New University of Wisconsin football coach Gary Andersen was slightly taken aback the first time he met Bill Hahn, the executive director of the Mendota Gridiron Club.
"I think we overwhelmed him a little bit," Hahn said of the 90-minute meeting.
Mendota is the booster organization for the UW football program. It includes about 1,400 members statewide. During the football season, it features meetings on Wednesday nights at area restaurants. For more than two decades, those meetings have included weekly appearances by the head football coach.
Andersen had been exposed to booster outings in his previous job as coach at Utah State, but on a smaller scale.
"He might have had 40 or 50 people at his meetings," Hahn said. "We have 150 to 200."
Booster groups such as Mendota have mostly become relics of a bygone era in college football. Fundraising efforts for the UW Athletic Department are now channeled through the Badger Fund.
The biggest issue in the disappearance of booster groups, Hahn said, is concerns about compliance with NCAA rules.
"They're scared to death of compliance," Hahn said of other schools. "Any time people are going to have access to athletes and coaching staffs, that's what the fear is.
"I think coach Andersen was probably a little surprised at Mendota having offices within the university. Usually, it's an outside role."
Mendota has survived — and thrived — mostly because of the extraordinary access it gives members to the head football coach.
"We've got to have access to the coach," Hahn said. "The biggest thing is to be able to tell your members where the money goes."
Hahn said Mendota recently made a five-year commitment to the Student Athlete Performance Center, which is under construction on the north end of Camp Randall Stadium, for $250,000.
"It helps to be able to go back to your members and say, 'We're going to donate $250,000, we've got to get to work,' " Hahn said. "Before, the money kind of went into a black hole, we really never knew (where), to scholarships or whatever. At least now there's some definite designation of where the money is going."
Hahn declined to reveal how much money Mendota raised for the football program in 2012, although he said it was up 15 percent from the previous year. In recent years, the booster club raised about $650,000 to $750,000 annually.
Initial concern put to rest
With the coaching change, there was concern on Hahn's part about the future of Mendota. No one knew for certain what Andersen's reaction to it would be.
But after meeting with Andersen a second time, on Tuesday, Hahn came away encouraged. Andersen committed to Mendota's schedule for the next 12 months, which included three golf outings, in addition to the Wednesday night meetings during the season.
While Andersen isn't much of a golfer, he did agree to participate, with his entire staff. That's different than former coach Bret Bielema, who usually did not include his staff at Mendota events.
"We never had total access with the staff with Bret," Hahn said. "If we had something, it would just be Bret. Gary's willing to put his staff out there, too. I think that's important with a new coach, being in this market."
One thing that helped Andersen get on board with Mendota was the support of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez, who strongly recommended that it continue.
"I think we're really unique where we provide access (to the fans) to our coaches during the season," Alvarez said. "I don't know if anyone else in the country does that. ... I think it's healthy."
Stunned by departure
Like everyone else around the football program, Hahn was stunned by Bielema's sudden departure to Arkansas, three days after the Badgers defeated Nebraska in the Big Ten Conference title game.
On the Monday after the game, Hahn was in Bielema's office to lay out the Mendota schedule for the upcoming season.
"We spent an hour-and-a-half on the dates and within 24 hours he was gone," Hahn said.
Hahn expects Mendota to continue as it has in the past, at least for the next year. After that, it will be up to Andersen how he wants to proceed. Admittedly, it's a huge commitment, getting a head coach to show up at a weekly dinner during the season.
Andersen is expected to hold earlier practices than Bielema, who usually had to hustle over to make it to the meetings by 7 p.m. But while Bielema hung around afterward, Hahn expects Andersen to head back to the office after an hour or so.
"I like Gary a lot," Hahn said. "I think he's a no-nonsense type guy, a hard-working guy. For me, the two times I've been with him, I respect him and I know he's going to do a good job."
The coaching change could turn out to benefit Mendota with some new enthusiasm and energy among members.
"I would be surprised if it wasn't that way," Hahn said. "(Andersen) is kind of a guy, he'll grow on you in a hurry. ... He has a vision, he knows what he wants. It'll be exciting. Change is good sometimes."