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How fresh start for a coach and a team resulted in something remarkable

On the heels of a drama-filled 2020 season, the Utah State football team accomplished the unthinkable this season

Utah State wide receiver Derek Wright is congratulated by coach Blake Anderson during game against New Mexico, Nov. 26, 2021.
Utah State wide receiver Derek Wright is congratulated by coach Blake Anderson after scoring a touchdown against New Mexico on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Albuquerque, N.M. Anderson and the Aggies face Oregon State Saturday in the LA Bowl.
Andres Leighton, Associated Press

You don’t have to be an Aggies alum or a fan to appreciate the story of the Utah State football team and its first-year head coach, Blake Anderson. Both hit the reset button when they were thrown together a year ago — the coach after personal tragedy, the team after a near-disastrous season on and off the field, one that was complicated by the pandemic and enough drama to stock a season of “Downton Abbey.”

Anyway, they found each other and here they are, playing in the LA Bowl. If the bowl game lacks a certain cachet, it certainly beats the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It also sets up USU’s first bowl game against a Power Five team in six decades — Oregon State.

Nobody could have seen any of this coming last winter.

Let’s roll the highlight video of the Aggies’ 2020 season. Oh, sorry, there weren’t any highlights. They lost five of six games, with an average score of 35-16. They didn’t even score in double digits in half their games. The Aggies fired their head coach after the third game. They fired their quarterback after the fourth game and kicked him off the team. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it. There was more.

Two games were canceled — one by the pandemic, the other because of a player boycott. Among the players’ grievances was that interim head coach Frank Maile, a player favorite, wasn’t given fair consideration as the permanent head coach.

This was the mess that Anderson stepped into. Not that he didn’t already have his own (bigger) problems. His wife of 27 years died in 2019 after a three-year fight with cancer. As he stated for 247Sports, the USU job “was just a great opportunity to start fresh.”

Arkansas State magnanimously paved the way for the coach’s fresh start. Athletic director Terry Mohajir said he would lower the buyout of the remainder of his contract from $800,000 to $150,000.

“I just think based on the circumstances that (Anderson) has been through, the best thing for us as an institution was to help him get through this,” Mohajir explained in a press conference.

That eased his exit from ASU, but his entrance to USU was another matter. It was awkward at best. He came to USU with a new wife and a new team, but he still had to win over the USU players.

Anderson had some experience with skeptical players. When he took over as head coach at Arkansas State, there wasn’t anybody, least of all the players, who thought he’d be around more than a season.

The three head coaches who preceded him had established a pattern: they won a lot of games, won a conference championship, won a bowl berth and then left the school at the end of the regular season, skipping the bowl game. They had each lasted only 12 games. Anderson was their fifth head coach in five years.

Anderson told his players the same thing he would tell the Aggies years later: I know you don’t trust me, I understand, but give me a chance. They did and he delivered. He stayed seven years at ASU and won three conference championships. They believed in the coach so much that three of them — quarterback Logan Bonner, receiver Brandon Bowling and linebacker Justin Rice — followed the coach to Logan and became starters and stars.

The Aggies warmed to Anderson just as the ASU players did years earlier. They won their first three games, then lost to Boise State and BYU in consecutive games, before winning seven of their last eight to finish with a 10-3 record. They won their first Mountain West Conference championship in the process.

Anderson, a finalist for national Coach of the Year honors, has picked up where he left off in Arkansas. This marks his seventh winning season in eight years as a head coach, the one losing season occurring during the pandemic-stricken 2020 season that nobody seems to count.

For the Aggies, it continues the school’s best era of football since the 1960s. From 1981 through 2010, they had just three winning seasons in 30 years. Since then they have had winning records in seven of 11 seasons.

They have won more games in the last decade than in any 10-year period in their history, producing a record of 74-49. To be fair, the Aggies teams from 1960-69 played fewer games (their combined record was 68-31-3) and had a superior winning percentage (.690-.600).

“We’re unbelievably proud of this man (Anderson) and what he’s gone through,” Bonner told The Associated Press. “Brandon and I have known him longer than most guys. He’s been through a lot in his life, and we were there for that. We followed him here because we believed in him, and we’re so proud of him.”