The Iliad and Odyssey of Utah State Football
Gary Andersen is seldom considered Utah State’s greatest coach of all time.
In his defense, it’s difficult to compete with a coach immortalized by history who, at the time, was the namesake of the stadium. Whether or not it’s a fair assessment of his impressive, transformative, and historic coaching performance at the university, he just isn’t often referred to as such.
His two different tenures with the Aggies are so contrasted that they stand to oppose each other, making any categorization of the coach impossible. So, generalized titles, vague absolutes, simple judgments, and hyperbole are not fit to describe Andersen or his career.
While he might not be considered the greatest, his reputation is anything but small. Andersen is a giant in his own right.
The complex legacy of Gary Andersen is a captivating saga for the ages, with a storyline and a character arc worthy of the silver screen. It speaks of the triumphs and the frailties of human nature, it has suspense, tragedy, comedy, irony, drama, and heartbreak.
Everyone knows Andersen’s name. Everyone has strong feelings about him. To some, he is a legend. To some, he is the opposite. He is an enigma.
Will there ever be a Gary Andersen statue at Utah State University? Probably not. Will Gary Andersen’s name be forever remembered? Absolutely. But how will the story of the two-time head coach be written?
Andersen’s legacy is almost paradoxical in nature. Andersen was the architect of one of the greatest turnarounds in Utah State history yet the reason another one was necessary.
Nothing about Andersen, or his legacy, is straightforward. His timing, his influence, his accomplishments, his departure, and his return is all a nuanced and complicated epoch. Andersen’s story begins long before he arrived at Utah State and will continue to even now that he’s gone.
Andersen’s onboarding was necessitated by a long period of mediocrity. After a rich early history, Utah State football had fallen into decades of irrelevance.
When he was a senior at Utah State, Bobby Wagner observed the state of the program commenting, “When I first came to Utah State, all football was looked at was a way to pass the time until basketball season. Coach Andersen has changed all of that. He came in and made an impact in the community. Football has come a long way. Coach Andersen has changed the entire outlook of the program. Now, when we play our spring game, the stands fill up like it’s a real game. People get excited about football now, and that’s because of coach Andersen.”
Utah State football was, indeed, in the midst of one of its darkest hours. Just as Wagner noted, “Andersen changed all that.”
The half-decade before Andersen’s arrival paints a clear picture of the state of the program at the time and reinforces Wagner’s observation of the bleak outlook. In those five years, Utah State had fired two coaches and amassed a record of 12-46. It had taken the Aggies five full seasons to collect a single season’s worth of wins and had done so by beating only six different teams. In that half-decade, Utah State had only beat Fresno State, Hawaii, Idaho, New Mexico State, San Jose State, and UNLV. In that same span, the Aggies also lost to each of those teams at least once and only had a winning record against two of them. Utah State went 1-3 against Fresno State, 1-3 against Hawaii, 3-2 against Idaho, 4-1 against New Mexico State, 1-3 against San Jose State, and 2-2 against UNLV.
In 2004, the Aggies were in their second and final year in the Sun Belt Conference and were led by Mike Dennehy in his fifth and final season. Utah State went 3-8 overall and 2-5 in-conference, tied with Idaho for last place in the Sun Belt. The Aggies were shut out once at Middle Tennessee, and on the season, were outscored by 333-184 which is a difference of 81%. They gave up a season-high of 49 points at Troy and gave up 48 twice, at Alabama and against no. 15 Utah.
In 2005, Brent Guy made his debut as Utah State’s head coach while Utah State made its debut in the Western Athletic Conference. Utah State again finished with an overall record of 3-8 going 2-6 in conference play, tied with Idaho for sixth place, finishing only above the 0-12 and 0-8 New Mexico State team. Utah State didn’t win any games at home and was outscored 360-208 for a difference of 73%. The Aggies weren’t shut out, but scored a season-low of 3 points at no. 5 Alabama. They allowed as many as 53 points in a loss at Fresno State.
2006 could be called Utah State’s worst season ever and is certainly in contention for that dreaded title. Utah State’s one-win season started with a four-game losing streak including losses to rivals Wyoming, BYU, and Utah. During that time, the offense couldn’t find the end zone or kick a field goal and the Aggies were outscored 144-7 with the only points coming from returned interception. Utah State finished the season tied with Louisiana Tech for last place in the WAC with a 1-11 overall record and 1-7 in-conference record. The one victory came at home in a 13-12 win over Fresno State. On the season, Utah State was outscored by an immense 225% with a score of 462-130, a difference of 332 points. Utah State gave up as many as 63 points to Colt Brennan’s Hawaii Warriors. They also gave up 49 points to no. 13 Boise State and they gave up 48 points twice, once to Utah and once to Louisiana Tech. Utah State gave up 40 or more points in seven of the 12 games and was shut out four times. That season, the Aggies scored only 15 touchdowns. They passed for nine and rushed for six meaning they lost more games than they had passing touchdowns.