For the second time in three years, Wisconsin is looking for a new head coach after losing its head coach to another power conference program stuck in the bottom half of its division. Three years ago Bret Bielema left Wisconsin following three straight Big Ten championships to take over Arkansas, a program in the dumps following the bizarre ending to the Bobby Petrino era. Now, the Badgers look for a replacement to take over the program after Gary Andersen surprisingly packed his bags and left to accept a job offer from Oregon State, a program typically happy just to finish above .500 while playing in the multi-uniformed shadows of Oregon.
Wisconsin has been a solid program in the Big Ten over the course of the last five or six years. Perhaps to a certain extent Wisconsin has taken advantage of some down years by Michigan and a temporary setback for Ohio State, but credit the Badgers for seizing the opportunity to claim a spot among the top teams in the Big Ten. Now, in the expanded 14-team conference, Wisconsin is in a favorable spot in the West Division. A good coach can win in this division more often than not for years to come, keeping Wisconsin among the top teams in the Big Ten. So why is Wisconsin all of a sudden a program not capable of keeping quality coaches in Madison?
This is the question former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez, now the school’s athletics director and a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee is left pondering. During a press conference Wednesday evening Alvarez was asked why Wisconsin was no longer a destination school. He was left without an explanation. Maybe the question is if Wisconsin was ever a true destination school in the first place. It was for Alvarez, who took the job in 1990 after serving as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, and perhaps it was for a few of his predecessors, but then we start diving into a different age of football.
For a moment, let’s toss aside the idea that recruiting is becoming harder and harder for Big Ten programs, with recruiting trends moving away from the Big Ten’s region. If that is the case, then every school is having that problem without the issue of losing coaches to other programs. That would not make this a Wisconsin problem, but a collective Big Ten problem.
Is it the leadership at Wisconsin that is an issue? The idea Wisconsin has been unable to afford to provide comparable salaries for a coaching staff is a fair point. The Badgers ranked 40th in the nation in coaching staff salary with a total staff salary of $2,368,600 according to a coaching salary database compiled by USA Today. If Andersen left for a program with a higher financial commitment to its coaching staff, he may be going to the wrong place. Oregon State ranked 41st in coaching staff salary ($2,347,200). Of course, maybe Oregon State will change that with Andersen coming to the program. The lack of ability to provide a secure financial commitment to a coaching staff was believed to be a factor in Bielema leaving for the SEC, where coaching salaries tend to be higher. For a point of reference, Wisconsin’s coaching staff salary was ranked eighth in the Big Ten and it is possible it might even be lower. Salary information for Penn State and Northwestern is not on record.
But every school has to spend money the best way they see fit. Sometimes the payroll for the football staff has to take a backseat in order to cover other expenses in an athletics department, or the university as a whole. There is no question Wisconsin receives a healthy amount of money from the Big Ten through revenue shares in the conference, but that does not always mean the money will be spent on the staff.
Or maybe sometimes a coach just needs a new challenge (Bielema) or wants to go back closer to home (Andersen). And maybe there’s nothing wrong with Wisconsin at all. The Badgers have proven to be capable of competing for the Big Ten title (I say this fully acknowledging that 59-0 against Ohio State does not support this statement). As with any coaching search, if Wisconsin hires the right man for the job, the Badgers should be fine.