‘It’s in my guts’: Gary Andersen is back home, at USU, where he always hoped he’d be lucky enough to return

After circling the country, the former USU football coach is back and ready to stay in Logan until he’s hanging up his whistle

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) USU coach Gary Andersen goes in-depth on life back in Logan inside his office in the Jim & Carol Laub Athletics-Academic Complex.

Logan • Football season was long over, and a whiteout slammed the streets of Logan. On a frigid winter evening over four years ago, the kind of storm that forced folks to just stay in for the night, the unforgettable impression made by Gary Andersen during his time there resurfaced. Hamid Salehi, then the owner of Logan’s Heroes, a sandwich shop on Main Street in Logan, said of all the years he’s been in Cache Valley, nothing ever compared to those four-plus years Andersen was in charge of Utah State football.

The town, Salehi said, was alive. There was hype and anticipation like Salehi hadn’t ever seen, starting around summer and into the fall. USU football had just finished 6-7 a couple months prior, there was considerably less foot traffic in recent years, less gargantuan, tasty sandwiches to make for customers, and Salehi wondered what it would be like if Andersen would ever return.

This story was relayed to Andersen a few weeks ago inside his new office that isn’t new, because it was his old office when he first arrived on campus in 2009 to change just about everything about the Aggie football program.

The story was a set-up for a question for Andersen, but before it got that far, leaning back in his giant leather swivel chair, he said, “Do you know he’s gone now?” Andersen knew Salehi retired in November after 30 years of being a staple in the Cache Valley. He knew how many years Salehi owned the place. He shook his head in amazement. And it was there that you begin to understand what Gary Andersen has been missing ever since he left.

“That’s what I want it to be,” said the 55-year-old coach.

By it, he means everything that happens from here on out.

His return to the place that never forgot him and forgave him for ever leaving in the first place, is no cliché, he vows. He wants it to be more than football. It takes less than five minutes to get from the house he never sold in Logan to get to his office desk. That’s just if you’re cruising. If he’s in a rush? “Three-and-a-half.”

“If you ask me what I want,” Andersen said, “I want that.”

It’s his again. He’s back in Logan. Back in the same old office. Back where he said he belongs. And on this day, there’s a fresh coat of snow on the field.

Yearning for home

Gary Andersen does his best to explain why Logan. Why Logan over Salt Lake City or Madison, Wisc., or Corvallis, Ore., or wherever? There were wherevers, too, before he took the job at Wisconsin in December 2012, Andersen said. There were big-name schools that came calling, but he decided otherwise. To him, the job represents more than turning around a program or winning a recruiting battle or qualifying for a bowl game.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said.

For a few minutes, he explains the city, the school, the program, the valley, “it’s in my guts.” It’s where his three sons graduated from. It’s where, after bouncing around the country, they kept their home instead of putting it on the market or later upgrading. He and wife, Stacey, thought about it hard. But they couldn’t sell. They’re grandparents now. Even when he was working elsewhere the last seven years, “Logan was always home.”

“I never really wanted to leave, if that makes sense,” he said. “That may seem strange. We said no to a couple opportunities that people thought, on the outside, we were crazy. At the end of the day, I do not regret any of those moves.

"To have the opportunity to come back here is something that I wake up every day and I’m just blessed.”


USU coach Gary Andersen through the years:

• Utah State head coach: 2009-2012 (26-24)

• Wisconsin head coach: 2013-2014 (19-7)

• Oregon State head coach: 2015-2017: (7-23)

• Utah State head coach: named coach in December 2018

Nine years after he was first hired to take over a program that had 11 consecutive losing seasons and just two winning seasons in the last 28 years, Andersen was re-introduced as USU’s head coach in December. When Matt Wells, who replaced Andersen, left for Texas Tech, Andersen made it clear that not only was he interested in returning, he really, really wanted the job. After a year back on the Utah staff with old friend Kyle Whittingham, Andersen went after what he said was the only gig that could’ve taken him out of Salt Lake.

“My dad is one of the most unpredictable people,” said oldest son, Keegan. “Obviously he raised me, and I still can’t predict what he’s going to do. When we moved back to Utah, I knew if the right situation came about, he would have a hard time saying no, because that’s how he is.”

The right situation was Utah State. All along. And the dominoes fell. One by one.

