Photography: David Stluka, Wisconsin Athletics
Photography: David Stluka, Wisconsin Athletics

As a volunteer for the Nebraska football team several years ago, he couldn’t even get into the away games without sneaking in with the team incognito. 

Now that Bill Busch is coaching the three-time defending Big Ten champions, a disguise is no longer required. 

People know who he is. They know what he’s done for college football. And he hopes to continue to do what he does best at the University of Wisconsin.

Busch, a 1983 graduate of Pender High School, enters his 24th season as a football coach this year as the new defensive secondary/safeties coach at Wisconsin.

After spending the last four years as an assistant coach at Utah State under Gary Andersen, Busch followed his longtime friend to Madison when Andersen was named the new head coach for the Badgers in December.

The change in scenery means a change in loyalties for Busch’s family and friends in Northeast Nebraska as he expects a number of his buddies to root against him whenever the Badgers take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers on the gridiron.

“I know they all will be,” he said with a laugh. “I give them a hard time. When I was coaching at Utah State, all my buddies wore Utah State gear all the time. (Now) I tell them I’ll send them Wisconsin gear and they don’t want any. They won’t wear that.”

He does, however, expect that his family will pull for Wisconsin as long as he’s coaching on the sidelines.

With Big Ten Football Media Days currently underway in Chicago, a lot of questions will be asked of Andersen about the challenges that come with taking over a well-established program like Wisconsin. 

For Busch, who is no stranger to Wisconsin football, having spent time there early in his career as a grad assistant under coach Barry Alvarez, there’s a lot of excitement in the air for the upcoming season. And if Andersen and the staff that he brought with him from Utah State can build off the great success that they had with the Aggies in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), Wisconsin will remain one of the top dogs in the Big Ten for years to come.

“You only really get one chance in your career to put a stamp on a program. We took them (Utah State) from one of the worst teams in college football to a top-15 team,” Busch said. “It was the chance of a lifetime for me to be a part of, where you took something from literally nothing to something extremely special.”

Before Busch got there, Utah State had only been to four bowl games and hadn’t won an outright conference championship in several decades. In his four years there, the Aggies made two bowl appearances, winning the WAC title for the first time ever last year and ending the season with a program best 11-2 record.

Busch’s contributions to the team’s success earned him FootballScoop’s Defensive Backs Coach of the Year award at the end of the season.

The way Busch coaches, it should come as no surprise that his teams have flourished. He likes to establish strong relationships with his players so that they understand that they can count on him and vice versa.

“The basing for us is building relationships, and that takes time,” he said. “You can’t build a relationship like, ‘Well, I know I’m going to talk to them, so we’re tight now.’ You need to build trust, which takes time.

“What I’ve found is that, if you’re honest with everybody, have an exact plan as far as discipline, how we treat kids, how we do things, then you don’t have issues like that. Those issues only come up if you don’t do things the right way, which, obviously, we do.”

So far, the players have taken on this transitional period with open minds and welcoming arms. Busch just hopes the fans in Wisconsin will be as understanding if the team struggles a bit early on while it tries to fully adapt to the new system.

“You can’t say you’ve had a great marriage if you’ve only been married for a year, so it takes time,” he said. “They’ve (the players) been outstanding. They have fully accepted us as a staff, so that’s been great.”

Busch and the Badgers will have just one year together in the current Big Ten format (two divisions, 12 teams) as the conference will expand to 14 programs in 2014 with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the league. 

After it was announced that the new divisional alignments for the conference in the future will put Wisconsin and Nebraska in the West and most of the traditional powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan in the East Division, many were quick to predict that either the Badgers or the Huskers will likely represent the West in the conference championship every year.

Busch doesn’t see it that way.

“Traditionally, the two teams that have had the most success are Nebraska and Wisconsin, so I understand why the media would look at it that way,” he said. “But then, at the same time, five years ago, you would have never even considered Vanderbilt as a team and all of a sudden, they’re really good. You wouldn’t have considered Utah State a very good team five years ago. We took Wisconsin to the limit, just missing a 32-yard field goal to beat them here (in Madison last year).

“The bottom line is that the margin between winning and losing is so fine that anybody can win their side of it. I have so much respect for every team in this league that I wouldn’t rule anybody out from being in that championship game.”

This year, it’s presumed that Wisconsin’s biggest threat in the Leaders Division will be Ohio State, which is coached by another man Busch has worked with in the past, Urban Meyer. But he doesn’t think his prior relationship with Meyer will give his defenders any advantages when the two teams face each other this year.

“I’ve coached with him, so I have some good thoughts there, but it’s been a while since that’s taken place. I don’t see it as a big deal,” Busch said. “Obviously, they’re an extremely talented football team, so, playing them at their place, we’re looking forward to going there. They won 12 games last year, which is pretty impressive, so we’ll have a lot of work to do.”

It was a lot of work for Busch just getting his start as a coach. Inspired by his father, Ron, who coached for nearly 45 years at the high school level and who he still thinks is “the real Coach Busch,” Bill Busch was determined to coach at the collegiate level.

After his playing days concluded at Nebraska Wesleyan University, he spent a year helping the University of Nebraska-Kearney football team while he worked towards his master’s degree in education. In the fall of 1990, he got his first taste of Division I football as a volunteer for Tom Osborne’s Nebraska football squad.

Even if he wasn’t technically a coach at the time, he did his best to make it look like he fit the part.

“I made up my own fake coach’s uniform and I drove to all the away games myself,” Busch said. “Then I walked right into the stadium, kind of acting like I was a coach, and got right in at Oklahoma, Iowa State, everyplace. The coaches all knew me, but I wasn’t an official member of the coaching staff. Then after I was there for six months, a graduate assistant position opened up and I got that.”

This method of pursuing a job might not work for everyone, but it certainly worked for Busch, who’s really made a name for himself in college football and is one of the few people who can claim to have worked alongside such legendary coaches as Osborne and Alvarez.

“It’s just amazing the amount of things I took from both,” Busch said. “They’re very different in how they approach things, but also very similar as far as structure: to win the football, stop the run, having an exact practice structure. Both situations were just tremendous for me. I caught a break to get the chance to work for both of them.”

He still implements what he learned in those early years today and he’s been successful because of it. And more success is sure to come, as Busch has no plans of calling it quits anytime soon.

“I’ll keep coaching till they make me stop,” he said.