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USU football: Gary Andersen's departure broke hearts in Cache Valley

LOGAN — Gary Andersen's decision to leave Utah State for Wisconsin brought heartache to the Cache Valley.

"The sky was literally falling for our fans," Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes said.

The pain felt by Utah State's players and fans was short-lived because Andersen handled his departure with professionalism and class and because Barnes quickly promoted offensive coordinator Matt Wells to head coach.

"As soon as we hired Matt Wells it changed," Barnes said.

Wells, coincidentally, was introduced as Utah State's coach on the same day UW officials announced Andersen's hiring, Dec. 20.

From the time Andersen accepted the UW job Dec. 18 until Barnes hired Wells, strong emotions were palpable in the Utah State locker room and in the community.

"It was difficult because I love Gary to death," said senior linebacker Jake Doughty, one of the 100-plus players who received a phone call from Andersen, who wanted to explain his reasons for leaving for UW and the Big Ten. "I have all the respect in the world for him."

Yet when Doughty learned Andersen was leaving the Aggies his first thought was that his coach had gone back on his word.

Andersen, who needed only four seasons to lift a moribund program into the top 20 of both major polls, could have taken jobs at California or Colorado.

He turned down both offers and on Nov. 30 issued a release reaffirming his commitment to Utah State.

"He told everybody he was staying," Doughty said.

That was before Bret Bielema decided to leave UW for Arkansas, leaving athletic director Barry Alvarez looking for a new head coach.

The phone calls Andersen made one after another for hours the players were on break and scattered all over the country began to soothe the pain.

"He was very emotional," linebacker Zach Vigil said. "He was crying. I personally loved Coach A. I'm sure the players there love him, too, because that is the kind of guy he is."

Andersen explained last week at the Big Ten meetings that the emotions he felt during those calls matched the pain he felt speaking after his father's death.

Doughty listened closely to what Andersen had to say that night.

"And what really got to me was the sincerity in his voice," Doughty said. "He was in more pain than anybody in this room was by far. You could feel the emotional attachment he had to you when he called.

"And it takes a lot to call every single player. It wasn't just the big ones, the big names. He took his time to call everybody walk-ons and freshmen that haven't even done anything in the program yet. He called everybody.

"You could tell he was in pain. It was then when I could feel how sorry he was for putting us through this, that I realized he didn't go back on his word.

"He had an opportunity and he took it. I don't blame him for it. It is a bigger conference. I have no hard feelings at all."

Nor does Barnes, who hired Andersen away from Utah after the 2008 season. Barnes watched Andersen, a decorated defensive coordinator at Utah, build a program in four short seasons.

"It was extremely difficult because of the timing," Barnes said of Andersen's decision to leave. "We had just fended off two other BCS schools (California and Colorado) and he and I had sort of given each other a big hug and said we're done and let's get this thing going.

"Then Barry calls."

Andersen was leaving.

"That hadn't been on Gary's radar screen at all or on mine," Barnes acknowledged. "He thought he was staying. But when Wisconsin called and he saw the opportunity a perennial top 20 program and a fit I said you're nuts if you don't take this.

"You've got to move on and we'll figure it out."

Before Wells' hiring eased the concerns of players and fans, there was a sense of betrayal in some quarters of the community.

"I think some people were really bitter about it," senior center Tyler Larsen said, "thinking he was leaving them out to dry."

Those feelings were in the minority, in large part because of the way Andersen endeared himself to fans and because of how quickly he turned the Aggies into winners.

"Before he came here there was no program," said 21-year-old Beau Richardson, whose parents are season-ticket holders. "Let's be honest."

Jason Gunnell, 37, summarized the feelings of the community before having lunch at Herm's Inn, a casual restaurant about a 10-minute drive from the Utah State campus.

"My idea was that those opportunities weren't as good as Wisconsin," Gunnell said of the jobs at California and Colorado. "Wisconsin is a Rose Bowl team. It is one of the top opportunities in the nation. That kind of made it hard to turn down.

"In my mind it was probably the right opportunity and there's probably only a few schools that would do that for him.

"I think some people felt burned at first. But I think people who understand football understand the culture at Wisconsin and the opportunity that is there....

"I'd probably have a hard time turning it down....I'm surprised that coach left Wisconsin for the job at Arkansas."

Larsen, like Andersen, was born in Salt Lake City. Andersen, an offensive lineman in college, recruited Larsen out of Jordan High School.

The phone call Andersen placed to Larsen in December was like the 100-plus others emotional.

"He was the one who recruited me here and he was a father to me," Larsen said. "But at the same time I was just so, so happy for him. It is huge."