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Does Utah State’s next football coach need Utah ties? Not necessarily, but they do need to know offense

Utah State athletic director John Hartwell speaks at the press conference announcing the hiring of Aggie head football coach Gary Andersen on Dec. 11, 2018, in Logan.
In this Dec. 11, 2018 file photo, Utah State athletic director John Hartwell speaks at the press conference announcing the hiring of Aggie head football coach Gary Andersen in Logan. Hartwell is once again on the lookout for a new head football coach.
Jeff Hunter, Deseret News

If there is one question still being asked in the wake of Gary Andersen’s dismissal as head football coach at Utah State, it is, “Who will be the next coach to lead the Aggies?”

Currently, the answer is interim head coach Frank Maile. Maile will have in essence a five-game audition for the job, starting Saturday against Fresno State, and he definitely wants to be the Aggies’ head coach longterm.

“Absolutely,” Maile told reporters Monday. “That’s my dream. I’m a true-blooded Aggie, through and through, so if the future holds that, then so be it.”

Utah State athletic director John Hartwell wants to have a decision made by Dec. 15.

“The sooner the better,” he said. “What that does is it alleviates the anxiety of ‘Who it will be?’ and ‘What kind of coach?’ Those questions. I will not rush to a decision. I want to make sure we get the right person, but if we can find that person on or before Dec. 15, I think we are doing well.”

Who the right person will be will come down to what Hartwell and USU are looking for (Hartwell noted the decision will be his, so long as USU president Noelle Cockett gives her stamp of approval).

Listening to Hartwell talk for even a minute and some trends become clear in that regard.

In this Nov. 24, 2018 file photo, Utah State quarterback Jordan Love (10) looks to throw the ball against Boise State in the second of an NCAA college football game in Boise, Idaho. Boise State won 33-24.
Steve Conner, Associated Press

Offense, offense, offense

Hartwell wants offense, and lots of it.

In his discourse with reporters Monday, he brought up the 2018 Aggies. Those Aggies, famously quarterbacked by Jordan Love, averaged 47.5 points per game and 497.4 yards per game, en route to an 11-2 record.

Utah State’s inability to maintain that sort of production the past two years is one of the main reasons Andersen was let go, with Hartwell noting, “If you do some comparisons and look at our program only two years ago around the first of December, we were first or second in the country in scoring offense, top five in total offense and were ranked No. 19 in the country,” Hartwell said. “Not even two years later, those tables have been flipped in the wrong direction.”

Hartwell’s desire for better offensive production — the Aggies are the second worst offensive team in America, ahead of only UMass — is such that USU’s next coach doesn’t necessarily have to have any head coaching experience. Not if he can get the offense rolling again.

“I am not going to box us in and say they have to have previously been a head coach,” said Hartwell. “I want us to be wide open in this search and go find the best person, the best candidate to lead Utah State football forward.”

That means defensive-minded coaches haven’t been eliminated as options. They just better have answers for how to fix the team’s woes on the offensive side of the ball.

“If it is a defensive guy, I want to know up front what their plan is to fix our offense,” Hartwell said.

Weber State head football coach Jay Hill.
Weber State head football coach Jay Hill.
Weber State Athletics

Are ties to Utah necessary?

In the minutes after Andersen was let go, many names with connections to the state of Utah and Utah State University itself were bandied about as possible replacements.

Names like Weber State’s Jay Hill, or many of BYU’s coaches, such as Jeff Grimes, Ed Lamb and Ilaisa Tuiaki. Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley was mentioned, as well as Texas Tech offensive coordinator David Yost, who oversaw the Aggies’ electric 2018 offense.

Those suggestions made sense in a way given each individual’s familiarity with the state and coaching in a landscape that includes missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hartwell conceded that the next head coach needs to understand the “returned mission program,” but he has no requirement that they have lived in Utah or coached in Utah.

“Do they have to have coached here, lived here, have a certain number of people on the staff with connections here? No,” he said.

That goes in line with previous coaching hires Hartwell has made at Utah State.

Since being named USU’s vice president and director of athletics in 2015, Hartwell has hired his share of head coaches, and most have not had ties to Utah.

Men’s basketball coach Craig Smith is a Stephen, Minnesota, native, a graduate of the University of North Dakota and coached at the University of South Dakota prior to joining the Aggies.

His success has been well noted, as Smith has gone 54-15 in his two seasons at USU and won consecutive Mountain West Tournament titles.

March 7, 2020, file photo, Utah State’s head coach Craig Smith celebrates with his team after defeating San Diego State in an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference men’s tournament championship in Las Vegas.
Isaac Brekken, Associated Press

It isn’t just Smith, though. Hartwell has gone everywhere to find the “best person.”

Women’s basketball head coach Kayla Ard, who was hired in March, is a native of Hammond, Louisiana, and a graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University, with assistant coaching stints at Denver, Dayton, Clemson, Troy and Pensacola State.

Women’s gymnastics coach Amy Smith, who last year oversaw one of the program’s best seasons ever, is a native of Manhattan Beach, California, who competed collegiately at Oklahoma and UCLA and coached at North Carolina before being hired by Hartwell.

Men’s tennis coach Aaron Paajanen is from Phoenix and coached at Detroit Mercy before accepting the job at Utah State last year.

There are others, like women’s volleyball coach Rob Neilson and cross-country coach Artie Gulden, who are also not native Utahns, though Neilson went to and later coached at BYU, while Gulden, a native of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who spent part of his two-year mission on the Utah State campus.

Given his history, when Hartwell says the Aggies will conduct a national search, they will conduct a national search.

Additionally, the Aggies themselves aren’t actually as Utahn as one might think.

Of the 102 players who make up Utah State’s football team, only 35 are from Utah. Californians make up 27% of the roster and from there no single state has more than seven representatives.

If you look at the Aggies’ latest recruiting class, a seven-player class Maile said the team was committed to in the wake of the NCAA gifting athletes an additional year of eligibility, four are from Utah, but one is from New Jersey, another is from Texas and the third is from Florida.

20150603 John Hartwell listens as President Stan Albrecht speaks at a press conference where Hartwell was introduced as Utah State University’s new Director of Athletics on Wednesday, June 3, 2015.
In this June 3, 2015 file photo, John Hartwell listens as President Stan Albrecht speaks at a press conference where Hartwell was introduced as Utah State University’s new director of athletics.
Eli Lucero

A true CEO

Ultimately, what Hartwell is looking for is a CEO, a coach who can manage the myriad responsibilities that fall on a modern college football coach.

“As we look going forward, (we need to find) the energy, passion and CEO ability,” Hartwell said. “Yes, the head coach is the head ball coach and has to have great football knowledge and the ability to recruit, but they’ve got to see over a vast enterprise no different than a Fortune 500 CEO.

“They have to make sure that they have a really good staff assembled, a staff that has synergy, knows who to recruit, game plan, make in-game changes, can relate to today’s young men. All of those things are keys, as are community standpoints, the involvement and donor cultivation. Everyone is not an expert in all of those, but I want someone who has a working knowledge in all of those areas.”

Hartwell is optimistic he can find what he’s looking for, which isn’t outlandish given the fact that in his five years in Logan, USU has claimed five Mountain West regular-season championships and four postseason titles, with five coaches being named conference coach of the year.

“I am excited about it,” he said. “I think we have a lot to offer here at Utah State. We’ve proven we can win here. I can tell you this, in the past 48 hours since this broke, my phone has blown up in a very positive way. There is a lot of interest already before we’ve even begun the search in earnest.”