SALT LAKE CITY — Gary Andersen is happy to be home again. It’s something he reflects upon often. He thinks about it while driving to and from work each day. It also crosses his mind while sitting on the patio of his house in Murray.
After nine years away following head coaching stints at Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State, Andersen is back at his alma mater — serving as associate head coach and defensive assistant at the University of Utah. He rejoined the staff in January.
“My agenda is to help this football team win as many football games as possible; help these kids grow from young men to men, and be there as much as they need me,” said Andersen, who is working with coach Kyle Whittingham for the first time since they teamed up for Utah’s upset of Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Andersen was Whittingham’s defensive coordinator at the time.
“It’s great to have him here. He’s a huge help to me. He is a tremendous football coach, first and foremost. He is outstanding and he’s going to add to what we’re doing,” Whittingham said. “From my observations, he’s very happy and just enjoying the assistant life, which is a lot different than a head coach life.”
Andersen has embraced the change. He said it’s allowed him to focus on the grassroots of football — teaching techniques, fundamentals, toughness, schemes and helping players better their craft.
As such, Andersen noted that things don’t feel markedly different being back.
“I think a lot of that goes to Kyle and I being on the same page,” he said. “We’ve been through all the emotions of football in all those years we’ve been together and that continued while I was gone. We still communicated. We communicated about the good. We communicated about the bad.”
Andersen added that the coaches have always had much respect for one another and see eye-to-eye on many things.
“Being on the same sidelines again will be great,” Andersen said.
Loyalty is part of their chemistry as coaches and friends.
“He knows he can lean on me when he needs to lean on me and I’m here for him to do whatever we can do to focus on this year,” Andersen said. “Because right now the only thing that matters is the 2018 football season and helping these kids achieve their goals on and off the field.”
Even so, there’s still the whole Oregon State thing. Andersen continues to receive media inquiries each month about his abrupt departure in October. They want to hear why he walked away from $12 million in future compensation.
Andersen refers such inquiries to the statement he made in the announcement of his resignation.
It read that Oregon State and Andersen had “mutually agreed to release each other from all future contract obligations and payments, which were guaranteed through the 2021 football season.”
The press release also included a comment from Andersen.
"After many discussions with (athletic director) Scott (Barnes), waiving my contract is the correct decision and enables the young men and the program to move forward and concentrate on the rest of this season," he said. "Coaching is not about the mighty dollar. It is about teaching and putting young men in a position to succeed on and off the field. Success comes when all parties involved are moving in the same direction."
Andersen stands by his comment.
“It’s a small statement but I believe it states it all,” he said.
Andersen said he’s blessed to be back at Utah. Leaving millions on the table isn’t something he dwells on. It’s not part of his DNA.
“It’s never been about the money,” he said. “Has football blessed myself and my family? Absolutely. But we never did it because of the paycheck.”
Returning to the Utes has been a good fit on many fronts. Andersen noted that being back home around family and friends after many years away has been positive. So, too, are recent gatherings like on Father’s Day.
“Those times are special right now,” he said.
Throughout his career, Andersen has taken pride in sticking to his core.
“This crazy world of football takes some weird twists sometimes on and off the field. Being back home has been good,” he said. “Being part of a program that puts kids first is a priority to me. Utah clearly has made that a priority for many, many years.”
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said the Utes are happy to have him back.
“He’s been great. There’s a guy who knows, as a head coach, what to look for in an assistant and knows what makes a great assistant,” Scalley explained. “He’s been great for me. He’s been a great sounding board for ideas and opinions. The players have really taken to him and his teaching style.”
Although Scalley was a player (and later a coach) during Andersen’s previous stints as a Utah assistant, it hasn’t made things odd.
“I think it could be weird if I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I just haven’t,” Scalley said. “We just went to work.”
Andersen’s primary coaching duties are to work with the defensive line. Scalley noted that it’s logistically a huge help to have another set of eyes to assist the defense.
Things have gone smoothly thus far and Andersen credits the coaches for that. Players report for camp on July 31.
“I can’t wait to help them. Anything I can do to help them help the kids, help the other coaches on the staff, I’m excited about,” he said.
Personnel-wise, Andersen described Utah’s defensive line as athletic and football savvy.
“They have just been a fantastic group to be around — to be able to get to know them and jump into their lives,” he said, noting that trust has been developed and the group has a little chip on their shoulder because they’re so young. “I appreciate these kids letting me into their lives and letting me into this program. It’s been awesome.”
Andersen acknowledged as an assistant he’s able to focus more on the kids and the tradition of the defensive line at Utah.
“It’s important for all the players in that position room to understand what is expected from the D-line at the University of Utah,” Andersen said.
Looking ahead, Andersen emphasized that those in the program would like to do something special for Ute Nation and the players on the team.
“It would be fun to take a big step forward in the Pac-12, which is very hard to do,” he said.
Andersen stressed that chemistry and a family culture is a big step.
“Sometimes it’s just talk and for this group of kids it doesn’t seem to be that way at all,” he said.
Could it add up to a first-ever outright Pac-12 South title for the Utes? Andersen thinks they have a great opportunity to do so.
“I don’t say that in any cocky way or saying what we’re going to do. Everybody has the same opportunities right now,” he said. “But I will say this: I really like this team — the way they work, the way they practice, the way they spend time in the weight room, cafeteria, etc. They’re a tight-knit group. They care about each other and that’s been fun for me to watch and be able to see.”
As for his future, Andersen noted that he doesn’t have any type of crystal ball.
“I don’t lay awake at night saying ‘I’m going to be a head coach again.’ I don’t lay awake saying ‘I’m going to be a coordinator.’ I don’t,” Andersen said. “However, I do wake up every day excited to work with the young men in this program, Kyle and his staff.”