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Gary Andersen greatly influenced the past decade of Utah State football, even when he was gone

Utah State coach Gary Andersen cheers to his players during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college football game against New Mexico on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019 in Albuquerque, N.M.
Andres Leighton, AP

If you’re looking for a way to define the last decade of football at Utah State, the answer is easy: Gary Andersen.

Andersen was the school’s head coach only four of those 10 seasons, but his influence was felt even in his absence. He turned a downtrodden program into a winner and then, succumbing to his chronic wanderlust, he left for Wisconsin.

And then he came back.

What happened during the six years after he left USU is a big mystery. No one — least of all Andersen — has adequately explained his abrupt, baffling (expensive) departures from Wisconsin and Oregon State (or even from Southern Utah earlier in his career, for that matter).

Anyway, he gave up millions of dollars, left the big-time stage — twice — and returned to Utah State last season, right back where he was in 2012.

Who does that?

USU head coach Matt Wells during Utah State football practice Thursday, March 28, 2013, in Logan.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

The course that Andersen established continued. His hand-picked assistant, quarterback coach/offensive coordinator Matt Wells, replaced him as head coach and for the most part maintained the winning ways. Then Wells did what most coaches do when they experience even mild success at USU — he left town. Wells became the head coach at Texas Tech. In turn, he was replaced by the man he had replaced at USU, Andersen, Part 2.

Follow all that?

Andersen made his debut as the USU coach in 2009 after spending years as an assistant at Utah. After two four-win seasons, he got the program rolling, with a 7-6 season followed by a brilliant 11-2 season in which the Aggies were ranked 16th in the final national poll.

Andersen launched the Aggies into a decade in which they had six winning seasons. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that the school had only four winning seasons the previous 30 years. Not since the early ’60s and ’70s had the Aggies produced so many winning seasons. During the Andersen decade, they were invited to eight bowl games (winning four), two more than they had qualified for the previous 116 years.

The hope in Logan of course is that Andersen’s wanderlust is behind him and he’ll stay. He says he’s happy to be back at USU, that this is home and where he wanted to be all along, but we’ve heard this before. In 2012, he was saying he never considered the USU job as a stepping stone, as had so many coaches before him, and when his name was linked to other jobs he said Logan was where he needed to be; he wasn’t leaving. He left a few weeks later.

Utah State Aggies head coach Gary Andersen claps as Utah State University and Toledo play football in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in Boise, Idaho.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

It was difficult for USU and its fans to see Andersen flee, but no one could really blame him for accepting an invitation to coach at a big-time program like Wisconsin. Not many coaches could resist such a temptation. After a 9-4 first season at Wisconsin, he was offered a raise and a contract extension for another five years. But after his second season — in which his team won 10 games and played in the Big 10 championship game (a 59-0 loss to Ohio State) — he bolted again. That was surprising enough, but then he announced he was moving to Oregon State, one of the weakest programs in the country.

It was like trading in a Tesla for a Prius. He had to pay $3 million to buy his way out of his contract.

OSU gave him a similar contract — with a similar outcome. He quit the job midway through the third season. He gave up a reported $12 million in doing so. He had won only seven games. He wound up reclaiming his assistant’s job at Utah in 2018. He was back at USU in 2019, and the Aggies were 7-6 in his return season.

Wanderlust has been Andersen’s M.O. It has been largely forgotten that he took his first head coaching job at Southern Utah in 2003 — and left after one season. Since 2002, he’s changed employers eight times.

He is one in a long line of coaches who had used USU as a bridge to other more prestigious jobs since the 1960s — John Ralston (four seasons at USU) went to Stanford, Tony Knap (four seasons) to Boise State, Chuck Mills (six) to Wake Forest, Phil Krueger (three) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bruce Snyder (seven) to Arizona State, Charlie Weatherbie (three) to Navy, John L. Smith (three) to Louisville, Andersen (three) to Wisconsin, Wells (six) to Texas Tech.

The Aggies hope that the second time around Andersen will not only stay for the long run, but that he can recapture the magic he produced in 2012.