On Wisconsin? Gary Andersen bolting shows UW's problem may be institutional

Barry Alvarez said Wednesday he was “very surprised” that football coach Gary Andersen had abruptly fled Wisconsin for Oregon State.

That comes two years and four days after Alvarez was “totally caught by surprise” by football coach Bret Bielema abruptly fleeing Wisconsin for Arkansas.

Surprise, surprise. The football program Alvarez turned into a contender shockingly has become the most dump-able program in the Power Five conferences.

Gary Andersen is leaving Wisconsin to take the head coaching job at Oregon State. (AP)
Gary Andersen is leaving Wisconsin to take the head coaching job at Oregon State. (AP)

The question is why? What has made Wisconsin a bailout job?

Neither Andersen nor Bielema left Madison for an obvious step up. That should concern Alvarez and the Wisconsin administration.

Arkansas is in a better conference but also is a tougher place to win – Bielema is 9-15 there, but just 2-14 in Southeastern Conference games. He knew he’d be getting his teeth kicked in for a while at least. Andersen departs what is at worst a top-six Big Ten job for one of the three toughest in the Pac-12. He ran to a job where his daily challenge is going up against the Nike trust-fund baby that is Oregon.

One established, successful coach makes a sideways-at-best move, it can be explained away. Didn’t have thick enough skin for the job, wanted more money, just felt like it was time for a change, family issues – there are plenty of ostensible reasons.

When two of them walk out on you in three years? Better check your deodorant, your breath and your table manners. The problem might be you, Wisconsin. The problem might be Alvarez himself.

When the resident hero coach is still in town, it can be difficult coaching in his shadow. When the resident hero coach is still on campus, it’s more difficult. When the resident hero coach is your boss, well, good luck.

Bielema always bristled at the notion that he was merely maintaining Alvarez’s program. I heard him more than once in the last of his seven years at Wisconsin go to great lengths to point out the length of his tenure and the amount of success he’d had. You got the feeling the athletic director still liked to lay claim to the Badgers’ football glory – and you got that feeling from the things Alvarez said when Bielema left.

"Bret used my gameplan to win,” he said. “The coach I hire will have to understand who we are and how we go about our business."

Thus Alvarez hired another coach who would revere the power running game in Andersen. Coming from Utah State, there was no way Andersen was going to be a bigger man on campus than Alvarez.

Andersen went 19-7 in two seasons – a very good record, but one marred by some ugly losses. In 2013, the Badgers mangled a last-minute drive and lost to Arizona State, 32-30; flopped in a loss to Penn State as a 24-point favorite; and lost the Capital One Bowl to South Carolina as a slight favorite. This year, Wisconsin inexplicably lost to Northwestern, then was mauled 59-0 as a four-point favorite in the Big Ten championship game by Ohio State.

Oh, and there also was that bizarre, come-from-ahead loss in the season opener against LSU. In that game, Wisconsin stopped running Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon in the second half and started a quarterback who simply couldn’t play at that level. Andersen was grilled in the aftermath, and his non-answers about why Gordon didn’t carry the ball only left people more confused and unhappy.

Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez speaks during a news conference in Madison, Wisc., on Wednesday. (AP)
Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez speaks during a news conference in Madison, Wisc., on Wednesday. (AP)

The following Monday, Andersen said Gordon was bothered by a hip flexor injury during the game – something he did not divulge that night. And he didn’t sound very happy divulging it two days later, either.

“I don't quite frankly think it's anybody's business to pass that on to somebody after the game,” Andersen said. “But apparently it is because that's what I was told to do.”

There’s only one person who could tell the head coach how to handle a player injury – Alvarez.

From that anecdote, plus the chatter about Alvarez being the capo di tutti capi of the College Football Playoff selection committee, it’s fair to wonder how bossy the boss is. Given Alvarez’s willingness to again appoint himself bowl coach of the Badgers (he did it two years ago, in a loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl), it’s fair to wonder how big Barry’s ego is. And there might be reason to wonder how cheap he is, too.

Bielema was frustrated by what he considered non-competitive salaries for his assistant coaches – something that doesn’t appear to have changed in the last two years. According to USA Today, Wisconsin is 40th nationally and ninth in the 14-team Big Ten this season in assistant coaching salary pool at $2,368,600.

"As athletic director, I know what people are making, and every time someone has a hint that they may take another job, it's not prudent to jump and throw a pile of money at them,” Alvarez said.

That quote was from 2012, the last time Barry Alvarez was trying to put a no-big-deal spin on losing a successful coach. Now he’s trying to do it again.

History is repeating itself at Wisconsin, in embarrassing fashion.