Jeff Horton was the quarterbacks coach at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 2005 when the Badgers were recruiting Adam Weber, who ultimately signed with Minnesota.
It has taken Horton five years and three job changes, but he finally is getting a chance to coach Weber as a fifth-year senior with the Golden Gophers.
Horton brings up one of his favorite all-time players, former UW quarterback Brooks Bollinger, when discussing Weber.
“He’s a lot like Brooks,” Horton said in a phone interview this week. “He’s a football rat. He’s always around, always wanting to learn and watch film and ask questions. ... I’m his fourth offensive coordinator; that’s never easy. That’s like working for four bosses in four years.”
Horton, 53, can relate. He ended a successful seven-year tenure at UW when he was not retained by Bret Bielema, who took over as coach in 2006 after the retirement of Barry Alvarez. The seven-year tenure at UW was the longest continuous one for Horton in 22 years of coaching, which also included six years as head coach at UNLV.
On Saturday, Horton, who is the co-offensive coordinator for the Gophers (1-4 overall, 0-1 Big Ten), returns to UW for the first time to face the 20th-ranked Badgers (4-1, 0-1).
“It’s like I tell people, when the coaching change happened, I know a lot of people were upset,” Horton said. “I wasn’t one of them. In our business, if you can stay one place for seven years, that’s not a good run, that’s a great run.”
Horton holds no grudges toward Bielema, whom he calls “a good guy.”
“He had to hire the people he felt comfortable with. I have no problem with that,” Horton said.
“I was going to walk out of there after seven years with my head held high because there were some great things that happened. I had no reason to have my head down or feel bad.”
Horton spent four years in the NFL after that, working under coaches Scott Linehan and Jim Haslett in St. Louis and Jim Schwartz in Detroit.
As the quarterbacks coach of the Lions last year, Horton coached the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Matthew Stafford.
“He was a 20-year-old kid when he came in there and he had $41 million in his pocket,” Horton said. “I told him, ‘I can’t think of a reason why you could have a bad day around here.’ ”
Horton is known for developing close relationships with his players and for being a solid teacher of fundamentals. Weber had his best season as a sophomore in a spread attack, but struggled last season when he had his creativity stifled in a pro-style offense under coordinator Jedd Fisch.
“I think (Horton) has done a great job with Adam Weber,” Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. “I think Adam Weber is really playing well fundamentally, making good decisions.”
Brewster first interviewed Horton a year ago when Fisch was hired. Minnesota finished last in the conference in total offense in 2009 and when Fisch departed, Horton was brought in to revive Weber’s career and perhaps save Brewster’s job in the process.
Horton still believes a power running game is a quarterback’s best friend.
“Working for Barry all those years, you learn that real fast,” Horton said. “The way the Wisconsins, Iowas and Michigan States (play), that’s what we’re trying to build to. That’s the way we feel we can compete in the Big Ten.”
‘A hard business’
Weber ranks fourth in the Big Ten in passing, averaging 239.8 yards per game. The running game has improved, with junior DeLeon Eskridge running for 119 yards in the 29-28 loss to Northwestern last week. Junior Duane Bennett is seventh in the conference in rushing, averaging 80 yards per game.
“I think our offensive players really believe in it,” Horton said. “We’ve kind of changed the mind-set because most of these guys were recruited for the spread when they came here.”
Most of the problems have been with a defense that allows 30.6 points per game, the most in the Big Ten. Still, the offense couldn’t put together a late game-winning drive against the Wildcats.
One of Horton’s closest friends continues to be Brian White, the former offensive coordinator at UW who has also bounced around after not being retained by Bielema. White spent two years at Syracuse and one at Washington before landing at Florida, where he is now in his second year and coaches the tight ends and fullbacks. Horton and White are as close as ever and talk every week or two.
“You go in knowing coaching’s a hard business and you’re going to have to move around,” Horton said. “I’ve been fired when we’ve been good and been fired when we’ve been bad. That’s just part of it. You can’t let that part bother you.
“Any time you can work and be successful and have that stability, that’s really a bonus. I was very fortunate at Wisconsin (that) coach Alvarez gave me that opportunity. To this day, he’s a real mentor. I talk to him as much as I can and really look forward to seeing him on Saturday.”