The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Iliad and Odyssey of Utah State Football

The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Iliad and Odyssey of Utah State Football

Mountain West Football

The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Iliad and Odyssey of Utah State Football


In 2007, Guy’s penultimate season, after losing 10 straight games, Utah State beat New Mexico State and Idaho to finish the season. The Aggies went 2-10 overall, 0-5 at home, and 2-6 in the WAC. Utah State was shut out once and was outscored by 406-247 for a percentage of 64% on the season.

2008 was Guy’s final season at the helm for Utah State. Guy was fired on November 17th, just ahead of the season finale against New Mexico State, but would stay on for that game which the Aggies won 47-2. Utah State ended with an overall record of 3-9 and a conference record of 3-5. They were outscored 416-288, a difference of 44%.

The program was stuck in a purgatory of losing seasons. Each year, the program grew more and more distant from a strong history, slowly driving the all-time record deeper and deeper underground. That is, until Andersen arrived.

In a vacuum, Andersen’s four wins in his inaugural 2009 season might seem unimpressive, but it was Utah State’s most wins since 2002. The Aggies were also playing competitive football again, scoring as many as 53 points in a win against Southern Utah. They ended the season 4-8 and 3-5 and were outscored just 408-349, a mere 17% and a marked improvement from years past.

2010 was similar to the previous year. The Aggies had an identical overall record of 4-8, but digressed in-conference and finished 2-6. Utah State was outscored 405-264 or by 53%. The Aggies also gave the no .7 Oklahoma Sooners an “unexpected scare” in the first game of the season, falling just short of victory 31-24.

Then, in 2011, Utah State went 7-6. It was the first winning season since 1996 and the most total wins since 1993 when a team featuring redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Wells had the same record.

It was also the most regular season wins since 1979 when the Aggies won the Pacific Coast Athletic Association with an 8-3-1 record with wins against three schools, Pacific, Long Beach State, and Cal State Fullerton, that no longer sponsor football. That year, Utah State also beat now-conference rival, Fresno State, in what was just their second matchup ever and their first-ever trip to Fresno.

Utah State’s 2011 conference record of 5-2 was good enough to tie with Nevada for second place in WAC. The Aggies also went 5-2 at home after three straight seasons of going 3-3. It was the first winning record on their home field since 2003 when Utah State went 3-9 winning three of only five home games.

At the time, the 2011 season could have easily felt like the peak. After being deprived of winning seasons for 15 seasons, the Aggies would have been satisfied staying at 7-6 for a few more years, maybe even decades. But for Andersen and his new-look Aggies, 2011 was merely a warning shot.

The 2011 season started with one of the most memorable losses of the era. In a season that served to put the world on notice, game one, with the defending national champions, the no. 19 Auburn Tigers hosting Utah State, was a microcosm of the season at large.

The Aggies led for most of the game and even led by double digits twice. Auburn was forced into an on-side kick and had to score twice in the final 2:07 to escape the Aggies. Utah State lost 42-38.

“The Aggies seemed poised for a stunning victory before Auburn’s final rally,” the Associated Press recapped, “(Auburn) managed to avoid an embarrassing opening loss against a team that has now lost 44 straight road games against Top 25 teams and was starting a freshman at quarterback.”

After the game, a dejected but confident Andersen went as far as to say “I felt like we were stronger than them. I felt like we were faster than them. I felt like they made plays when they had to, and we didn’t.”

The Auburn game was invigorating and motivating, yet heart-breaking and demoralizing. The Aggies likely left Alabama with a bit of cognitive dissonance and went on with their season. They won one, lost two, won one, lost two.

When the Aggies got to Hawaii for game eight, they had led in every single game they had played and hadn’t lost a game by more than 10 points, but they couldn’t get themselves over .500.

There was a 35-34 overtime loss against Colorado State when the Rams scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion with 42 seconds in regulation to tie the game. Then in overtime, the Aggies failed to convert a two-point attempt and lost by a point.

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Then, a 27-24 loss at BYU where backup quarterback Riley Nelson threw a touchdown pass with just 11 seconds left in the game to sneak by Utah State.

There was a 10-point loss to Derek Carr and Fresno State and a seven-point loss to Louisiana Tech. The Aggies were leading both Bulldog teams until the mid-fourth quarter.

