The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Enduring Influence of Coach Andersen

The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Enduring Influence of Coach Andersen

Mountain West Football

The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Enduring Influence of Coach Andersen


In November of 2008, The Utah Statesman, without the benefit of fortune telling, called firing Guy “another step backward for USU football.” In a scathing article in which the Statesman also referred to Utah State as “one of college football’s coaching graveyards,” and said that the university had “some of the worst facilities in the United States.”

The article concluded with a pseudo-mandate of “Let’s hope by next November the Aggies have six wins. Nothing less should be expected of a coach that is supposed to be better than Guy. If not, we all better get ready for another run through the dreadful hire-and-fire cycle.”

Utah State didn’t get to six wins the following season, although it quickly became clear that Andersen was a better coach than Guy.

Arguably, the most notable part of that mandate, however, isn’t the plea for six wins. It is the acknowledgment of the “dreadful hire-and-fire cycle.”

One of Andersen’s most important and enduring accomplishments at Utah State is the eradication of that “dreadful hire-and-fire cycle” laid out by the Statesman. In just one line, the Statesman highlighted one of the most central pieces of what would become Andersen’s legacy. It is important because the alternative is certain death.

Utah State had indeed become accustomed to hiring and firing coaches. In the same article, the Statesman mentioned “Mick Dennehy, Guy’s predecessor, was let go after his fifth season. Dave Arslanian, Dennehy’s predecessor, was only given two seasons.”

Utah State is no longer in the business of hiring new coaches because the last one was fired for failing to get to six, or even four, wins. Now Utah State has to hire new coaches because the last one was hired away by bigger and richer programs. Acting as a stepping stone to bigger and higher-paying jobs might not be the perfect scenario for a mid-major school, but if it means consistently winning six or more games, it is certainly preferable to the alternative. Because of Andersen, Utah State has proven that hiring, and subsequently losing, successful coaches can actually be a good problem to have.

This would be put on display after the 2018 season when one of the coaches Andersen paved the way for would end up being himself. Wells, following the newly-established pattern of rejecting the “dreadful hire-and-fire cycle,” was hired away by Texas Tech leaving Andersen’s old job open.

Andersen almost wasn’t hired for his second stint. In fact, one of Andersen’s old assistants was reported to have been a candidate.

Dave Aranda was Andersen’s defensive coordinator for the 2012 season and followed Andersen to Wisconsin where the two coaches worked together for two more seasons. Aranda worked as the counterpart to Wells, who was the offensive coordinator in 2012, and oversaw one of the better defensive teams at Utah State. At the time, he was the assistant head coach, defensive coordinator, and linebackers coach at LSU. Aranda is currently the head coach of the Baylor Bears.

Todd Orlando, another former Utah State defensive coordinator, was also rumored to be a candidate. Orlando replaced Aranda in 2013 and worked as the defensive coordinator under Wells for two seasons before departing to Houston. Orlando was the defensive coordinator at Texas when his old boss, Wells, vacated the head coaching position at Utah State, and is now the defensive coordinator of Florida Atlantic.

Others being reported were Jay Hill, Maile,, and of course, Andersen himself.

Andersen was never an unlikely candidate, but he did receive outside help. A high-level donor stepped in and interfered with the coaching search, attempting to persuade the administration to bring Andersen back.

This interference didn’t help the process go smoothly and the entire search was described as “really messy,” which matched the mess of the entire program at the time. Eventually, the search resulted in the pressure from boosters successfully leading to Andersen being hired.

For whatever reason, Andersen’s second stint just didn’t work out. He inherited a strong program, and in 2019, the team under-performed but did enough to earn a bowl invitation.

Then, in 2020, the team, and the rest of the world, encountered a global pandemic and economic shutdown that violently disrupted the status quo of nearly every aspect of modern life.

Certainly, COVID-19 had something to do with Andersen’s lack of success in 2020. But, the pandemic can’t be solely to blame. After all, every team in the country was dealing with the same thing.

The fact of the matter is that the 2020 season was a multifactorial catastrophe. Facing opposition from every direction, including internally, the program crumbled.

Perhaps part of the reason for Andersen’s failure to launch during his second run is that Utah State was a completely different team than the one he had left in 2012. Thanks to him, Utah State was now in a much more competitive conference, faced greater expectations, and had higher stakes than ever before.

Halfway through the season, it became clear that it was time to move on.

“More than any other coach that might fill the Aggies’ current vacancy, Andersen would be expected to perform to a near-impossible degree. In an environment where even 10-2 isn’t good enough for some fans, that’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a guy who bounced around three programs in nine years just to settle in back home in Salt Lake,” the Mountain West Wire predicted when Andersen was just a potential candidate. “Even for a man as venerated around Cache Valley as Andersen deservedly is, trying to recapture anything from the past is a one-way ticket to sports hell. Conferences change. Players and coordinators and opponents and schemes change. The idea that a coach who did it once can certainly do it again is baffling.”

Just as hiring Andersen to replace Guy was the right move, letting him go after the second time was absolutely necessary for the survival of the program, but, in true Gary Andersen fashion, nothing about his departure made sense. The more details that emerged about Andersen’s departure, the less clear it all became. To this day, there is still confusion and disagreement about if Andersen was fired or if he resigned. Andersen insists he was fired, but a letter from Hartwell would suggest otherwise.

Mountain West Football Games Worth A Rewatch


More MWWire