‘He talks the talk and he walks the walk’

It has caught the college football world by surprise — even in shock — but when Gary Andersen makes a move, he doesn’t waffle. He makes a choice, even if it isn’t popular. Even if it’s puzzling to those on the outside.

He left Wisconsin, a perennial Top 25 contender, because he was frustrated with the admission standards at the school. He wanted to be able to get more players in there. At Oregon State, he walked away from $12.6 million guaranteed dollars after going 7-23 in just two and a half seasons. There was some internal strife between him and some of his assistant coaches at OSU. Still, he reiterates that he wouldn’t trade the experiences or life lessons for anything.

They’ve helped him come full circle, back to Logan.

So what has Andersen learned about himself, this complicated profession and his outlook on college football in the last decade since becoming a head coach?

“I never been, what I would say, is a great delegator, to say the least,” he said. “And as I got a little bit better at delegating, that probably wasn’t the best thing for me. I will micromanage, not to the point where I will make life miserable, but I want to know what’s going on within the structure [of the program] so I can understand what’s best for those kids. I’ve learned that. I would say this: I’ve always stood for what my core was. If I was coaching, it’s the kids in my program first, it’s the school secondly, coaches third. Some people think that’s wrong.”

Andersen went on:

“I will never let people in this building forget they’re working for the kids. I will know what I’m walking into.”

“If you’re not all on the same page, even if you’re at least pushing toward the same goals, you’ll fail. Guarantee it.”

“I love this place, I love the valley, but all that doesn’t matter if you’re not working for the same people. It’s the kids.”

He does not negotiate these core tenets anymore. It’s what helped him build his new USU staff in a couple month’s time. Andersen and his new assistants had to piece together a recruiting class in a little over a month. Justin Ena, who Andersen hired as defensive coordinator after working alongside him at Utah, said the Aggies will continue to recruit the way they have been since Andersen first arrived.

“He does things very calculated, and one thing I found out, he’s always putting the players first,” Ena said. “He talks the talk and he walks the walk.”

Back to a place where the food won’t go cold

On Gary Andersen’s desk inside his office is one of the individual goal sheets he has for each player. They’re broken up into social, academic and athletic portions and every six to eight weeks they’re reviewed, and often changed by the position coaches. Every player has one and every player must meet each goal in order to move onto the next.

This is how they plan on making another jump. Meticulously.

The Aggies are coming off an 11-2 season and another bowl win in what was Wells’ — the guy who replaced Andersen initially — final season. They finished the year ranked in the AP Top 25 and return star quarterback Jordan Love and linebacker David Woodward and a host of other talented players. The foundational bricks of the program were laid a decade ago, laid by Andersen, his former staff and players who showed future Aggies that it could be done, that you could win in Logan and sustain it. Andersen is seeking a way to ensure USU is an annual Top 25 team and contender for the Mountain West crown, because he believes with the types of players he and his staff want, it’s totally feasible.

Gone, he hopes, are the 11-2 years followed by sub-.500 seasons.

“Find a way,” he said.

New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., whose father coached with Andersen at Utah and later at Utah State, said he wanted to come to Logan to work with someone whose primary spot is exactly where he is. No longer is Andersen wondering what life might be like at other schools. That, Sanford said, is a selling point to coaches and players.

“I wanted to work with a coach that’s done it with different teams and in different places, but also to be at a place where it’s a destination for him,” he said. “I wanted to be at a place where I wanted to be.”

Andersen hopes the talk of his return dies down and fast. He wants the narrative to be about the Aggies themselves, their own paths to Logan and how they’ve carved out their own roles with the football program. He wants it to be about them, not about him coming back to Logan, where he can get to the office in three-and-a-half minutes or go to Herm’s Inn for a Friday night meal and be left alone.

At other stops, son Keegan said, fans would talk his ear off to the point where the food just got cold.

“In Logan, people know who he is,” Keegan Andersen said, “but they let him be him.”

Because they know and believe that this is his last stop. They know and believe that he is back in Logan for the foreseeable future with nothing but Cache Valley, Utah State and his Aggies on his mind.

“You get to the spot where you do it because it’s where you want to be and you know what you like,” he said, “I don’t see that in any way, shape or form ever having a chance to change.”