At every level of football in the state of Utah, and in the entire western United States, Andersen has left a deep impact and his contributions to the sport are almost unmatched. The most notable example of his deep influence is his contributions to Utah State University.
Andersen’s first tenure as head coach marked an inflection point for Utah State football. He first deployed a parachute, then ignited a rocket, propelling the team towards, and beyond, the Kármán line and into orbit.
Andersen ended of a long line of coaches with losing records. Each of the eight coaches before Andersen had a career losing record at Utah State. Both of the coaches after Andersen’s arrival have a winning record with the Aggies. Matt Wells left with a record of 44-34 and Blake Anderson currently has a record of 11-3. Even Frank Maile, who was an interim head coach intermittently throughout the period, has a record of 3-3 when acting as head coach.
Phill Krueger, head coach of the Aggies from 1973-1975 was the last head coach with a winning record at Utah State until Andersen changed that. Following Krueger were eight head coaches with losing records, five of which never had a single winning season. Bruce Snyder, Charlie Weatherbie, and John L. Smith were the only coaches to do so. The three coaches before Andersen were Dave Arslanian, Mike Dennehy, and Brent Guy. They combined for a record of 35-90. Those three coaches combined had fewer wins than both Dennehy and Guy had losses individually.
With 26 wins in his first four years at Utah State, Andersen nearly tripled the nine wins in the same number of years before he arrived. In fact, in his first stint, he collected more wins than the 23 that the program had collected in the previous eight seasons under two different head coaches. Andersen’s two predecessors, Guy and Dennehy, in their entire careers at Utah State, combined for nine seasons and had only 28 wins, only two more than Andersen had in his first tenure alone.
Currently, Utah State has an overall winning record of 570-555-31 for an average of .506. But in the years since Andersen was first hired, the team has outpaced the historical average going 90-72 for an average of .556.
Andersen not only set a pace to accelerate Utah State’s all-time winning record, he made it attainable in the first place.
When Andersen arrived on campus, Utah State’s record was underground. Prior to the 2009 season, the Aggies had a record of 480-483-31. With the team sitting just below .500, Andersen was unofficially tasked with getting on the right side of that mark and putting it as far away as he could.
Although the team was improving during his first two seasons, the record slipped. Then in his third year, he turned the team around and finally began to approach his target.
The conclusion of the 2012 season coincided with the conclusion of Andersen’s first round of coaching at Utah State. At the time, the Aggies, falling short of eclipsing .500, were sitting at 506-507-31 all time. The following year, with a 28-24 win at UNLV, the Aggies once again and at long last, finally had more wins than losses. Under coach Wells, they finished the season with an all-time record of 515-512-31.
That is only part of Andersen’s story at Utah State. The good part.
When he returned, propelled by his own contributions during his first tenure, the Aggies had climbed to an all-time record of 551-541-31. When Andersen left this time, Utah State’s all-time record was moving in the wrong direction and getting dangerously close to losing territory. He left with the Aggies at 558-550-31, coming just shy of erasing the progress he and his successor had accomplished.
With a threat of just an 8 game losing streak potentially squandering one of Utah State’s most prized possessions, a winning record, Andersen and the program parted ways, completing one of the strangest cycles Utah State had ever seen.
Successful coaches get better jobs at bigger schools and unsuccessful coaches get fired all the time. Andersen is far from unique in that regard. What makes Andersen astoundingly unique is that he did both of those things for the same team.
In the history of every program is a coach that transformed the program, for better or worse, then left. But not many programs have a coach that arrived and transformed the entire state of the program. Twice.
In his first stint, Gary Andersen kickstarted the greatest rise in Utah State history and one of the best and most unlikely runs the sport has ever seen. But in his second stint, he put the team in retrograde and nearly unraveled everything he accomplished in his first.
Andersen’s two tenures, with their beginnings separated by a decade, could not be more juxtaposed. Yet, despite the stark difference, there was something poetically congruent about his two rounds of coaching the Aggies.
Andersen’s first tenure at the university started when Guy failed to reach four wins in each of his four seasons and ended when Andersen reached 11 wins in his own fourth season. In 2008, Guy was fired and the job was given to Andersen. In 2012, after turning down offers from Cal, Colorado, and Kentucky, Andersen finally gave in and accepted a job at Wisconsin.
In hindsight, parting ways with Guy was an obvious choice, and hiring Andersen an even more obvious one. But, at the time, firing Guy wasn’t necessarily a popular move and Andersen didn’t appear to be on anyone’s radar despite being an assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for a 13-0 Utah team that had just won the Mountain West championship and the Sugar Bowl against no. 4 Alabama. ESPN even reported that former Utah State football head coach Smith was a candidate, foreshadowing what would later happen with Andersen.
For a program so starved of success, Guy’s mediocre seasons were beginning to become almost acceptable. Even Scott Barnes, Utah State’s athletic director at the time, admitted to Guy making moves in the right direction saying, “Brent has undoubtedly made some progress during his four years” Barnes said “but the program has yet to establish any significant or consistent momentum nor has that progress translated into wins. I feel a change in leadership at this critical time in our program’s history will help us create and sustain a new level of success.”
Bleacher Report also commented on the move saying, “It may be that Utah State was a tad rash in firing Guy without recognizing the good that was accomplished and rewarding him with one more year,” and even noted “Utah State may come to regret that move. Brent Guy still has quality coaching left in him.”
Guy did go on to have a pretty long and somewhat successful career, although he never got another head coaching job.