Having hired Andy Ludwig to coach the receivers in a downtrodden Idaho State football program 30 years ago, Garth Hall remembered him being willing to learn and do anything asked of him, without any sense of self-promotion.
“He didn't have a big ego,” Hall said. “He's just a football coach.”
Having launched Ludwig’s second stint with Utah in January, coach Kyle Whittingham spoke of an experienced offensive coordinator who gets things done.
“He's not in it for the limelight, not trying to to make an impression,” Whittingham said. “He's just a football coach.”
Those are compliments.
Ludwig has come back to a job that Whittingham never could fill permanently in his absence, employing eight play-callers in 10 seasons. Ludwig’s return to a program that’s among the Pac-12 favorites in 2019 reflects Utah’s major investment in coaching salaries and a belief that his background of working with Whittingham and coaching in other Power Five programs will distinguish him. Their shared goal is for Ludwig to be the first and last offensive coordinator of Whittingham’s tenure.
They've resumed a partnership that began in 1989 in Pocatello, Idaho, where Whittingham worked with the linebackers for a team that had gone 0-11 in his first season of full-time coaching. During their time together, the Bengals endured three straight three-win seasons.
“First of all, we hit it off right away.” Whittingham said. “Lot of similarities between the two of us, in my estimation.”
Ludwig is not sure how this friendship developed. They didn't bond via tennis, Whittingham's sport of choice at the time (Ludwig is a runner). It didn't blossom in the ensuing years (“I'm not a phone guy, neither is Kyle,” Ludwig said).
In any case, they began working together again in 2005, when Whittingham became Utah’s head coach. The ending of that four-year phase was a 13-0 season with a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, as Ludwig’s quick-passing scheme befuddled two of college football’s foremost defensive minds, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.
In his usual, self-effacing style, Ludwig said the no-huddle plan executed by quarterback Brian Johnson was designed to “take the coaches out of the game.”
Ten years later, Utah is paying him $820,000 to maximize his personnel. That’s 56 percent more than former offensive coordinator Troy Taylor earned; defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley received a similar increase in the process. That’s market value for a Southeastern Conference coordinator and in the Pac-12′s top tier, with Ludwig moving from Vanderbilt after previously coaching at California, San Diego State and Wisconsin.
Utah used eight play-callers in 10 seasons after Andy Ludwig's first stint. The list of Kyle Whittingham's cooordinators, with records during their Ute tenures and current jobs:
2005-08 – Andy Ludwig (37-14), Utah OC
2009 – Dave Schramm* (6-1), Weber State OC
2009-10 – Aaron Roderick (14-5), BYU QB coach
2011 – Norm Chow (8-5), Los Angeles (XFL) OC
2012 – Brian Johnson (5-7), Florida QB coach
2013 – Dennis Erickson (5-7), retired
2014 – Dave Christensen (9-4), Arizona State OL coach
2015-16 – Roderick (19-7), BYU QB coach
2017-18 – Troy Taylor (16-11), Sacramento State HC
* Roderick took over as play-caller in the eighth game.
Part of Ludwig’s experience has come from scheming against his colleagues in practice, with notable defensive coaches including Gary Andersen, Clancy Pendergast, Rocky Long, Dave Aranda, Derek Mason and Scalley.
“Every year, you learn something,” said Ludwig, 55. “I've been very fortunate to work with great defensive coordinators. … Nobody knows your stuff better than the guys you go against for 15 days in the spring and 20 days in [August]. It exposes you and, hopefully, we do things that expose them. It just makes you better.”
Ludwig's job is to make the most of Zack Moss and other running backs and further develop senior quarterback Tyler Huntley. Look for more play-action, rollout passing. “I have not coached a quarterback with that skill set, that athleticism, really, in my career,” Ludwig said in spring practice. “Brian Johnson was an athletic quarterback, but not like Tyler Huntley. … Getting him on the move, getting him in space in the passing game, in the running game, plays to his strengths.”
That observation speaks to Ludwig's history of tailoring a scheme to his athletes. His philosophy: “It's not about plays; it's about players.”
Taylor, now Sacramento State’s head coach in the Big Sky Conference, did some clever, creative work with Utah’s offense, as the Utes scored 40 points in four consecutive conference games last October. His scheme shredded USC’s defense, coordinated by Pendergast. In their five losses in 2018, though, the Utes averaged 1.8 points in second halves.
Taylor is known for his work with quarterbacks, yet Huntley credits Ludwig for “teaching me things I've never been taught before.” Ludwig's experience also should enable him to make in-game adjustments.
“He's seen the best of the best [defensive coordinators] in the SEC,” Whittingham said. “There's nobody that's going to outsmart Andy Ludwig; it's just not going to happen.”
Ludwig's steady nature helps in difficult moments. Along with Whittingham, he lived through those tough times at Idaho State. Hall, their former boss, described that introduction to coaching as “a butt-kicker” in the Big Sky, facing the likes of Boise State, Idaho and Montana.
“He handled it very well,” Whittingham said. “He's not one of those guys that's all over the map. He's so emotionally stable.”
Hall said, “He was a really good coach, because he just loved it. … You could tell he had a love for teaching. Kids respected him.”
So do the Ute quarterbacks. No. 2 QB Jason Shelley describes Ludwig as “caring, easy to talk to,” adding, “He's really demanding, so I appreciate that about him. He demands the best out of you; there's not any slack.”
Ludwig is cooperative in interviews, although he's not a storyteller. Asked if the players get a different version of Ludwig in meetings, Shelley said, “That's actually him all the time, like y'all see, a real serious-faced guy, all about business. He likes to keep things on point, get things done. You can have fun later; [that's] the kind of guy I like.”
Assistant coaches Kiel McDonald and Freddie Whittingham, who each had previous ties to Taylor, have endorsed Ludwig’s style. “He’s very professional. He is very to-the-point,” said Whittingham, who coaches the tight ends. “He is very motivating. I think our players clearly understand what’s expected of them, clearly understand what our goals are and what our identity is going to be.”
Ludwig became more appreciated by Utah's fan base after he left the program. How will he be judged in his return? His 14-game winning streak (starting with the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl vs. Navy) as a Ute coach eventually will end. It would help him if that first loss comes sometime after the Aug. 29 season opener at BYU, in a series that produced some wild endings in Ludwig's first stint.
Full approval of his work in 2019 might require a trip to the Rose Bowl. Imagine the Utes representing the Pac-12 against the Big Ten's Iowa, where Ludwig's son plays football.
In keeping with the family theme of doing your job and not needing recognition, Hawkeye sophomore Joe Ludwig is a fullback, known for blocking.