SALT LAKE CITY — So it’s all come full circle. Utah’s nearly annual search for an offensive coordinator brought head coach Kyle Whittingham back to where he began: Andy Ludwig.
Utah has combed the coaching ranks searching for OCs since Ludwig left the school following the undefeated 2008 season that ended with a victory over mighty Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. In that game the Utes produced one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed offensive game plans in memory, and Ludwig was in the middle of it all. The Ute offense averaged 37 points per game that season, a mark no Utah team has come close to approaching since then.
But then he left Utah — after a four-year run — and the Utes have been looking for his replacement ever since. If you’re keeping score at home, the hiring of Ludwig marks Utah’s ninth OC change in 11 years; none of his predecessors lasted more than two seasons. The Utes’ desperation reached its nadir when they hired 25-year-old Brian Johnson, who had only two years of coaching experience. The results were predictable.
The return of Ludwig, 54, follows the departure of Troy Taylor, who took a huge pay cut to take the head coaching position at Sacramento State. At least he left voluntarily, as near as anyone can tell.
If the Utes have been restless when it comes to OCs, Ludwig has been equally restless with OC jobs. His 32-year coaching career includes 14 stops, three of them at Utah alone. He started at Portland State, and moved on to Idaho State, Utah, Augustana, Boise State, Cal Poly, Fresno State, Oregon, Utah (again), Cal, San Diego State, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Utah (again). Average stay: 2.3 years.
Does this bode for another quick OC change at Utah?
“I was Kyle’s first OC,” Ludwig says. “My intention is to be his last OC.”
According to the College Football by the Numbers website, Ludwig is the longest tenured offensive coordinator in college football. This fall will mark his 23rd consecutive year as an OC, albeit with nine address changes.
“I’ve enjoyed my best success as offensive coordinator when the head coach was a defensive coach,” he says. “They leave me alone — as long as I’m doing a good job.” Ludwig has previously worked under four head coaches who were former defensive coordinators — Gary Andersen, Derrick Mason, Rocky Long — and Whittingham.
This marks Ludwig’s fourth move to Utah. He moved from his native California to Utah in the ninth grade when his father took a job with Amalgamated Sugar in Ogden. He played football at Bonneville High for Thom Budge, who would go on to become the winningest prep coach in Utah history (Ludwig would later speak at Budge’s Hall of Fame induction). A wide receiver, Ludwig continued his playing career at Snow College and Portland State. At PSU, he fell under the influence of offensive coordinator Al Borges, who would later hold the OC position at Boise State, Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Indiana, Auburn and Michigan.
“Lud was a good solid football player,” says Borges. “He was a very good special teams player because he was tough. But he was very quiet. He didn’t say much. His unassuming nature led me to believe he was not an assertive personality.”
Following his senior season, Ludwig asked the coach if he would help him pursue his professional career. Borges said he’d be happy to help him, and asked him what he wanted to do? The coach was caught off guard when Ludwig told him he wanted to become a coach. “You’ll actually have to talk to people if you want to be a coach,” Borges told him.
As Borges tells it now, “He told me he was a lot more assertive than I thought. I found out quickly how accurate that was. He just took the bull by the horns. It was amazing. And he had just played with these guys. He was Johnny on the spot.”
While still finishing his undergrad degree, Ludwig began coaching PSU’s wide receivers as a student assistant under Borges, who would become his lifelong career mentor. He still calls his former coach to talk shop. “He had the biggest impact on my career,” says Ludwig. “He influenced how I interact with players and the way I teach the game. I approached him about coaching and he opened the door for me.”
In 1989, Ludwig got his first paid coaching job, overseeing quarterbacks and receivers at Idaho State. Whittingham was a defensive coach on that staff. Ludwig moved on to Utah for the 1992 season to serve as a graduate assistant and then spent the next two seasons at Augustana College (Illinois), where he was hired as OC, quarterbacks coach, receivers coach and strength and conditioning coach.
Ludwig’s frequent moves exposed him to many coaches and many offensive styles. He coached quarterbacks for two seasons at Boise State and then landed another OC job at Cal Poly for a year.
“Then I got my big break, my first D-I job, at the age of 32,” says Ludwig.
When Borges heard that Fresno State coach Pat Hill was looking for an offensive coordinator, Borges told him, “I got a guy who’ll hit the ground running.” He immediately took him in his office and put him on the phone with Ludwig. Hill hired Ludwig as OC at Fresno State, which was a program on the rise at the time. During the next four years, Ludwig coached future NFL quarterback David Carr and the Bulldogs won 11 games in 2001.
