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NU's Hankwitz tries to decode former team

EVANSTON, Ill. -- The closest Mike Hankwitz ever came to taking a jab at Wisconsin took place during his introductory news conference as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in January 2008.

Hankwitz was asked for his thoughts on the color purple.

"I like it," he said. "I don't like the color red, so now I can trade it in."

Days earlier, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema had dismissed Hankwitz, a decision that surprised many because of Hankwitz's experience as a defensive coordinator and the fact the Badgers were just a year removed from finishing second nationally in points allowed (12.1 ppg). Northwestern wasted little time in hiring Hankwitz to fill its coordinator vacancy, while Bielema promoted co-defensive coordinator Dave Doeren to take full control of his defense.

Wisconsin and Northwestern didn't play in 2008, so Saturday's game at Ryan Field (Big Ten Network, 3:30 p.m. ET) marks the first time Hankwitz will face his former employer. But if there's a revenge factor involved, Hankwitz isn't buying in too much.

"There's no time for that," he said following Wednesday's practice. "I'm excited to be here. I'm around great people, around great kids and I'm proud of what we've done here. I have pride, yeah, but the players, they're not going to know anything about the past. They don't care, so it wouldn't matter anyway."

Bielema had nothing but complimentary things to say about Hankwitz this week, though he did acknowledge the dismissal, saying, "I'm sure I'm not very popular in the Hankwitz household."

Hankwitz's presence on the Northwestern sideline creates an interesting subplot for Saturday's game.

Does he provide an extra edge for Northwestern because he knows Wisconsin's staff, or will the Badgers coaches have the advantage because they know Hankwitz's tendencies?

The players are different on both sides, but Wisconsin and Northwestern haven't changed their offensive schemes.

"It's probably an advantage and a disadvantage," Bielema said. "We know what Mike likes to do, he knows what we like to do. If there's a time to break tendencies, this would be it."

Hankwitz's preparation regimen is already legendary among Northwestern's players. He arrives in the office at 6 a.m. and usually doesn't leave until 10:30 p.m. Hours before last week's game against Illinois, Hankwitz made a few tweaks to the defense after watching several games the night before.

He has watched every Wisconsin game from this season, several from last year and the Badgers' last two bowl games.

"Just trying to be thorough," Hankwitz said. "And I'm sure they've done the same."

Still, he's the only coach who has been on both sides.

"For his two years there, he put in a lot of time against their offense," Wildcats defensive tackle Adam Hahn said. "So he would have a head's up compared to a coordinator that maybe only plays them once a year or every other year."

Hankwitz plans to say hello to his former Badgers colleagues before Saturday's game. He still remains in contact with Doeren, his co-coordinator at Wisconsin in 2006 and 2007.

They first started sharing information back when Hankwitz coached at Colorado and Doeren was at Kansas, and have continued to do so even after Hankwitz left Wisconsin. Coincidentally, Northwestern would have pursued Doeren for its coordinator vacancy if Hankwitz didn't become available.

"[Doeren's] done a great job," Hankwitz said. "I have great respect for him. ... I learned things from him when I was at Wisconsin. We felt like it was a collaboration."

Things have worked out well for both teams. Northwestern has played its best defense this decade under Hankwitz, while Wisconsin ranks 19th nationally in total defense and 14th against the run this season.

Hankwitz hasn't talked to his players about his departure from Wisconsin, but they're well aware of the situation.

"I would think he'll have a little more at stake in this game," Hahn said.