Gary Andersen is standing in front of the visiting locker room at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the meeting point for post-practice interviews one afternoon last week and the spot where he led the Utah State and Oregon State football teams onto the field to face Utah.
Andersen is home again, having returned to the Ute staff as a defensive line coach, 10 years after he launched a three-school head coaching tenure. This phase of his career is “an adjustment,” he acknowledged. The natural angle for this story is how having to worry only about coaching the linemen in tandem with Lewis Powell should be refreshing for Andersen, free from all of the stress involved with managing an entire program.
Yet if Andersen could check only one box in this multiple-choice test, it might be the one that says he misses being more concerned about the whole team.
At this point, you can guess what fans in Corvallis, Ore., are saying: Andersen had his chance.
He walked away from Oregon State last October, halfway through his third season. Summarizing his nine seasons away from the Utes, Andersen said, “I wouldn't change anything.”
That covers his move from Utah State to Wisconsin (a traditional career arc), going from Wisconsin to Oregon State (seemingly illogical) and leaving OSU in midseason (he remains somewhat vague on that subject).
In Corvallis, “People don't understand some of those scenarios,” he said. Andersen added only that his strategy of the past 10 months has been to “keep your mouth shut” about the issues that caused him to pack up and drive to Logan, where he spent the rest of the season before joining Utah's staff in January.
Andersen remains the only coach to have beaten Utah in nonconference play in the Utes' Pac-12 era, via USU’s overtime victory in 2012. He’s forever distinguished as the last coach to win a Western Athletic Conference football championship. Andersen also won a Big Ten West championship with Wisconsin in 2014, only to lose 59-0 to Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team in the conference title game.
Now he’s back at the school where he played and then coached for 11 years in two stints, and the landscape looks different. The Utes play in the Pac-12, they’re housed in the modern Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center and they have everything a coach could want. Andersen appreciates it all, right down to the way the grass practice field is lovingly maintained — even if the coyote decoy in the northwest corner scared him one dark morning, as he arrived for work.
Utah's defensive linemen are getting some of the best coaching in the country. They probably have the lowest player-to-coach ratio, anyway. The NCAA's allowing a 10th full-time assistant enabled Kyle Whittingham to add Andersen. He works primarily with the tackles and sees himself as a mentor to Powell, who has ambitions of becoming a defensive coordinator.
Andersen also advises Whittingham as associate head coach and helps defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who compliments Andersen with these three statements: “Players love him” and “He’s great for me” and “He’s great in the sense that he understands what his role is.”
Gary Anderson’s last 10 seasons:
2008 • Utah (defensive coordinator),13-0 with Sugar Bowl victory.
2009 • Utah State, 4-8; starting with 35-17 loss at Utah.
2010 • Utah State, 4-8; Aggies' first win over BYU in 17 years.
2011 • Utah State, 7-6; USU’s first bowl trip in 14 years.
2012 • Utah State, 11-2; WAC champions.
2013 • Wisconsin, 9-4; win over BYU.
2014 • Wisconsin, 11-3; Big Ten West champions.
2015 • Oregon State, 2-10; 27-12 loss at Utah.
2016 • Oregon State, 4-8; Civil War defeat of Oregon.
2017 • Oregon State, 1-5; left after 38-10 loss at USC.
In other words, the coordinator of the defense that shut down Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl is not taking over the meeting room.
As for Andersen's next career move, who knows? Having earned roughly $12 million in five years at Wisconsin and Oregon State, he has enough money at age 54 to do whatever he wants. Right now, that's coaching the Ute D-linemen.
In the Pac-12 scheduling rotation, Utah misses OSU this season. The Utes will visit Corvallis in 2019, leading to another round of stories about Andersen, whose immediate concern is extending his 14-game winning streak as a Utah staff member.
That process begins next week, when former Utah player and assistant coach Jay Hill will bring his Weber State team to Rice-Eccles Stadium, in the homecoming role formerly performed by Andersen.