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Rock: Andersen was coming home, one way or another

Despite holding high-profile jobs elsewhere, coach shows home is where the heart is

Utah State head coach Gary Andersen claps after a touchdown against UNLV in Logan Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012.
Utah State head coach Gary Andersen claps after a touchdown against UNLV in Logan Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Thomas Wolfe entitled his 1940 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again,” he clearly wasn’t anticipating a guy named Gary Andersen. The latter has come home enough times for Kyle Whittingham to claim him as a dependent.

Tuesday, the University of Utah announced the hiring of Andersen as associate head coach and defensive assistant. That’s a fancy title with few specifics. He could be head-coach-in-waiting, upon Whittingham’s eventual departure. He might provide another perspective on the defense, which wasn’t bad this year, but not as good as usual. Or he might just be around for Whittingham to bounce things off.

Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen coaches on Saturday April 16, 2005.
Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen coaches on Saturday April 16, 2005.
Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Regardless, Andersen is a big-name hire for a relatively small-time position. Don’t laugh. Dennis Erickson joined the Utah staff after winning two national championships as a head coach.

Having been head coach at Southern Utah, Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State, Andersen is no novice. It has been an open secret for years that he would love to be Utah’s head coach.

Whether that position will open any time soon is the question. At age 58, Whittingham has shown no indication he plans to retire. After winning his 11th bowl game in 12 attempts, the Ute coach’s reputation remains high. How high?

He is being linked as a possible hire by the New York Giants.

If that happened, Andersen could demurely respond, “Who? Moi?”

Yes, you.

The guy who grew up on Crown Burger and Lagoon and Snelgrove ice cream.

In case Andersen does become Utah’s next head coach — now or a decade beyond — here’s the rundown: He was raised in Salt Lake and went to Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) in the early 1980s. Later he became an offensive lineman on the Ute football team, arriving in 1985 along with coach Jim Fassel. For a season, the Utes looked like up-and-comers. They went 8-4, 5-3 in the WAC.

But then came 1986, and the program nose-dived, going 2-9, including losses in its first seven games.

If anyone knows Utah’s history, from top to bottom — or bottom to top — it’s Andersen.

His coaching path took him to Southeastern Louisiana, Ricks College, Idaho State and Northern Arizona, which means he lived in Hammond, Rexburg, Pocatello and Flagstaff.

No wonder going home looked good.

He settled in at Utah for six years as an assistant coach and liked it so well that after a year as the head coach at Southern Utah, he returned again to coach defense for the Utes. He landed the top spot at Utah State in 2009.

At Wisconsin, his teams went 9-4 and 10-3, but he abruptly bolted for the job at Oregon State, saying he preferred living out West. That raised eyebrows. In Corvallis his teams went a combined 7-23, prompting him to resign six games into the 2017 season.

Still, if there is an award for the most overqualified defensive assistant around, Andersen wins. He resurrected Utah State’s program, leading the Aggies to a 2012 championship. Two years later, his Wisconsin team won the Big Ten West Division title.

As an assistant at Utah he coached six current NFL players. He has coached 40 NFL draftees.

“Returning to the Utah football family is something my wife Stacey and I are very excited about,” Andersen said. “Having an opportunity to coach at your alma mater is somewhat unusual, and having the opportunity to do it again is certainly special.”

And again … and again …

Andersen’s appointment doesn’t guarantee he will be Utah’s next coach. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and other assistants would also have a shot. Numerous coaches nationwide would want the Utah position. For now, all the hire proves is that Andersen loves two things: coaching and home.

“Life takes you unexpected places; love brings you home,” the saying goes.

That and a good pastrami burger with cheese.