Utah State was playing intense, competitive, gritty football, but the results weren’t yet apparent. Then on November 5th, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, something clicked.

Utah State came into the game 2-5 on the season. During the first half, star quarterback Chuckie Keeton was carried off in a stretcher after an apparent neck injury and Utah State trailed 28-7 at halftime.

But in the second half, the Aggies outscored the Warriors 28-3 and in a refreshing twist, Robert Turbin ran in a touchdown with 14 seconds left to take the lead. The Aggies won the game 35-31 in a hard-fought, well-earned, and most of all, a much-needed victory. With the win, the Aggies improved to 3-5 on the season and notched their first conference win.

This sparked a five-game win streak and put the Aggies on the right side of close games. Utah State was playing intense, competitive, and gritty football, just as before, but now, they were the ones coming out ahead in the win column when the dust settled.

In a set of games that almost mirrored the games before Hawaii, Utah State beat San Jose State 34-33 at home scoring 27 in the second half in another come-from-behind victory of their own.

Then they held off the University of Idaho in a 49-42 double overtime victory. After nearly blowing another fourth-quarter lead, the Aggies scored two touchdowns in overtime to put the Vandals on ice.

The 2011 season ended with Utah State’s first bowl invitation since 1997. A last-second loss to Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl capped off Utah State’s dramatic season.

In 2012 Utah State saw real, objective, genuine success, not just relative success compared to a decade of failed campaigns.

In game two, the Aggies beat the Utes for the first time since 1997 in a 27-20 overtime win in Logan. The Aggies were led by Keeton who later said, “It’s the biggest win I’ve been a part of. Seeing the fans rush the field was incredible… Many said this is the biggest thing that’s happened around here in a long while.”

After going undefeated in conference play, the Aggies were named outright WAC champions, winning their conference for the first time since 1997, when the Aggies were the co-champions of the Big West with Nevada. This was the first outright conference championship since 1936 when Utah State, led by E.L “Dick” Romney, won the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

Utah State is also technically considered the 1979 outright champion of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, now known as the Big West. At the time, however, Utah State was named co-champions with San Jose State, but later the Spartans were forced to vacate wins because of the use of an ineligible player, so Utah State was retroactively named outright champions.

Utah State was invited to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl where they routed Toledo for their first bowl win since 1993. With that historic bowl win, they finished the 2012 season with a record of 11-2, Utah State’s first ever 10+ win season.

Landing at no. 16 in the nation, Utah State finished the season in the Top 25 for the first time since 1962, when John Ralston’s Aggies went 9-1-1 and finished at no. 10 in the nation.

By the end of 2012, Utah State was on its hottest run in decades. The Aggies ended the season on a seven-game win streak and going back to mid-2011, since the Hawaii game, Utah State was 16-3 in its last 19 games, losing three games by a combined total of 8 points.

In just four years, the Aggies had gone from a three-win team to a two-loss team. Gary Andersen had transformed the program from a team on the brink of collapse into a team with a conference championship and a bowl game victory.

This would be Andersen’s last season of his first tenure at Utah State. So far, Andersen had left a strong legacy at Utah State. A legacy that would only grow as his understudy and successor continued to drive the Aggies to new heights. Andersen had set the course and left the team with a cup runneth over with talent, success, and potential.

Andersen handed the reins to Wells and said goodbye to the no. 18 team in the country, leaving a 26-24 record behind to join the Wisconsin Badgers.

If the story ended there, Andersen would be remembered only as the hero of the program. But the story doesn’t end there, and the complexities of Andersen’s legacy were beginning to brew.

The years went on and Utah State continued the precedent set by Andersen. Stumbling just a few times as the Aggies adjusted to their new conference and acclimated to a permanent winning culture. The years in Andersen’s absence weren’t without growing pains, but the Aggies kept up their new-found tradition of victory.

Then Andersen returned.

Andersen’s second tenure began when his old job opened back up after his successor took a job at Texas Tech following the 2018 season. Andersen was no longer with the Badgers. He had left Wisconsin, made a stop at Oregon State, and was back at the University of Utah.

Years ago, Wells inherited from Andersen a program in great shape. Now, Wells returned the favor and handed over a team loaded with talent. With Andersen back at the helm, the Aggies faced high expectations.

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