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Utah State athletic director has history of coaching changes

John Hartwell made the decision to part ways with Aggies football coach Gary Andersen over the weekend, three games into the 2020 season.

John Hartwell speaks at a press conference where he was introduced as Utah State University’s new director of athletics on Wednesday, June 3, 2015.
John Hartwell speaks at a press conference where he was introduced as Utah State University’s new director of athletics on Wednesday, June 3, 2015.
Eli Lucero

Most observers were shocked that Gary Andersen, the football coach who raised Utah State from the ashes several years ago, was fired just three games into the second season of his Aggies comeback. They shouldn’t be.

Things like that tend to happen around USU athletic director John Hartwell, who has made head coaching changes for 10 of the school’s 14 sports since he arrived in 2015, according to USU Statesman reporter Jason Walker. He did much the same thing at Troy University before arriving in Logan.

This is not to say each change was wrong or right, only that there has been an outbreak of head coach resignations, retirements and dismissals on his watch.

On the other hand, at least two of the coaching changes — a forced dismissal and a sudden resignation — were strange and unexplained. Andersen’s dismissal isn’t even the most inexplicable and mysterious of the coaching changes at USU.

Let’s face it, Andersen’s firing was just the latest plot twist in one of the strangest coaching careers ever. He left the Aggies in 2012 after leading them to an 11-2 season — a complete aberration for Aggie football at that point — to go to Big Ten power Wisconsin for two seasons before abruptly resigning and signing with — what’s this?! — perennial loser Oregon State, where he abruptly quit midway through his third season, surrendering millions of dollars to be unemployed for a year before signing up to be an assistant coach at Utah. Who does that?

Then, in December 2018, Andersen replaced the coach who replaced him at Utah State, Matt Wells, and in his first season back Andersen saw his team finish with a 7-6 record. This season he lasted all of three games — all big losses — before he got tossed by Hartwell.

Before Andersen delivered 7-6 and 11-2 seasons in 2011 and 2012, the Aggies had had only six winning seasons in more than three decades. And yet Hartwell didn’t have the patience to let Andersen complete even two seasons in his return to Utah State. Andersen was the guy who put the Aggies on the football map again after they had been left for dead in the mid-’70s.

Hartwell says the school will conduct a national search for Andersen’s replacement, but why would a coach want to come work for a man who has such a quick trigger finger?

Hartwell cut his teeth as an athletic director at Troy University, where, in just three seasons (2012-15), he hired new coaches in every sport except women’s basketball, men’s golf and volleyball, according Troy University beat writer Jeremy Wise.

Stacy Long of the Montgomery Advertiser reported in 2015 that Hartwell’s three years at Troy included the retirements of the school’s all-time winningest coaches in football, men’s basketball, baseball and softball.

Don Maestri, the men’s basketball coach for 31 years, retired at the end of the 2012-13 season. Larry Blakeney, the head football coach for 24 years (the school named its football field Larry Blakeney Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium), retired at the end of 2014. Bobby Pierce, the head baseball coach for 13 years, retired at the end of 2014. Melanie Davis, the head softball coach for 21 years, resigned at the end of the 2014 season. Both Maestri and Blakeney had seen their teams decline in recent years. Pierce had just completed two winning seasons, giving him a 13-year record of 486-339. Davis had had two losing seasons but her overall record was 780-509-4.

Hartwell told Wise, “That’s one thing that can allow an organization, whether it’s an athletic department or a Fortune 500 business, to get stagnant is a lack of change. I’m not saying change just for the sake of change, but transition change to keep up with what’s current is important. Those that are afraid of change often get left behind. I think that was one thing we had to instill …”

He’s instilled more of that change-is-good attitude since becoming the new sheriff at USU. There have been many changes since he arrived, some understandable, some not so much. Here are some of them:

Grayson Dubose, the volleyball coach for 14 years and two-time conference Coach of the Year, parted ways with the school in December 2019 (with a record of 189-233). A month earlier Hartwell announced that Jerry Finkbeiner, the women’s basketball coach for 30 years, would not return. Finkbeiner, who had a career record of 570 wins, 366 losses, had announced earlier that he was taking a medical leave of absence for a non-life-threatening health issue. In 2017, gymnastics coach Nadalie Walsh left the school to coach at the University of Illinois.

In 2016, tennis coach Clancy Shields left USU to take the same position at Arizona. Hartwell hired James Wilson to replace him. Under Wilson the team compiled a 61-27 record, a program-high No. 37 national ranking and won two conference championships. But at the end of his third season, Wilson suddenly resigned, as did his assistant, Carlos Di Laura. According to the Statesman’s Walker, Wilson had two years remaining on his contract worth a total of about $165,000. “By terminating his contract early,” reported Walker, “Wilson will be forced to pay $10,000 in ‘liquidated damages,’ according to the terms of his contract.”

In an equally odd development, in 2017 the school forced the resignation of head track and cross-country coach Gregg Gensel. Three sources close to Gensel told the Deseret News that the coach was not told why he was dismissed.

Gensel consulted a lawyer, but he and the school have never said what happened after that. The dismissal couldn’t have been based on the performance of Gensel’s teams. The program has probably never been better. According to the university’s media guide, since taking over for legendary coach Ralph Maughan in 1988, Gensel’s teams won 36 men’s and women’s conference championships, 264 individual conference championships and 62 individual All-American certificates.

That’s a lot of change in five years. By comparison, the University of Utah’s football coach has held that job for 16 years, the men’s basketball coach 10 years, the gymnastics coach six years, the track/cross-country coach 16 years, the volleyball coach 31 years, the softball coach 21 years, the baseball coach 18 years, the soccer coach 19 years, the women’s basketball coach five years, the golf coach five years, the men’s tennis coach seven years, and the women’s tennis coach two years.

Andersen is the latest coaching casualty at USU. His team certainly underperformed this season, but is it fair to dump a coach after three games, especially one who has been so successful and done so much to improve the program?