When the news broke Saturday morning that Utah State had decided to part ways with head football coach Gary Andersen it came as a complete shock to most.
Whether it be in the homes of diehard USU fans, casual college football observers or even select Aggies players and alums, incredulity could be found just about everywhere.
Why? Why now? How could this decision have been made? Was it mutual? Did Andersen step down? Did he want to go?
Those are just a smattering of the questions asked as Andersen’s second tenure at the university unceremoniously came to a close over the weekend.
(To be fair, there were also those who praised the decision, for the real and perceived missteps Andersen made along his coaching odyssey that included stops at Wisconsin and Oregon State).
It was a departure lacking in all pomp and circumstance, but it was necessary, per Utah State athletic director John Hartwell.
“I just felt the program was not going in the right direction and needed a change,” Hartwell explained.
It wasn’t about the short term.
Hartwell made that clear Monday, when discussing with media the decision to move on from Andersen. While Utah State’s 0-3 start to the season had left a great deal to be desired — Hartwell specifically noted that aside from a feisty first quarter against Nevada, “we weren’t in contention in any of those games” — the decision to make a change at head coach had more to do with the long-term outlook of the program.
And it was an outlook that had grown increasingly dreary.
“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-5 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.”
Where the Aggies were once one of the up-and-coming programs in the Group of Five ranks, as of this weekend they were among the dregs of the Mountain West Conference. The most recent conference statistics show Utah State to be the worst or second-worst team in the league on both offense and defense.
A far cry from when they were among the nation’s elite.
“The first three weeks (of the season), other than a snippet here or there, was not Aggie football as we have grown accustomed to,” Hartwell said. “Where we stood as a program and the trajectory that we were on, Gary agreed with me and said, ‘You’re right, we are not in a good place or going in a good direction.’”
It is all about the MWC.
The opposition is too good and improving too quickly for Utah State to waste any time moving backward, explained Hartwell.
“You have to look around our league at people’s progress and improvement and I just didn’t see that in the current state of our program,” he said. “Gary and I had very candid conversations about that. This is a much different league that we compete in today than the WAC was when he was here (before). That was a good league, but this is a really really good league. There are no layups, to borrow a basketball term. There are no layups in this league and it is a grind.
“People are getting better in our league, and not just from a facilities standpoint. The talent level is going up. And as you look forward on the horizon ... this game and business is not for the faint of heart at all.”
Hartwell conceded that BYU’s success this season played a part, too. This season, BYU has gone from being an average team to a team ranked among the 10 best in the country and that has not gone unnoticed in Logan.
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been looking down in Provo and seen the job that they’ve done,” said Hartwell. “Two years ago, we went into Provo and beat BYU soundly. Today ... we don’t play them this year, but Kalani (Sitake) has done a tremendous job down there and I want to make sure the Aggies are headed in the same direction.”
The decision to move on from Andersen will enable Utah State to move quickly into the future, Hartwell added, and he’s already heard from interested parties.
“In the past 48 hours my phone has blown up in a very positive way,” he said. “There is a lot of interest already, before we’ve even begun the search in earnest.”
Was it a mutual parting of ways?
Andersen and Hartwell met frequently in recent weeks and had “many candid conversations” about the state of the football program.
And while Andersen agreed to the reasoning behind the move, the reality is Utah State made the decision to move on. It was not a mutual breakup, per Hartwell.
“It was ultimately our decision, my decision, from a university perspective to go in a different direction,” Hartwell explained. “This is not knee-jerk reaction, a one day or one game or a one event type thing. Gary and I have been in pretty close conversation and meetings over a period of time. After carefully evaluating things, it just felt like we needed to go in a different direction.”
Ultimately, even if it is an unprecedented 2020 season — “Such an unusual year,” said Hartwell — that was the deciding factor. For as great an impact as Andersen had had on the program, there was a need for change.
“It was not really anything that we were looking at in the preseason or anything else,” said Hartwell. “As we looked at this, and had conversations about it, I just felt the program was not going in the right direction and needed a change.”
Only time will tell if the change has the desired effect.