alvarez grasping for options. Of course, Andersen was hired to replace Bret Bielema, who preferred the smoldering crater left by Bobby Petrino at Arkansas to Wisconsin.
Why does this keep happening in Madison? Why are coaches so quick to leave for other jobs that look to be a small step down? Why does the Big Ten West's top program have such a hard time keeping a coach?
Theory 1: Assistant salaries
Bielema made no secret of the fact that he felt Wisconsin did not give him a big enough budget to retain his assistant coaches, a point disputed by Alvarez. While it is true that Wisconsin's assistant salary pool was a paltry 40th in the nation and 11th in the Big Ten under Andersen this year, three facts cast doubt on the idea that Andersen left over assistant salaries.
- With the exception of Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, every Big Ten team is in the same ballpark for assistant pay. The difference between the salary pool at Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten West is miniscule. Wisconsin paid $2.37 million to assistants in 2014. The highest-paid group of assistants in the division, Iowa, were paid just $2.77 million. Minnesota and Nebraska paid their assistants comparable to the Hawkeyes, and Illinois and Purdue paid less. Does Barry Alvarez expect his team to compete with Ohio State and Michigan on a fraction of the budget? Sure, but so does almost every other Big Ten athletic director.
- Indications are that many of Andersen's assistants are following him to Oregon State, which paid its assistant coaches under Mike Riley $2.35 million in 2014. Oregon State was 41st nationally in assistant pay, right behind Wisconsin.
- If assistant pay was a concern, we would expect to see assistants jumping ship for other jobs. But at Wisconsin, there was no indication that Andersen's top assistants were hunting for lateral moves to different programs. By all indications, most were out recruiting when they heard the news that Andersen was leaving.
Theory 2: Academic requirements
Some have noted Andersen disliked Wisconsin's rigorous academic standards, which made it difficult to recruit and retain players.
But, as Drew Hamm and Sam Brief at Bucky's Fifth Quarter point out, Wisconsin's standards for current students are identical to those at Oregon State. And the Badgers have the third-best recruiting class in the Big Ten at the moment, according to 247Sports. Andersen's incoming class was actually better than his class the previous year, and better than almost every class ever signed by Bielema.
Andersen did lose one 2014 recruit, wide receiver Chris Jones, when he didn't meet Wisconsin's admissions standards despite being deemed eligible to play by the NCAA, but there is no indication that any other Wisconsin recruit had difficulty getting into school.
Theory 3: Geography
Alvarez told reporters that Andersen wanted to move back to the west:
"Gary felt that this was an opportunity for he and his family to get back to that part of the country, and he felt that he had to follow through with that opportunity. That was the extent of the conversation," Alvarez said.
Andersen played college football at Utah and, aside from a one-year stint at Southeastern Louisiana in the late '80s, had coached in or near Utah for his entire career before taking the Wisconsin job. When he accepted Wisconsin's offer, he said that he had turned down other jobs because he did not want to leave Utah.
In late November, Andersen was linked to job openings at Cal, Kentucky and Colorado.
At the time, he expressed publicly that he had no intention of leaving Utah State in the context that he loved coaching and living In Logan, and he didn't see himself as a fit in any of those programs.
"When I said no then,'' he pointed out, "I said no to those different places.''
Certainly, homesickness could be a factor. But Andersen has also had to rely heavily on his western connections in recruiting since arriving in Madison. His first class at Wisconsin was spread across the country, but the recruits set to sign this February include players from California, Utah, and even as far as American Samoa.
To be successful at Wisconsin, a coach has to be able to recruit nationally -- Bielema was, and remains, an excellent recruiter in Florida -- but if Andersen's base of talent was going to be in the west, it would make sense for his team to be there, as well.
Theory 4: Barry Alvarez
Long is the shadow cast over the Wisconsin program by Alvarez, the coach who resurrected it in the 1990s and remains the athletic director. Alvarez instilled the run-heavy pro-style cro-magnon DNA in the Wisconsin program that was only extended by the similarly-minded Bielema. Alvarez stressed Wisconsin Football would remain Wisconsin Football when Andersen was hired. For his part, Andersen was quick to dismiss any talk of spread offenses.
Andersen had not worked under Alvarez before, and his tactical changes -- a 3-4 defense as opposed to Wisconsin's traditional 4-3, use of a dual-threat quarterback and option plays on offense -- still met Alvarez's philosophy. But personnel issues led Andersen to utilize a clunky two-quarterback system this season, and while Alvarez never uttered a word publicly about the changes to traditional Wisconsin football, the changes themselves were evident.
Two years ago, we said that Andersen would try to bring Wisconsin into the 21st Century. At the end of the day, Andersen might have tried too much for his boss's liking. But that's just a theory.