Logan • Last week, just like they have done almost every week over the past four years, Utah State coach Gary Andersen and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham talked on the phone. For quite a while.
And just like always, they chatted about family, friends and their teams — with probably a little coaching gossip thrown in for good measure.
The one thing they didn’t talk about? Friday’s nationally televised matchup between the Utes and Aggies at Romney Stadium.
No need to. Andersen and Whittingham have a relationship that goes deeper than football, a friendship that dates back over 20 years, to their days together as young assistant coaches at Idaho State. And the bond has only strengthened over the years. They took their partnership to Utah, where they worked under head coaches Ron McBride and Urban Meyer, and kept it intact when Whittingham took the Utes’ head job himself. Andersen was his first defensive coordinator.
“There’s probably not very much that we don’t know about each other,” Andersen said.
The old gang finally broke up when Andersen took the Utah State job in 2009. But the friendship remained — even in a tough business where coaching and recruiting against each other can rub emotions raw.
“It was different for sure, at first,” said Whittingham. “But this was something that we were OK with. We knew that our jobs would have us competing with each other. But we knew we were always going to maintain the friendship. We have similar backgrounds. We’ve just been together for too long to let much come between us.”
Good thing. Because on top of everything else, Andersen and Whittingham are intensely competitive. Now they coach in the same state and go after some of the same recruits — even the same assistant coaches.
Andersen in the past has tried to hire Kalani Sitake and Aaron Roderick from Whittingham’s staff. In turn, Whittingham successfully took assistants Chad Kauha’aha’a and Ilaisa Tuiaki from Andersen.
The fact that the two remain friendly even after that kind of tussling is an indicator of just how deep their roots run.
Andersen first worked under Whittingham at Idaho State as a defensive line coach in the early ’90s. When Whittingham left his defensive coordinator job there to become an assistant coach at Utah, Andersen was given a choice of staying or leaving with his boss. Though he didn’t have a job, Andersen packed up and left Pocatello, winding up with a high school coaching job in Park City.
“That’s what cemented the friendship between the two,” McBride said. “Gary has a history of being loyal and being strong in his convictions. That’s an example of it right there.”
Whittingham, 52, and Andersen, 48, are relatively close in age. They also have similar football backgrounds — Whittingham was a hard-nosed linebacker at BYU, Andersen was a tough, gritty center for the Utes.
Whittingham started out as a position coach at Utah under McBride and his father, then-Utah defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham, before moving into the coordinator’s role himself.
After his stint in Park City, and later, at Northern Arizona as an assistant, Andersen coached Utah’s defensive linemen under both McBride and Meyer — with a one-year head coaching stint at Southern Utah in between. Whittingham wasted no time in naming Andersen his defensive coordinator when he became head coach in 2005.
That adds up to 13 years together on the same coaching staffs. And that translates into a lot of hours in meetings, film sessions and road trips, not to mention game days. And that familiarity has made it easier to negotiate the relationship curves they get thrown now.
“It’s deeper than football with us,” Andersen said. “It’s not hard to separate business and friendship. We both know right now that the other has a job to do. But we have trust, and that’s the biggest thing. Kyle is a loyal guy and a loyal person, and I value that tremendously.”
Not that there haven’t been bumps along the way. Andersen wasn’t thrilled about losing Kauha’aha’a and Tuiaki, although he ultimately realized that the coaching career path in this state leads to Utah in many cases.
The two have also banged heads over multiple recruits, most notably the battle for Utah starting middle linebacker V.J. Fehoko, who chose Utah over the Aggies only hours before signing day in 2010.
And, obviously, the two don’t speak as much as they used to. The weekly phone calls are about as frequent as their communication gets these days. But the two root for each other. They keep an eye on each other’s programs from a distance.
Whittingham acknowledged feeling “odd” in 2009, when the two schools met in the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and was actually relieved that the two teams didn’t play each other for two more years.
Utah State had no shot at beating Utah back then. But through recruiting, establishing a missionary program and basically welding the Ute template onto his own program, Andersen has built a team capable of competing with the Utes on Friday night — maybe even beating them if the breaks roll their way.
Whittingham is proud of what his friend has accomplished at Utah State. He had his doubts about what he considered a potential dead-end job when Andersen took it in 2008.
Now, the Utah coach and his players have to deal with an Aggie team basically crafted in their own image, and fully capable of pulling off a nationally televised upset before an ESPN2 audience.
“There are a lot of similarities to the way they coach,” Utah receiver Luke Matthews said. “Coach Andersen is going to try to take the ball away. They are going to make plays, and be aggressive defensively and gang tackle. It’s the same thing we see in practice every day.”
Reporter Lya Wodraska contributed to this story.
Whittingham and Andersen together
1992-94 • Idaho State
Whittingham was the defensive coordinator, Andersen the defensive line coach
1997-2002 • Utah
Whittingham was the defensive coordinator, Andersen the defensive line coach under Ron McBride
2004 • Utah
Whittingham was the defensive coordinator, Andersen the defensive line coach under Urban Meyer
2005-2008 • Utah
Whittingham was the head coach, Andersen the defensive coordinator
Utah at Utah State
P Romney Stadium (Logan)
Kickoff • Friday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 700 AM
Series record • Utah, 77-28-4
Last meeting • Utah 35, USU 17 (Sept. 3, 2009)
About the Utes • Utah is 9-0 when John White IV rushes for 100 or more yards. … Utah is one of five teams nationally to shut its opponent out in the season opener. … Utah State is Utah’s oldest rival. … Utah’s current record against WAC schools is 97-41-6.
About the Aggies • USU has lost its last six battles against Utah in Logan. … The Aggies have lost 12 consecutive games in the rivalry and 20 of the last 22 meetings. … Adam Kennedy and D.J. Tialavea are expected to play, both having been injured. … Utah State won its first season opener at home since 1997 last week.