The term "players coach" has been thrown around a ton the past few years, so much so that it's almost become a cliché by now. So, forgive us if we were a bit skeptical when said term was used to describe new head coach Gary Andersen and what he would bring to Wisconsin.
Skepticism is a healthy thing, but so is keeping an open mind and verifying if you're instincts were correct before burying your head in the sand. So, as the months have ticked off and spring practice has begun to wind down consider this a case of skepticism turned around for this writer.
Why the turn? Well first off it's the fact that as fans we've been accustomed to associating the term "players coach" with being someone, ala Pete Carroll, who would parade celebs out to his players, make crazy pop culture references, become your favorite tweeter's favorite tweeter, and all sorts of crazy things. The basic gist of it all is that they are hip, cool, and with the times – all of which makes them somehow in-tune with their players and therefore having a special bond that makes their players love them.
Secondly, it's an article written by Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal. Credit where credit is due, this is one insightful and well done look at the program Gary Andersen is in the process of building. In the article Mulhern paints a picture of what it's really supposed to be like for a coach to be a "players coach." Andersen's not some older guy trying to be hip, in fact he readily admits to not being that kind of a guy.
What Mulhern does in the article is give the reader some great examples of what being a "players coach" is really supposed to be about – caring about the individual player outside of the football field as well as their best interests on it.
He makes two great points in that vein – one is Andersen pulling senior safety Dez Southward aside just hours before spring break to check on him and let him know his expectations and the other involves senior DE/OLB Brendan Kelly, whom he pulled aside after thinking about him and suggesting some Yoga as a way to help him with the transition he was making.
As for the Southward situation, some may take it as a coach having some sort of issue – instead here is how Southward described it himself:
“He called me in his office before spring break, just to make sure my head was on straight,” Southward said. “He told me exactly what he thought of me and exactly what he expected from me and how he wanted me to get it.”
“That was a meeting that never had to happen. A lot of guys were on their way out the door,” Southward said. “He took the time out of his day to talk to me. It was nothing crazy, just to let me know I was on his mind and he thought about me. It was beyond football.”
In both examples what you hear from the players is that these were extra touches, things the head coach didn't have to do, but were both things that touched the player on a personal level and is allowing him to begin to build that "relationship of trust" you hear Andersen talk so much about.
They are also interesting because both are relationships with seniors. Sure they are likely to play important roles on the team in the fall, but with only a year left in the program Andersen could've just focused on the field of play stuff with them and let it be from there to focus on building relationships with guys that will be around this program for much longer.
It's a smart move to get the seniors on board, but it's even smarter because it's genuine and not staged to prove some point to the younger guys in the program.
Gary Andersen is a players coach, but a players coach because he cares about the individual as just that an individual – not as a football player first. He doesn't need gimmicks or pop culture references or some way to "be cool" in order to accomplish his goal of building a family atmosphere – rather he acts like any dad would do and that's what a real "players coach" should be all about.
At least at Wisconsin Andersen is helping to redefine what that played out term was meant to mean to begin with.