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Losing a legend: Remembering Ladell Andersen, iconic basketball coach

Ladell Andersen, a legendary coach with ties to all of Utah’s major colleges, died at age 90. Reflecting on his life is a reminder of a competitive man who never forgot roots of kindness

Ladell Andersen, who was the head men’s basketball coach at both BYU and Utah State as well as an assistant at Utah, died Sunday at age 90. He also coached the ABA’s Utah Stars for two seasons.
Trent Toone, Deseret News

Ladell Andersen reached legendary sports status as an athlete and a coach, but the lasting mark will be his innate kindness, gentlemanly demeanor, love of people and respect for the game.

Andersen, who holds the rare experience of coaching at Utah State, Utah and BYU, as well as the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association, died on Sunday. He was 90 years old.

Indeed, it is rare that all the major basketball brands in this state can claim Ladell. His athletes wore all colors, they won, they achieved, they played for championships. They followed their leader.

I’ll never forget the first week of February in 1988 when Andersen had BYU 17-0 and ranked in the top three nationally. The day after an 82-64 win over rival Utah, the Cougars boarded a plane, right in the middle of WAC play, and headed to Birmingham, Alabama, to play UAB. The Utah game was Feb. 4 and the UAB game Feb. 6.

This was a talented squad with All-American Michael Smith, Brian Taylor, Jeff Chatman, Marty Haws, Andy Toolson, Jim Usevitch and Nathan Call. It had inside and outside scoring, a good bench and was comprised of the very best players produced by the school’s faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That night, UAB beat the Cougars 102-83. It was a trip and game the Cougars had very little preparation for and included a lightning quick trip to the Deep South. After that loss, coach Andersen was beside himself with frustration that this trip was scheduled right in the middle of the league season. He felt it had put his players in an awkward position.

Past midnight, unable to sleep, he called the hotel room of KSL radio broadcaster Paul James and asked if he’d come to his room. There, James saw firsthand just how frustrated Andersen was over the loss and trip. He shared what he observed later with me and other sportswriters Brad Rock (Deseret News) and Ray Herbat (Salt Lake Tribune). I worked for the Provo Daily Herald at the time.

The morning after the game, in the lobby waiting for rides to the airport, Andersen walked by and as always, greeted our sportswriter group with handshakes. It was a somber salutation borne of a night with no sleep. He asked what we thought of the game and Herbat, the elder statesman among us, said in a simple matter-of-fact voice, “Well, coach, I’m not sure you guys played very good defense.”

Andersen snapped back with a response that he (Herbat) didn’t know what was going on. It was quick and confrontational, but none of us thought much of it because it was understandable a coach would be upset after a loss.

At the airport, the four of us were standing around talking when Andersen came over. In a voice soaked with humility, he spoke to all of us and apologized for how he answered Herbat at the hotel. “I am sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I did to a friend. Please forgive me.”

Andersen didn’t have to do that. But he did. Because that is how he is.

This gave all of us great insight into what coaches go through, that the thrills of wins are tightly married to the weight of losses that weigh on their souls.

That BYU team went on to win the WAC championship with a 13-3 record and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed. It was one of many postseason trips Andersen made as a player and coach with Utah State, Utah, and BYU, be it NCAA or the National Invitational Tournament.

Over the years, I spoke to Andersen many times. Once on a golf trip to St. George, I saw him eating by himself at the Black Bear Diner and went over to say hello. He anxiously greeted me, asked how my family was doing, how I was doing. On many occasions, I’ve called him for quotes in stories and columns, far after his retirement, and he responded with the same friendly aura of a man completely comfortable in his own skin.

If he had an ego, and all coaches absolutely do, Andersen knew how to hide it.

Of all the coaches I’ve covered in my four-decade career, I’d put Andersen up there with the best in terms of ease of working with from week to week, game to game, decade to decade. It is sad this great legend has passed.

Andersen was born in Malad, Idaho, on Oct. 25, 1929, where he later excelled as an athlete and earned a scholarship to play at Utah State where he was honorable mention All-American. He later worked as an assistant coach at Utah, head coach at Utah State and then became the coach of Utah’s ABA professional franchise, the Utah Stars.

Andersen’s coaching record at USU from 1962 to 1971 was 173-96 and he was 114-71 at BYU from 1983-1989. He had an overall college coaching record of 287-167.

Funeral service information is pending.

Rest in peace, coach.

You will not be forgotten.

And to his family, be proud of this legendary patriarch.