His next move was a three-year stint as OC at Oregon, where he coached another future NFL quarterback in Kellen Clemens, but the teams were mediocre.
In 2005, Whittingham became Utah’s head coach and made Ludwig one of his first hires, as offensive coordinator. During the next four years, the Utes were 37-14 and won four bowl games, capped by the unbeaten 2008 season, a No. 2 national ranking and a stunning 31-17 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
“They took apart that Alabama team,” says Borges. “I don’t think anyone thought Utah would win. I remember watching the game. Alabama couldn’t stop them, and you’re talking about some dudes there. They were pretty darn good. That was a coaching game. The coaching made a helluva difference.“
During preparations for the Sugar Bowl, Ludwig decided it was time to move again. Bill Snyder, a legendary coach who was coming out of retirement to restore the Kansas State program, called Ludwig and, after explaining that he had done “research and homework,” he offered him a contract that he could not turn down.
"We certainly made a pitch to keep him in our camp,” Whittingham told Deseret News beat writer Dirk Facer at the time. “But ultimately we couldn't match what Kansas State was able to offer him … They put together a package that will enable him to take care of his family."
“There are parts of this profession where we need to move and grow and learn,” says Ludwig, looking back now. “It was not driven by money, but it was a big bump in pay, and it enhanced my lifestyle.”
It is the only move that Ludwig regrets in his entire career. He never coached for KSU. Six weeks after he was hired, Ludwig received an offer from Cal coach Jeff Tedford. It was an opportunity to return to his family roots in the Bay Area, but it also meant he would renege on his agreement with Snyder. “It was awkward and painful,” Ludwig says. He calls it “a dark spot on a positive career.”
At Cal, he worked under Tedford, another highly successful coach who would go on to coach in the CFL and NFL. Ludwig says Tedford made a big impact on him in terms of Xs and Os. Ludwig was officially the offensive coordinator, but Tedford actually ran the offense, and after two seasons Ludwig grew restless to run his own offense.
He accepted an OC job at San Diego State, but two years later he was gone again. Gary Andersen, who had been on Utah’s staff when Ludwig coached there, took the head coaching job at Wisconsin and hired Ludwig as his OC. They won 20 of 27 games in two seasons and then Andersen shocked everyone — including Ludwig — by leaving the prestigious Wisconsin program for the lowly Oregon State program.
“I had thought I’d be there a long time,” Ludwig says. “I was caught off guard.” He could have followed Andersen to Corvallis, but he didn’t want to move his family again. Instead, he accepted the OC job at Vanderbilt, which allowed him to be closer to his wife and two children. Four years later, Whittingham called Ludwig to bring him back to Utah.
“He’s a good get for Utah, that’s for sure,” says Borges. “It’s a very good fit. He’s a fundamentals junkie. NFL scouts are interested in his talent because the players are well-trained. Lud is a natural. He’s got an incredible offensive mind and a great feel for offensive football. When he first started coaching, you could tell.”
Ludwig inherits a promising offensive team at Utah. The Utes return most of their contributors from a team that won the South Division of the Pac-12 last season and missed a chance to play in the Rose Bowl because the Utes scored only a field goal in a 10-3 loss to Washington in the conference championship game.
“I’ve met with (the players), but I’m anxious to get on the field and work with them directly,” says Ludwig, who will get his wish when spring practice begins Monday. “On tape, I see a lot of good players.”
One stat caught his eye: The Utes lost a league-high 14 fumbles last season and were third in interceptions with 14. “We have to protect the ball better,” he says. “It’s going to be a major area of emphasis.”
If fans are wondering what offense Ludwig will employ at Utah, there’s no ready answer. His style and play selection are “player driven.” He has collected hundreds of plays in his playbook the past three decades, but he’ll pare it down based on talent. At Wisconsin, where he had future NFL star running backs in Melvin Gordon and James White, he used a power formation — two tight ends and two running backs. At Utah in 2008, he used a wide-open spread offense that was more about finesse than power.
“We won’t be as wide open as what we did to beat Alabama, but more to that end of the spectrum,” says Ludwig. “It’s based on what we can do so the players can do what they do well. This program is built for three and four wide receiver sets.”
There’s a new offensive coach in charge once again as the Utes open spring practice.