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Coach Gary Andersen’s exploits at Utah State impossible to ignore

SHARE Coach Gary Andersen’s exploits at Utah State impossible to ignore

Attention, college football voters. If you are open-minded and can see beyond the SEC and the Big 12, here's a recommendation for college football's coach of the year:

Gary Andersen.


He's the fourth-year head coach at Utah State. The Aggies, you probably haven't noticed, are EIGHT AND TWO.

They haven't won eight games since Nixon was president.

Eight games isn't just good in Logan — it's walking-on-water good.

They are five points shy of being undefeated. With two regular-season games remaining, they have a chance to claim their ninth win — something that hasn't happened in 51 years — or even their 10th win — which hasn't happened, well, ever.

When it comes to coach-of-the-year honors, you tend to give the award to the obvious — Les Miles at LSU, Chip Kelly at Oregon, Nick Saban at Alabama. Big deal. Those guys have blue-chip recruits fall in their laps. They have recruiting budgets that could fund a small country. They're not coaches; their CEOs hired by NFL farm teams.

Andersen has more obstacles to overcome. Talk about a challenge. This year marks only the fourth winning season at USU since 1981. This is the first time the Ags have had back-to-back winning seasons in 32 years.

"It's been interesting trying to turn this into a winning culture — the kids and maybe even the fans," says Steve Mathis, USU's director of football operations. "We were going into games hoping not to lose instead of expecting to win. What's amazing is that everyone was so happy with four wins that first year."

Andersen produced 4-8 records in both of his first two seasons at USU. The Aggies were 7-6 last season, with five of their six losses by a TD or less, including a road defeat to defending national champion Auburn.

All that served as prelude to this season. They beat Utah, Colorado State, Nevada-Las Vegas, San Jose State, among others — not exactly murderers' row, but those are games the Ags would've lost in the past. They lost road games at Wisconsin (16-14) and BYU (6-3) after missing short field goal attempts in the final seconds.

Bottom line: In their last 16 games, dating back to last season, the Aggies are 13-3. Voila, Andersen is coach of the year.

How did he pull it off?

"We had a plan, one I watched succeed and grew up in with Coach Mac (former Ute coach Ron McBride)," says Andersen. "And as a player (at Utah), I had seen LaVell (Edwards) execute the plan."

The plan:

Tap the Polynesian recruiting pipeline. When Andersen came to Logan, the Aggies had five Polynesian players on the team; they now have 21.

Recruit in-state players. The Ags have 55 in-state players on the roster; there were 18 when Andersen arrived.

Build a stronger walk-on program. The Aggies have about 15 walk-ons on their roster this season. During Andersen's four years in Logan, 15 walk-ons have been awarded scholarships.

Develop a serious missionary program. When Andersen took over, the Ags had only a handful of current and former LDS Church missionaries on the team. Now they have 24 of them on the roster, eight in the mission field and three on the coaching staff.

It takes courage for a new coach to build a missionary program with a rebuilding team. It is — pardon the play on words — a leap of faith. It takes two to three years before it begins to pay off, and some coaches just don't have the patience or stomach for it, BYU's and Utah's success notwithstanding. It also requires meticulous planning in the recruiting game. Andersen concedes that some of the coaches on his staff were understandably skeptical and "a little nervous," simply because they were new to the Utah culture.

"What it means is that we're going to wrap our arms around a young man who wants to serve a mission," says Andersen. "When a player plays for a year and then comes in and says he wants to go on a mission, it can be hard to take, but you're going to support it in every way. If you start playing that game, that you're not going to guarantee them their scholarship when they return, you wouldn't have a real missionary program."

Andersen has already had more success than any USU coach in decades. If there's something else that sets him apart, it's that he seems content to stay where he is, having recently signed a contract extension through the 2018 season.

Over the years, coaches with modest success have managed to use the Aggies as a stepping stone to other jobs. Counting Andersen, there have been 10 coaches in the last 34 years — an average stay of 3.4 seasons. Five were fired and four left to go elsewhere. The last guy to leave town with a winning record was Phil Krueger in 1975.

If you ask Andersen about all this, he doesn't miss a beat. Won over by the community, the beauty of Cache Valley, the support of the administration, the improving facilities, the caliber of players, he says he plans to stay.

"I think every coach has a niche, if you will," says the coach. "I said that the first year I took the job here. When you have the opportunity to be surrounded with what your beliefs are in coaching, it's a special situation. There's something special about this place. I never took this job viewing it as a stepping stone."

This can only be good news in Logan these days.