LOS ANGELES – It’s a moment that often goes unnoticed, but perfectly defined the character and the makeup of the Wisconsin coaching staff, particularly three of its defensive coaches.
Going through pre game warm-ups, the Wisconsin players usually gather in a circle with a senior or two in the middle to give a passionate speech, rallying the troops with roughly 30 minutes to kickoff. But after the huddle breaks and the players head for the locker room, the Wisconsin coaching staff run toward each other and meticulously shakes each coach’s hand, sharing a joke and giving well wishes before separating.
“It was never something that anybody said let’s do but something that happened because we generously respect and enjoy each other’s company,” Defensive Line Coach Charlie Partridge said. “Over the course of the last couple years, we’ve reached outside of ourselves the last couple years to create a bond and it shows with the way we work together.”
For Partridge, Secondary Coach Chris Ash and Defensive Coordinator Dave Doeren, the handshake will mean that much more when it happens Saturday before No.4 Wisconsin’s kickoff against No.3 TCU in the 97th Rose Bowl.
It will signify three college teammates and close friends, all of whom started at the bottom of the college coaching ladder, reaching one of the pinnacles of the college football world.
"To see three college teammates coaching together and to go through what we did to get here, it has been tremendous," Doeren said. "I'll never forget it."
Starting the Journey
The three first crossed paths when they were teammates at Drake in the mid 90s. Doeren came to school as a linebacker, but converted to tight end so he could contribute sooner and was a four-year letterwinner; Partridge was a three-year starter, an All-American and a team captain at nose guard while Ash was a skilled defensive back that struggled with injuries.
“We’ve all gotten along from our playing days to now,” Partridge said. “From our playing days to now, it hasn’t changed a bit.”
All three players had the coaching bug and all three became assistants under Coach Rob Ash (no relation to Chris), but for little pay and a lot of responsibilities. The stories from that time are as bountiful and plentiful as Wisconsin’s defensive playbook, but they all are just as special to the three. They are just as humorous, too.
Doeren recalls renting a broken-down, falling-apart house with Partridge one summer while the two worked for the physical plant and mowed lawns for extra cash. The house had a four foot shower, which Doeren had to sit down in after working a shift cooking food at a Mexican restaurant in his spare time That was roughly the same here Partridge got his chauffeur license so he could help drive the team bus, something Doeren and Ash also did.
"There's nothing you could throw at me and Charlie and Chris," Doeren said. "We've seen it. Whatever the worst of the worst is, as far as not having something — we resodded the (Drake) field one summer. Our field didn't have sprinklers. I literally stood out there for 12 hours in the sun with a hose and walked the field.
"I knew, if I didn't do it, we wouldn't have a field to practice on, so I did it … There are a lot of stories. Most of them you can’t put in print.”
They also gave each other opportunities. Doeren coached linebackers at Drake from 1995-97 and was the defensive coordinator his final season. When he left to take a graduate assistant job at USC, Ash took over the role for two seasons before getting the opportunity to coach the secondary at San Diego State and later, Iowa State.
Partridge coached running backs and served as a strength and conditioning coach at Drake, coached outside linebackers as a graduate assistant at Iowa State and eventually became the program's director of football operations in 2000. The operations job was comfortable, but it wasn’t coaching, and therefore, it wasn’t what he wanted.
“I was making a nice living, but I wanted to coach and for that, I had to make sacrifices,” Partridge said. “My wife never questioned me and she never blinked.”
Sitting at his introductory press conference in a suit and tie, Doeren gave the perfect example to his new audience of the kind of person he is. With a Wisconsin blizzard unleashing three feet of snow, Doeren shoveled his car out in 50 mile-per-hole wind and navigated his way to Dekalb for one final interview.
It’s nothing outlandish; it’s just what the blue-collared group does to get the job done.
“That’s just what we do,” Doeren said. “We went to school to pay off loans and play ball and get a degree. That’s just kind of our makeup.”
The Road to Madison
Doeren was quickly rising up the coaching ranks and had caught the eye of coach-in-waiting Bret Bielema with the work Doeren was doing as Kansas’ co-defensive coordinator , as the Jayhawks led the Big 12 Conference and ranked No. 3 nationally in rushing defense (83.3 ypg) in ’05. Bielema made Doeren a part of his first staff and Partridge was added as the defensive line coach in ’08.
With UW needing a secondary coach, Bielema and Ash connected and the group was reunited for the first time since ‘97.
“Anytime you have success, it starts with chemistry and leadership, and all of us on defense have known each other for a long time,” Ash said. “We’ve come up through the college ranks together, started our coaching career together and have a lot of the same beliefs, thoughts and ideas of how we want to coach and teach. I think that bond has carried down to the players.
“We can complement each other. We can almost finish each other’s sentences when it comes to football. It’s been a good experience.”
Candidates for Coordinator
Bielema said Thursday that the process of picking Doeren’s replacement was an easy one, leading those to believe that either Partridge and/or Ash would get the opportunity to run Wisconsin’s defense. Either way, the Badgers will have a standout coach.
UW’s defensive line has exceeded all expectations the last two years under Partridge. Last season, despite losing three senior starters, Wisconsin led the Big Ten and ranked fifth in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 88.2 yards per game on the ground (second-best in school history), as the defensive end duo of O’Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt combined for a nation’s best 40 tackles for loss.
This season, the defensive line has allowed only seven rushing touchdowns and Watt has registered a stat in every defensive category except ‘safety’ this season, a reason he won the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
“Charlie Partridge is a great football coach, one of the best I have played for and one of the best I have ever seen,” Watt said. “If that happens, the program would be in great hands because he’s a technician, a motivator and a guy I would run through a wall for any day of the week.”
In his first season in charge of the secondary, Ash has seen his players record eight of the team's 14 interceptions and have three players (Cornerbacks Niles Brinkley and Antonio Fenelus and safety Aaron Henry) earn All-Big Ten selections.
“Coach Ash is a real good coach,” Brinkley said. “All the coaches do stuff to help scheme and help each other. Coach Ash has come up with schemes for us like Coach Doeren and Coach Partridge have. I think Coach Ash has learned a lot from Coach Doeren and with me being a veteran coach, I’d feel comfortable with him being the d-coordinator.”
The other option, at least from Valai’s perspective, is to make them co-defensive coordinators, a decision that seems both diplomatic and acceptable to the majority of players on Wisconsin’s defense.
“I’d pick Charlie Ash or Chris Partridge,” Valai said. “They are both great coaches and they definitely deserve to be coordinators. They work very hard and they are two of the best coaches I have been around in my life.”
A Final Hurrah
Both Partridge and Ash have openly talked about the want and desire to progress professionally and both have stated that they would be happy with the outcome of that decision. If Valai is right and both work together, it would be a situation that Doeren knows well.
Doeren has twice shared the defensive coordinator job at two different schools – at Kansas with Bill Young in ’05 and at Wisconsin with Mike Hankwitz in 06-07 – and says the key to success is having equal respect for each other.
The pregame handshake shows that the respect isn’t lacking. It also shows the appreciation for how far they have come, and how special each opportunity is on the football field.
“You can’t even put into words that this was able to happen this year,” said Partridge. “The humble beginnings that we came from. Just that respect for each other, knowing how hard we had to work to get here makes it a special group.”
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