Friday night in Logan, the University of Utah will encounter a problem of its own creation.
Utah State is expected to provide much more resistance than usual in the rivalry, led by a coach who's building his football program in the image of the Utes.
Gary Andersen's strategy incorporates what he learned from working under Ron McBride, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham for 11 years. It includes much the same recruiting philosophy, the aggressive defensive approach, the practice tempo and structure, the program's expressed "core values" (originating from Meyer) and the elements of "the plan to win" (also Meyer's), among other shared beliefs.
The Aggies made their first bowl appearance in 14 years last December and should contend for a Western Athletic Conference championship in 2012, while preparing for their move to the Mountain West. The immediate challenge is showing improvement against the Utes, who have beaten USU by an average of four touchdowns in this century's 10 meetings although Andersen coached the Aggies in only one of those games, his debut in 2009 (a 35-17 loss).
If the Aggies stage an upset Friday, the blueprint will be the Utes' own script. It's found in the journal Andersen kept while working for Utah. "Quite a bit of stuff there," he once said of the Ute influence. "That's what I know."
This week, Andersen said of his and Whittingham's programs, "So many ideas are the same, formulating a plan and making sure to stick to that plan."
The connection is such that "we could trade coaches between Utah and Utah State â¦ everything's very similar," said Chad Kauha'aha'a, Utah's defensive line coach.
Actually, that's happened. Kauha'aha'a joined the Ute staff in 2011 after spending two seasons at USU and fullbacks/tight ends coach Ilaisa Tuiaki is in his first season as a full-time coach at Utah after working for Andersen for three years. Before that, Tuiaki was a Ute graduate assistant, while Kauha'aha'a worked for McBride at Weber State. USU assistants Mike Sanford and Kevin Clune formerly coached at Utah.
"The model that [Andersen] took obviously was from here a lot of similarities, with even the verbiage and the stuff you see up on the walls in their building," Tuiaki said. "When I went up there, it was as if I never left here. I knew exactly what the structure was going to be like. A lot of it is exactly how it is here."
Andersen said his Ute experience "absolutely prepared me to be a head coach," and his presentation during USU's interview process in December 2008 was built around Utah's recruiting approach. He would focus on in-state players, LDS missionaries and Polynesians, while mixing in national prospects.
USU's dynamic quarterback (Chuckie Keeton) is from Houston, the home area of Brian Johnson, who ended his Ute career in 2008 with the most quarterbacking wins in school history. Keeton may well do the same for USU. Ongoing construction is another shared trait. USU is building a $6.2 million weight room, adding to facility enhancements that reflect the influence of president Stan Albrecht and athletic director Scott Barnes.
Together with Andersen, they're bringing back the school's once-proud football tradition. Andersen's record is a modest 16-22 in his fourth season. Yet he's clearly making progress, and his Ute background is helping him make it happen.
Andersen took Utah's model "and put his own twist on it, just like we did when we took over here," Whittingham said.
The back story of the program's improvement under Andersen includes how a group of former Aggie players expressed disgust regarding Barnes' hiring of someone with no USU ties, in contrast to other candidates. They apparently overlooked the coaching success of another Utah graduate in Logan, where the school's stadium is named after E.L. "Dick" Romney.
Planning to win
• As Utah's coach in 2003-04, Urban Meyer established principles that have been generally adopted by current Ute coach Kyle Whittingham and Utah State's Gary Andersen.
• Core values: Honesty, always respect women, no drugs, no stealing, no weapons.
• The plan to win: Play great defense, take care of the football, score in the red zone, win the kicking game.