New University of Wisconsin football coach Gary Andersen spent a lot of time at his introductory news conference on Friday talking about the importance of his players.
Andersen called building a relationship with his new players his top priority, ahead of putting together a staff, reaching out to recruits or even finding his way around the UW athletic department facilities.
"If I go up on the third level of the stadium and everybody leaves, I'm going to be there for a minute because I can't get outside," Andersen said. "I don't know where I'm going."
Born and raised in Utah, Andersen might feel a bit like an outsider now, though the snowstorm that greeted his arrival reminded him a little bit of Logan, Utah, where he spent the past four years as the head coach at Utah State.
"When we left Logan, we shoveled seven inches of snow," Andersen said. "When we got here 24 hours later, there was 20 inches of snow. Snow is snow. Cold is cold. That stuff doesn't matter."
What matters to Andersen more than anything else is his players, a point he kept repeating in the 45-minute news conference.
"What the priorities are for me right now is, No. 1, the kids in the program," Andersen said. "When I say that, it's important for me to let them know one thing really now and one thing only, 'Here's my phone number. If you have questions, please call me. If I can help you in any way, shape, or form, I will be there for you. I'd love to sit down and talk to you when the time's appropriate,' but these kids need to go win the Rose Bowl."
The first question Andersen had for UW athletic director Barry Alvarez when discussing the job was about academic support for the players.
When Andersen laid out his plan, he talked about supporting the players in three areas: academically, socially and, finally, as football players.
"This game is about players," Andersen said. "It always will be. Players make plays. Players win games. Coaches need to support players. They need to hug them hard when they need to be hugged. They need to hold up their discipline plan if they need to hold up their discipline plan."
Alvarez had one of his former captains, offensive lineman Joe Panos, contact NFL players who played for Andersen, to get their feedback.
"It was very consistent from what I had heard," Alvarez said. "Demanding, he's fair, he's consistent, he cares about his players. He'll hug you. He'll get after you if you need it, and 'We all love him.' That was the consistent theme throughout."
Andersen's paean to the players could have been dismissed as the normal bluster of introductory news conferences, if not for his parting gesture as coach of the Aggies.
His attempts to call every one of his players individually before he left spoke louder to Alvarez and the UW players than anything said at the news conference.
"That legitimizes what he's saying and what I heard — that he cares about kids," Alvarez said.
Andersen went from the news conference to watching his first practice, where he addressed the team. Some of the players, including the starting linebackers, met him prior to that.
"He seemed like a great guy," junior middle linebacker Chris Borland said. "He's going to be a great fit here. He's one of us."
Borland was impressed by many of the same qualities Andersen displayed in front of the media.
"He's a straight shooter," Borland said. "He said what he meant and meant what he said. He's excited to be here. He left a great situation he had working at Utah State. We're the only job he wanted."
Andersen also met for about 10 minutes with junior offensive linemen Travis Frederick and Ryan Groy.
"He came in and first thing he said, 'I'm here for the players, I treat my players as my kids, I bring them in as my own,'" Groy said.
Still, it was the gesture of reaching out to his Utah State players, wanting them to hear from him personally before he left, that resonated the most with the UW players.
"I think that speaks volumes," Borland said. "That's a really classy move. A lot of guys on a football team, so he really was dedicated to his guys."
Most of the Aggies players had already gone home for Christmas break. Andersen started calling at 7:30 p.m., starting with players in the Eastern time zone and working his way across the country.
He made calls until about 2:30 a.m., then resumed about four hours later and still didn't reach everyone.
"One of probably the most difficult things for me to do that I've ever had to do in my coaching career was to call each one of them," Andersen said. "It was emotional 106 times.
"It would be easier to let them be in a team meeting and get emotional one time. It's hard for me. I'm an emotional guy and you'll find that about me, that I do care about the kids."