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


Andersen’s first season back was clouded by those expectations. The Aggies ended the season bowl eligible and accepted an invitation to the Frisco Bowl where they lost to Kent State. Utah State ended the season 7-6.

Measured against the steep expectations for star quarterback Jordan Love’s senior year, the 2019 season was considered by many to be a failure, although it really wasn’t. The failure came later. Under normal circumstances, regression from an 11-2 season to a 7-6 season is perfectly acceptable. It would create an average record of 9-4 between the two seasons without compromising the team’s winning culture or tradition. The caveat to that being, 7-6 has to be the extent of the regression, and improvements should follow.

If Andersen could have followed his lackluster 2019 season with another 11-2 season or a conference championship, there would be no complexities to his legacy. He would likely be considered, or at least be on the path to be considered, the greatest thing to ever happen to Utah State football.

While a defense of Andersen’s 2019 season is justifiable, there is not much to defend in the 2020 season.

The season was ravaged and delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. When the season finally started, it started poorly. The Aggies went 0-3 in three non-competitive games to start the season, but the worst was yet to come. After a disappointing 34-9 loss to Nevada, things began to change. Andersen, the once-lauded coach, was out of a job. After losing their next game to Fresno State, the Aggies were halfway through their scheduled regular season and things kept changing. Now, Utah State needed a new signal caller. Jason Shelley, after following Andersen from the Utes to the Aggies, was kicked off the team.

After that, Andrew Peasley was ruled out for the upcoming Wyoming game, so Cooper Legas was named the starter for a game that would never happen. The game was canceled due to COVID-19 cases within the Utah State program.

By the time the Aggies finally took the field again, they had gone from their first string quarterback, to their second string, to their third string, and back to their second string. Everything was starting to come off the rails.

This chaos was just the start, and it was about to get worse. When Andersen and the university parted ways, it set off a firestorm for the program. Frank Maile, the co-defensive coordinator, was named interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Then, likely feeling pressure from an increasingly messy situation around the football team, athletic director John Hartwell got to work, quickly finding a worthy replacement to lead the team.

He elected not to make Maile the full-time head coach and instead hired Blake Anderson from Arkansas State. Anderson’s strong résumé and electric personality made him an undeniably attractive candidate for the job.

Utah State didn’t officially introduce Anderson until December 12th, but the news had already started to break.

On December 11th, the day before the Aggies were set to play the Rams in the season finale, the players released a statement through Stadium’s Brett McMurphy. McMurphy reported, “Utah State’s players have opted out of Saturday’s game at Colorado State because of comments by university President Noelle Cockett on Tuesday voicing her concerns about interim Head Coach Frank Maile’s religious and cultural background.”

The alleged comments, which supposedly happened during a video conference, were thoroughly investigated and the findings were released.

An external review was initiated by both the USU Board of Trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education. The investigation concluded there was no wrongdoing by Cockett nor Hartwell. The findings that exonerated the university read, in part, “We conclude that the inclusivity concerns raised by Pres. Cockett were designed to promote a discussion with athletes about the degree to which they felt included and welcomed at Utah State”

In terms of on-field results, 2020 is one of the worst seasons Utah State has ever had and is rivaled only by 2006 in recent history. From a comprehensive point of view, the 2020 season is quite possibly rock bottom for Aggie football and one of the darkest times in Utah State athletics history.

The season started with an 0-4 start and ended with the players refusing to take the field for their final game, the program declining into disarray, and Utah State University making headline news for all the wrong reasons.

The Aggies officially ended the season with a 1-5 record, although the conference determined that the refusal to play against the Rams would result in a forfeit for conference standings. The Mountain West website reads, “Colorado State received a forfeit win over Utah State and the Aggies received a forfeit loss. The win and loss are reflected in the 2020 conference-only standings and, per the NCAA, do not count toward either institution’s overall won-loss record.”

So, Utah State ended the season with a mind-boggling overall record of 1-5 and a conference record of 1-6 on a proposed 8-game schedule.

In just two years, the Aggies had gone from a two-loss team to a one-win team. Andersen had transformed the program from a nationally relevant G5 powerhouse into a team on the brink of collapse.

Andersen’s second tenure was reminiscent of the very mediocrity he rescued the team from during his first. Just as his first tenure was necessitated by a desperate need for rescue, his second tenure necessitated the need for a rescue as bold and effective as his own.

The two separate stints at Utah State are best described by the words in the introductory paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Instead of contrasting London and Paris during the French Revolution, Charles Dickens may as well have been commenting on the stark difference between the periods of unfettered success and abject failure overseen by Andersen in his two separate rounds of coaching the Aggies.


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