SALT LAKE CITY — Gary Andersen is both the sentimental and practical choice to succeed Matt Wells as coach at Utah State. He left in 2012 under favorable circumstances, having won there before and kept his home in Cache Valley thereafter. He inherits a team coming off one of the best seasons in school history.
There are numerous reasons to believe Andersen will again prosper in Logan.
And a few reasons he won’t.
Reasons like Bobby Petrino and Mike Price and John Robinson.
Theoretically, Andersen will stage a triumphant return, like any self-respecting rock star. It worked for Bill Snyder, Mike Riley and Chris Ault.
For others, one good run was enough.
Andersen’s intention will be to lead the Aggies into the future — or at least into the recent past. His overall record was 26-24 in four years at USU, ending in 2012, but his last two teams in Logan produced 7-6 and 11-2 records. He told players that it was gut-wrenching to leave Logan for Wisconsin. It now appears he was sincere.
He’ll inherit what he started, which isn’t a bad place to be.
When Andersen became the Aggie coach in 2009, he followed Brent Guy, the least successful coach in USU history (9-38). Andersen left the Aggies as a first-place team and bowl winner. He even figured out how to get competitive in-state, going 1-1 against Utah and 1-3 against BYU.
“Theoretically, Andersen will stage a triumphant return, like any self-respecting rock star. It worked for Bill Snyder, Mike Riley and Chris Ault.”
USU athletics director John Hartwell said the school would conduct a national search. It got as far as Salt Lake City, where Andersen has been working as associated head coach at Utah. Pressure from influential boosters came to bear in Andersen’s favor, so while a national search may have ensued, it didn’t reach far.
Rehiring a favorite coach isn’t unprecedented. For instance, there’s Snyder, who coached 17 seasons at Kansas State, taking the Wildcats high places with four consecutive 11-win seasons. His teams twice played in the Fiesta Bowl. After retiring in 2005, he returned in 2009, where he stayed until the end of this season, earning another Fiesta Bowl appointment and bowl berths in eight of his final 10 seasons.
Chris Ault was head coach at Nevada three times, winning nine conference championships.
A more complicated story is Petrino. From 2003-2006 he led Louisville to two conference championships and one Orange Bowl. After a scandal cost him his job at Arkansas, he worked his way back to Louisville. The Cardinals rehired him in 2014, and in 2016 his team tied for first in the ACC Atlantic Division. But he was fired 10 games into this season after going 2-8.
John Robinson coached at USC from 1976-82, winning a national championship in the 1978 coaches’ poll, then returned as head coach from 1993-1997, winning the 1996 Rose Bowl. But his second term ended on a downswing when he was fired.
Riley coached at Oregon State in 1997-98 before going to the NFL. He returned in 2003-2014, getting the Beavers as far as the Alamo Bowl, then moving to Nebraska.
Price coached nine years at UTEP, retired for five years, and returned midseason as interim coach. He lost all seven games before retiring for good.
Dennis Erickson got his first head coaching job at Idaho in 1982, staying four years. After a glitzy career than included two national championships at Miami, he returned to Moscow for the 2006 season. That year he went 4-8, yet parlayed it into the head coaching job at Arizona State.
It’s understandable that USU would believe Andersen is the answer. He started what Wells continued, upgrading facilities, improving recruiting and raising pay for assistants. The fact he walked away from his job at Oregon State in 2017 didn’t raise eyebrows enough to dissuade policymakers. The transition for players and staff couldn’t be easier. Andersen handed off to Wells in the first place, who completed the throwback this weekend.
Andersen didn’t have success every season at USU, but he changed the culture, brought toughness and put players in the NFL. He did it with one of the country’s smaller FBS operating budgets. Plan on the 2019 Aggies being the same as previous teams: physical, disciplined and just nasty enough.
It’s not guaranteed that Andersen will repeat his past, but he might even do better. He’s starting in a far better place than he did the first time. He’s not there to save a program; he’s there to enhance it. Andersen can’t really bring back the magic, because this season is already magical for USU. But he can carry the torch he lit. The long-suffering Aggie fan base deserves that kind of consistency.
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