MADISON – From his seat in the stands, Guy Houston could see things weren’t working out for his son.
It was only the first year for Gary Andersen at Wisconsin and the year after his son redshirted, but it was evident that Andersen’s desire to have a spread-style quarterback directly contradicted with his son’s strengths.
Bart Houston knew it, too, but it didn’t matter: he was committed to making things work.
“He just said, ‘Dad, I love it here. I’m a Badger,’” Guy said. “He loved the school, he loved the program and the people. We didn’t have arguments about it … He just had faith in it.”
It took longer than he expected, but Houston’s perseverance will pay off with his first career start Saturday against No.5 LSU at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field.
Houston is one of the rare breeds in college football, a highly-ranked quarterback (No.7 in his class according to Scout.com) who didn’t see things go his way and decided to stick it out instead of hitting the restart button. How rare? Since Houston has been on campus, four quarterbacks have committed to Wisconsin only to transfer a short time later for various reasons, while a fifth agreed to a position change.
Houston has also worked under three head coaches and three offensive coordinators, yet still reacted to every change with a shrug of the shoulders.
“This place means something to Bart,” head coach Paul Chryst said, who helped recruit him to UW in the 2012 class. “I thought he picked Wisconsin for a number of reasons, football certainly being a part of it. That senior class now is a close group. There’s a lot of factors that go into a kid deciding to stay or transfer. I’m glad he stuck with it, appreciate what he’s done this past year and I think he’s earned the right to play.”
Houston has run the gamut of quarterbacks. He’s called in the signals, handled mop-up duty and marched on without complaint, even when he was summoned to be the team’s rugby-style punter in 2014.
It appeared that as long as things remained status quo, punting would be Houston’s legacy to the program.
When Andersen said his son wasn’t in the mix to be the team’s starting quarterback in spring 2014, Guy started compiling a list of college offenses that would fit Bart better. One was Pittsburgh, which was being led by the same Paul Chryst who recruited his son to Wisconsin.
But when Guy presented the idea of transferring to his son, he was quickly shot down.
“The style of play they wanted at the time was not him,” Guy said. “I offered suggestions and ideas but he just said whatever is going to happen is what’s going to happen. He was committed to Wisconsin and the program. We had discussion but it was mostly just me, me being the dad. We worked on (making it to college) for a decade or more, but he was adamant that he wanted to stay.”
Bart’s thought process was twofold. If he transferred he’d lose a year of eligibility and would have no guarantees of being the starter at a school that would always be his second choice. He also was a big believer that things would get better. Reenter Chryst and his pro-style offense in December 2014.
Houston was named the backup quarterback to fifth-year senior Joel Stave but had renewed pep in his step and saw a brighter future for himself entering 2016. He got a taste of it when he filled in for an injured Stave by throwing for 232 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 24-13 road win over Illinois last October.
“I just kind of closed my eyes and winged it,” Houston joked. "Illinois, Coach Chryst kept it simple, got me in the flow of the game. Now I'm the guy. I'm going to have more of the reps, so I will be able to have the practice reps and the walkthrough reps and have those translate into the game."
That didn’t make his final camp – what Houston called the “last kick of the can” – any easier. The presumed starter entering August, Houston spent the first week pressing and over thinking nearly every decision, allowing redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook to heat up the quarterback competition.
“He has the natural ability to make good decisions,” Guy said. “He took stock of himself. Coach Chryst gave him one of the Sundays off and told him to go relax, and he turned it around.”
While experience was part of the decision, Chryst pointed to Houston’s better grasp of the offense and knowledge of his strengths as strong areas of improvement since last October. He also made it a point to say Houston wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder any more, a first for Houston in his career.
“You always think you could do it (start) earlier, it just wasn’t in the stars,” Bart said, “but I’m glad it happened.”
The whole thing has a touch of irony to the Houstons. Bart’s younger brother, Sumner, plays defensive line at Oregon State and was shocked by the decision of Mike Riley leaving for Nebraska. Little did the Houstons know that would domino into Andersen leaving for Oregon State, opening up the door for Bart’s former recruiting coach to return to Madison.
Two years later Sumner is Andersen’s co-starting nose tackle and Bart is Chryst’s starting quarterback.
That made the phone call last Thursday all that more special.
“You learn when you have college kids and they call you at eight in the morning, something’s up,” Guy said. “When he told my wife to put the call on speaker, that he wanted to talk to both of us, I knew that’s what this call was about. It was a very exciting moment. We’re ecstatic that this is taking place.
“I didn’t think about the past. I thought about the present. He’s going to be the starting quarterback for the Wisconsin Badgers and all those other things disappear. It’s been an interesting journey, but now it’s about going forward.”