Gordon Monson: The strange saga behind Gary Andersen leaving Utah State ... again

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State football coach Gary Andersen arrived back in Logan amid much fanfare for his second stint coaching Utah State's football program back in 2018. But it all went south in less than two seasons. Andersen and the Aggies parted ways last Saturday. USU is off to an 0-3 start this season. Assistant Frank Maile will serve as the Aggies' interim coach the rest of the season.

It was Nietzsche, the philosopher, not the Hall of Fame Packers linebacker, who said: “I obviously do everything to be ‘hard to understand’ myself.”

The same could be said for and about Gary Andersen.

The man doesn’t move at the same pace or in the same way as others. He doesn’t think like others. He doesn’t react in expected form. He is a puzzle with a sweatshirt on his back and a whistle around his neck, a sweatshirt and whistle that are now left on the ground.

In a most unusual — no, flat-out weird — coaching arc that takes “hard to understand” and blasts it directly into “dazed and confused,” Andersen was separated on Saturday from his latest head coaching job, this one at Utah State, after an 0-3 start to the season. It marked the third consecutive departure as a head coach from a job few on the outside expected him to either leave or be let loose from, certainly not in the manner in which it happened.

His sudden withdrawal from Utah State is just the latest in a long line of curiosities defining his career. Those sophisticated enough not to wholly swallow the company line are rightfully asking … What really happened here? Was Andersen’s leaving the idea of Aggies athletic director John Hartwell or other administrators? Or was it at the behest of Andersen himself, a head coach who was fried, fed up and finished?

Smart money is on the latter.

Those who know him say the old coach is a different man now from the guy they knew as a young coach years ago. In his later days at Utah State, since the start of this season, he was a different guy from day to day. One day up for the challenge, one day down, down, down. Up, down, up, down, up, down, all around.

Let’s step back and get a running start at this.

After a successful stint as defensive coordinator at Utah, following a previous coaching career that already had seen him take a circuitous path through the bushes and back to that juncture he got the HC job at Utah State the first time in 2009. He was fired up, in a big, big way.

Dude was going to run through walls, motoring forward to clear any obstacle, to lift that heavy load. And so, he did.

While in Logan the first time, he had a terrific — though relatively brief — run there, turning the program around from complete futility (a 28-75 record over the nine seasons before he arrived to an 11-2 mark in 2012, including a league championship). En route, Andersen told everybody how much he loved the school, the community, the kids, and then, just a couple of days later, after reinforcing all of that, he bolted for the big marquee and money atop Wisconsin football.

Whoosh. He was Audi-five-thou.

You know the story from there, but are likely baffled, the same as everyone else, by it.

Andersen stayed in Madison for a brief run (20-7), then suddenly jumped to Corvallis, Ore., of all places, to lead the Oregon State program (7-23). There were rumors that he had struggled under the piercing glare of former Badger coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez, a man who carried a lot of weight at Wisky. He jumped out of one hot pot, where the winning was easy, into another, with a different kind of heat at OSU, where the winning was not.


Andersen’s head coaching record:

2003 • Southern Utah • 4-7

2009 • Utah State • 4-8

2010 • Utah State • 4-8

2011 • Utah State • 7-6

2012 • Utah State • 11-2

2013 • Wisconsin • 9-4

2014 • Wisconsin • 10-3

2015 • Oregon State • 2-10

2016 • Oregon State • 4-8

2017 • Oregon State • 1-5

2019 • Utah State • 7-6

2020 • Utah State • 0-3

Total • 63-70

He labored and lurched, then abruptly quit in the middle of a season, walking away from $12 million without a buyout on his deal, burning down everything and everyone, from administrators to his assistants, the same ones he hired, while exiting, and ended up as a lieutenant under his old boss, Kyle Whittingham, back at Utah.

It was obvious that Andersen had lost some of his vigor for coaching.

But before last season, he figured going back to Logan might re-energize his passion for the profession, retracing his familiar path as head coach at Utah State.

He did, and then he didn’t.

Not anymore.

And that culminated on Saturday in a huff and a puff, when the desire to fight on collapsed.

After 16 games, Andersen and his team slammed into a brick wall in the midst of as ugly a start to a season as could be negatively envisioned, even for old-timers in Logan, where football had been sad-and-sorry for lo, those many years — until the coach fixed it in that initial phase. What his team showed this time, in those three beatdowns, was … as he described it after the second loss … “pathetic.”

Anyone who buys that the school fired its head coach, absorbing added costs in the middle of a pandemic, one that has decimated the bank accounts of darn near every university athletic department, including Utah State’s, is a donkey willing to be led by the nose to its feed. It simply is not believable, stretching one’s elasticity to imagine to the point of snapping.

So, what’s left to accept, to maintain, to trust, to conclude? What’s more credible, tenable, believable?

It is this: Andersen begged off, having slammed into and caromed off of the near reaches of his ability to abide a declining program. He bailed. It’s not as though he’d never done that before, for varying reasons, maybe reasons only he understands.

At least this time, the particulars are easier to grasp.

After overseeing a team last season that dropped from an 11-2 mark the year before under Matt Wells, who left the Aggies to become the head coach at Texas Tech, to a so-so 7-6, even with a first-round NFL draft pick in quarterback Jordan Love leading the team, Utah State thus far this season has scored all of 29 points while giving up 114.

The football the Ags played over that latest span was little short of embarrassing. It is true they faced what likely is their three most difficult opponents, but eating those kinds of defeats was too much for everybody involved, especially Andersen.

He had no answers and seemingly scarce energy.

Unless he’s drained his accounts or invested his money poorly, it would seem the coach has enough of the green to not have to suffer through anything he doesn’t want to endure. But for those of us who were around when Andersen was an up-and-comer, this would not have been the estimated or expected road taken for or by him.

Before and after he got the USU job the first time, Andersen was about as bright-eyed a coach as you’d find anywhere. The man had dreams, he had ideas to implement, battles to win, opponents to conquer, opportunities to fulfill.

Not opportunities to leave unfulfilled. Not jobs to walk out on.

When the Aggies visited Rice-Eccles to play a more talented Utah team, and lost, Andersen was exercised and determined afterward, acknowledging that his team played well, but he would have nothing to do with a moral victory. He wanted more, much more.

When Utah State made its first bowl game under Andersen in 2011, and he gathered his coaches and players to give them the news, the head coach openly wept. His players wept. He was so proud of what his team had accomplished, and he said as much:

“There wasn’t a single dry eye to be found,” he uttered on that occasion. “It’s a special experience for these kids to be in a bowl. It will stay with them and help them for the rest of their lives. Whatever it is, they will believe in themselves. …”

He took a deep breath, and then added more.

"… I’ve grown as a coach. These kids have taught me to be a leader for them. I’m a much better coach now than I was before. In the tough times, they kept fighting. It gives you validation. Through all the emotions, we found success because of these kids. From the worst of the worst to the best of the best moments, I’ve learned from them.

“I’m driven by kids, not by dollars. What we started here, we’re far from finishing. Utah State is a great place. I like it here. I’m comfortable here. I came here to be in more than just one bowl game. I believe in what we’re doing.”

A year later, he was gone.

And somewhere along the meandering line, ricocheting from bumper to bumper, from victory to defeat, from strange to unexpected, from place to place, the enthusiasm, the emotion, the growth, the success, the validation left, too. As the miles blurred by and the dollars came …

Something went wrong. Or something was lost.

And it went wrong or was just plain wrung out, straight into Saturday, when Andersen exited the building, again.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.