USU football: Utah State overcame years of futility to get to this point
Utah State’s long climb from the bottom started at the top.
Published: December 10, 2012 02:04PM
Updated: April 8, 2013 11:32PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah State Aggies head coach Gary Andersen during first half play. Utah State led the Idaho Vandals 21-6 at the half in Logan, Saturday, November 24, 2012.

Logan • As the football victories kept coming this season, fans eagerly greeted Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes, reminding him about all those past defeats.

The Aggie followers emphasized “how they long they’ve suffered,” Barnes said. “They take great pride in making sure I understand that they stuck with us for that long.”

Until last season’s breakthrough with a 7-6 record and a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl bid, the 30-year summary of Aggie football was dark and cloudy with occasionally severe losing streaks and intermittent winning.

Now that USU is ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25 with a school-record 10 wins, longtime fans appreciate this newfound success and outsiders wonder how it happened. How could a football program that Sports Illustrated ranked as the worst in the country in advance of the 2003 season (and that was before things really went bad) somehow right itself, becoming respected nationally and revered locally?

Stew Morrill knows the answer — and it goes beyond coaching, which in no sense diminishes the performance of Gary Andersen.

In his first 10 years after becoming USU’s basketball coach in 1998, while working for four athletic directors, Morrill witnessed three previous Aggie football coaches being hired and fired.

“Gary has done a fabulous job,” Morrill said, “but he was also given more opportunities than those before him. I used to just shake my head at the facilities football had when I got here, and for a long time after that.”

It’s different now, thanks to construction projects and budget increases that reflect the school’s commitment, resulting in a Western Athletic Conference championship. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to win … it means you’ve got a chance,” Morrill said.

That’s all Andersen wanted. During interviews in December 2008, Andersen sold USU president Stan L. Albrecht and Barnes on his plan to build a program. In turn, as a Utah assistant who had coached in 10 consecutive victories over USU by an average of 25 points, Andersen needed assurances that winning in Logan was genuinely possible. “No question,” he said last week, “that was a two-way street.”

As Barnes summarized the dialogue, “We loved his plan. We couldn’t have gotten Gary without our plan.”

That strategy included more reasonable scheduling and more money for the coaching staff via the Merlin Olsen Fund campaign. Barnes’ vision, as documented in material that solicited annual donations of $1,000 to $50,000-plus, was to “produce a perennial bowl-eligible team that consistently finishes in the top three of the WAC” and “to attract and retain dynamic leadership.”

Barnes’ plan is working to a degree that may require revised goals. The Aggies (10-2) likely would be playing in the prestigious Orange Bowl instead of another Potato Bowl if they’d finished 11-1. Of course, that’s asking a lot of a program that won six or more games in only three seasons from 1981-2010.

As they awaited the kickoff of the Nov. 24 USU-Idaho game, 50-year season-ticket holder Lyle Henderson and his son, Wayne, recalled times when the Aggies took three years — or longer — to win 10 games.

A weakened WAC may have facilitated USU’s achievements in 2012, but everything suggests the Aggies would have competed favorably against former members Nevada and Fresno State. USU’s only losses were to Big Ten champion Wisconsin and BYU, by a total of five points.

This season’s success resulted from a convergence of administrative support and capable coaching. Albrecht hired Barnes, who hired Andersen, who gave Albrecht a game ball after the 45-9 win over Idaho. Taking any of those three out of this equation undoubtedly would have altered the outlook. The direction “has to come from the president,” said Chris Wilson, a Logan car dealer and longtime booster.

Having sensed “a major transition” taking place at USU, Andersen made a well-timed arrival. As his predecessor, Brent Guy, once said, “It’s not always coaches that you have to change; you have to change a little bit of how you operate.”

The construction of a $10.5 million end-zone complex at Romney Stadium in 2007, championed by Albrecht and former AD Randy Spetman, came too late to save Guy’s job. Prior to Guy, Mick Dennehy’s tenure was undone by conference upheaval that resulted in two seasons of forced independence and two seasons in the far-flung Sun Belt Conference.

Joining the WAC in 2005 stabilized USU, as did the school’s recent invitation to the Mountain West — which now resembles the former WAC.

In moving to the MW next year, when Boise State and San Diego State presumably will be gone, the Aggies expect to contend for the title. A $6.4 million weight training facility is being built and Andersen is staying, after being pursued by California. The football’s program target is consistency that approaches Morrill’s basketball standards, and administrators say that’s attainable.

“It’s been a great ride,” Albrecht said, “and it’s not over.”

Barnes concluded, “We have a plan in place that allows us to sustain this. I’m not suggesting we’re going to have 10 wins every year. … [but] I believe with great conviction that this is the start of something special that will last a long, long time.”

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

Best foot forward

Utah State’s .500-or-better football seasons since 1981:

Year Record Coach Comment

1981 5-5-1 Bruce Snyder Lost to Idaho State in last game

1990 5-5-1 Chuck Shelton Won four straight after 1-4-1 start

1993 7-5 Charlie Weatherbie Beat BYU; beat Ball State in Las Vegas Bowl

1996 6-5 John L. Smith Beat Utah in opener; no bowl bid

1997 6-6 John L. Smith Beat Utah; lost to Cincinnati in Boise

2011 7-6 Gary Andersen 2-5 start; lost to Ohio in Potato Bowl

2012 10-2 Gary Andersen 6-0 at home; will play Toledo in Potato Bowl