MADISON, Wis. — Following a 52-42 loss to Washington in November that further plummeted the USC defense into disarray as one of the worst-performing units in the country, Alex Grinch was fired as defensive coordinator.
It was a humbling experience for Grinch in his second year with the Trojans. So often, he had been able to dictate his next move based on his successes during a 21-year career. This time, however, he sat back and waited to see who would call. What he knew was that there would be opportunities and that he would not allow what happened at his last stop to define him.
“You get punched in the mouth, you try to stand tall, set your jaw and get ready for what’s next,” Grinch said.
Grinch spoke to reporters Wednesday for the first time since being relieved of his duties at USC and six days after officially being announced as Wisconsin’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach, replacing Colin Hitschler, who left for Alabama.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) February 1, 2024
Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell filled three assistant coach openings this offseason. He reassigned offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. and replaced him with Vanderbilt’s AJ Blazek. He hired Kenny Guiton from Arkansas as his wide receivers coach following the departure of Mike Brown to Notre Dame.
And then he brought in Grinch, whose addition caused the most waves among die-hard Badgers fans largely because of how his USC tenure finished. Grinch, 43, arrives eager to prove his overall track record is more indicative of his coaching ability than what happened with the Trojans.
“You’re always learning,” Grinch said. “I think what happens is when you don’t have success that you expect that you can circle that and highlight that and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But it also creates a chip on your shoulder. I’m not sure there’d be anyone in the country with a bigger chip than what I have.
“But then you also go back to 21 years in the business and the championships and the high level of success that you had. You can’t just circle one. For instance, I can’t convince you of the one season when we were elite as being the only thing on the resume. But somehow sometimes when you don’t have success, then that becomes circled as if that’s the only season that you’ve ever coached.”
Wisconsin hiring ex-USC DC Alex Grinch: Sources
Grinch said he didn’t believe he had to sell himself as an attractive coaching candidate more because of what happened at USC, saying that “when you talk to football coaches, maybe it’s the exact opposite of what you would assume.” He cited that he had taken over as defensive coordinator at three programs — Washington State, Oklahoma and USC — that were “three of the worst defenses in the country” before he arrived. Grinch played a big part in elevating two of those defenses, at Washington State and Oklahoma.
In 2014, before Grinch came to Washington State, the Cougars ranked 97th in the FBS in total defense and 114th in scoring defense. In Grinch’s third and final season there under Mike Leach, Washington State ranked 16th in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. Grinch was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in college football. He was again a Broyles Award semifinalist two years later while at Oklahoma.
Grinch said three aspects of Wisconsin’s program factored into his decision to accept the job. He cited an appreciation for the brand and winning tradition of Wisconsin football, Fickell’s track record as a coach and Madison itself, which he described as “one of the best places to live in the country.”
“I’ve been fortunate over the last 20-some odd years to be a number of places all over the country,” Grinch said. “A place with just those three — elite leadership, elite program with a tried-and-true approach and a town like this, a college like this from an academic standpoint because you know from the sales standpoint, you’ve got to do that with recruits — goodness gracious, that checks a lot of boxes.”
Wisconsin’s schedule next season includes a Big Ten opener at USC, which is one of four former Pac-12 teams joining the league. Grinch said he did not have that game circled any more than Wisconsin’s other challenging games, which include Alabama, Penn State, Iowa and Oregon.
“There’s some struggles as you’re going through the process of building,” Grinch said. “Sometimes you get a chance to get to the other end of that and other times you don’t get a chance to get to the other end.”
Grinch said his past successes, which date back to his days as a defensive back for a Mount Union College team that won three Division III national championships, fueled his desire to feel that again at Wisconsin. Grinch noted his role as co-defensive coordinator would be to support the other members of the coaching staff, including defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, in any way he could, though he did not divulge specifics.
He inherits an experienced safety group that includes Hunter Wohler, Kamo’i Latu, Preston Zachman and Austin Brown. With a different role in a new environment, the hope is that Grinch will be able to mold that unit into one of the most reliable on the team.
“Safeties have to be able to cover a 6-4 wide receiver, a 5-9 speed guy in the slot and also a 6-7 tight end,” Grinch said. “And, oh by the way, you’ve got to stop the run when they run it. It’s a group I’ve been really pleased being around them. That’s something any time you go to a new spot you don’t know what room you’re walking into. But they’ve been coached at a certain level for a long time around here. So I’m excited to be around them.”
Fickell on Chez Mellusi, more
Fickell spoke Wednesday morning on the radio show Wilde & Tausch and offered a few tidbits about what to expect. He noted that Mellusi “won’t get a big load, if any load, in the spring.” The running back suffered a broken left leg in September against Purdue and did not play the rest of the season. He opted to return for a sixth season and is expected to be the team’s starter.
Fickell said Oklahoma transfer Tawee Walker and freshman early enrollee Gideon Ituka would earn carries this spring, along with the team’s returning running backs, including Jackson Acker and Cade Yacamelli. Fickell also said Darrion Dupree and Dilin Jones, freshmen who don’t arrive on campus until the summer, also could play a role in determining the running back pecking order for next season.
“That’s going to be a little bit more of a longer process to figure out before Game 1,” Fickell said.
Wisconsin finished 7-6 in Fickell’s first season, revealing plenty of issues the offense and defense needed to address. The Badgers averaged 23.5 points per game, which ranked 91st nationally. Fickell was asked about the difference between Year 1 and Year 2.
“There’s things you pinpoint that you’re attacking, as opposed to Year 1, it’s a broad brush of everything,” Fickell said. “The great thing about actually playing those games, especially Year 1, you find out a lot more about your environment, your culture, your people, your guys. There is much more of a focused attention to the things we need to do a hell of a lot better than there is in Year 1 because it’s such a broad overview.”
Fickell also said that former Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, his good friend and college roommate at Ohio State, would help Wisconsin’s program in some capacity this spring and potentially fall. Vrabel was fired as Titans coach after six seasons last month and had been linked to other NFL job openings since then. Fickell said he talked to Vrabel on Saturday.
“We hadn’t communicated for probably a week or so just because the process was going,” Fickell said. “He sounded like a new man. I’m not sure exactly if this was his choice or what it is that the future really looks like.
“But I know that we’re going to have a visitor here that’s going to spend a little bit of time hopefully around us coming in the spring and some things like that. See how deep we can get involved with my buddy and get him around here.”
(Photo: Jesse Temple / The Athletic)