The circumstances around both the beginning and end of his second stint at Utah State are shrouded in peculiarity, adding to the almost incomprehensible career path he had taken with the Aggies.
Andersen’s first arrival and second departure were serendipitous events that were inarguably good for the program. His first departure and second arrival were embarrassing events that put the program at risk.
Both his first arrival and second departure benefited the university in surprising ways that exceed all expectations. Hiring Andersen for the 2009 season propelled the Aggies to unprecedented levels of success. Getting him out of the way in 2020 did the same.
His first departure was completely out of the control of the Utah State administration. Apparently, his second arrival was too. When he left the first time, Utah State lost its best coach in decades, and disaster was on the horizon. Luckily Andersen left a strong foundation, and under the watchful eye of Wells, disaster was avoided. When he arrived again for the 2019 season, disaster was once again on the horizon, but this time, it wasn’t averted. Utah State went headlong into chaos.
Life is uncertain, predicting the future is impossible, and asking ‘what if?’ is a fool’s errand. Even still, one burning question has been in the mind of nearly every Aggie fan. ‘What if Gary Andersen never left Utah State?’
When Andersen left the first time, Utah State was on a sustained upward trajectory unlike anything else. Andersen rescued Utah State from the worst extended period in program history and walked away at one of the best times the team had ever seen.
Andersen didn’t stay. But he did the next best thing. He came back. This, instead of offering a satisfying answer to the first question, gave way to another one.
‘What if Gary Andersen never returned?’
When Andersen left the second time, Utah State was in free fall. Andersen had come back after Utah State had just completed one of the best seasons ever, and walked away from one of the biggest messes in program history.
The Aggies are the current champions of the Mountain West, so it’s hard for fans to complain too much. But if Utah State could have snatched a title without the letdown of 2019 and the embarrassment of 2020, that would have been preferable.
Could Aranda, Orlando, Hill, or any other candidate have skipped the pain of Andersen’s return and gone straight to a Mountain West Championship? Was there another path to the top of the Mountain West, or is that what it took to get the stars to align for Utah State and get the Aggies back to their winning ways?
It’s unclear and impossible to tell. Such is the nature of the complex legacy of Gary Andersen.
Andersen is one of the biggest, and undoubtedly most polarizing, figures in Utah State history. With the riddle of a career he had, it only makes sense that Utah State would finally win a Mountain West championship only through his failure.
When Wells left, Jaden Johnson wrote in the Utah Statesman, “It’s been a good decade for Utah State football. Once a perennial bottom-feeder in the WAC, living in fear of what may happen to the program while the college football landscape continued to shift, USU has now qualified for seven bowl games in the past eight seasons, and is coming off perhaps its best season ever.”
Johnson also speculated that the upcoming hire would shape the future of the program saying, “The next two weeks, however, will play a big role in determining what the coming decade of Utah State football will look like.”
It hasn’t been a full decade yet, but so far Johnson was prophetically correct.
Only three seasons have passed since Johnson’s prediction, and in that time Utah State has already been all over the place. The Aggies had one of their worst years ever in 2020, then just a year later they won a Mountain West championship with an 11-3 record and a final ranking of no. 24 in the nation. All of that was shaped by Andersen’s return.
It is impossible to investigate the history of Utah State football without recognizing Andersen as a central figure. Andersen could be credited with practically resurrecting the program yet could be accused of nearly murdering it.
Even with incredible competition from titans of the sport such as Merlin Olsen, Bobby Wagner, and E.L “Dick” Romney, Andersen stands apart due to his immense and assorted contributions to the history and future of the team.
It’s not enough to say that Andersen was a good coach or a bad coach. To do so would be a gross understatement. He literally saved the football program. Then, he almost ran it into the ground. Either of his stints individually would be worthy of near-eternal examination, praise, and scrutiny. Both of them together make Andersen a colossal and integral part of Aggie history.
Despite Andersen’s blunder in his return, the more positive notes of his legacy have, so far, stood the test of time. Radio voice of the Aggies, Scott Garrard, using the limited characters allowed by twitter, perfectly illustrated the enduring influence of Gary Andersen. “Aggie fans should shudder at the thought of where the athletic program would be right now without Gary Andersen. Look at New Mexico State or U of Idaho. That could have been USU had Gary not turned things around a decade ago. His lasting impact should always be acknowledged.”
Much of Utah State’s identity is a direct result of the resurgence of the program that was orchestrated by Andersen. From the jerseys, the stadium, and even Utah State’s home in the Mountain West, Andersen is behind nearly everything.
Utah State debuted a brand new logo and Nike jerseys in 2012, just a year before Andersen was on his way out. The Nike Brand president at the time was Charlie Denson, who played football at Utah State and graduated in 1978. According to the university, “Denson was instrumental in Utah State’s unveiling of its new athletics brand and identity program in the spring of 2012.” Utah State also notes, “The university worked with Nike in collaboration on a 15-month re-branding campaign that was made possible through Denson’s support.”
The new logo arrived just in time to outdate Andersen’s brand-new tattoo of the old Utah State logo that he got just before that offseason, a mere months before the new logo was unveiled. In his first stint, Andersen overlapped with the new Nike jerseys for just one season.
It would be incorrect to attribute the Nike deal to Andersen’s rebuild, but it certainly didn’t hurt as it made Utah State a more profitable and attractive brand.
Andersen never coached the Aggies in the Mountain West during his first tenure. He left after coaching the Aggies to a WAC championship in their final year in that conference. He was at the school, however, When Utah State was invited to the Mountain West. Utah State accepted an invitation to the conference on May 4, 2012, just four months and 17 days after Utah State, led by Andersen, completed its first winning season in 15 seasons and played in a bowl game after a 14 year long post-season hiatus.
Again, Andersen doesn’t deserve all the credit. On the hardwood, Stew Morrill’s basketball program was doing its part to bolster Utah State’s résumé. Morrill had his teams running at the top of the league, winning the WAC championship four times in the eight years Utah State was there. Andersen’s WAC championship was only one of 26 conference championships the Aggies won while playing in the WAC, and it came after Utah State had already accepted the invitation, but college football rules the NCAA and there is no doubt that the resurgence of the football program helped the Aggies secure the invite from the Mountain West.
On June 23, 2015, Utah State publicized the agreement between Maverik and the university regarding the name rights to the football stadium. The deal is worth 6.3 million dollars to Utah State, lasts from January 1, 2016, to December 31, 2037, and was “a catalyst for USU’s stadium renovation initiative.”
Andersen might not be the sole reason for the deal, but would Maverik be willing to pay 6.3 million dollars to a perennial bottom feeder?
In fact, in that statement, the university claimed that the renovations would ensure “the already promising future of Aggie football.”
Already promising? That’s about as direct a reference to Gary Andersen as possible without saying his name. The fact is, there was nothing promising about the future of Aggie football until Andersen arrived. Ten years before that deal, Utah State was about to embark on a 3-8 journey and lose every single game in their home stadium. Now, after four straight winning seasons and a conference title, they had just sold their name rights to that stadium for 6.3 million dollars.
Since Andersen set foot on campus and took the reins of the 2009 team, the Aggies haven’t been shut out once. They have had four 10+ win seasons, five 8+ win seasons, and nine bowl-eligible seasons. The Aggies have also produced 13 NFL draft picks including four third-round picks, a second-round pick, and a first-round pick, three Super Bowl champions and an 8x pro-bowler.
Andersen’s first bowl game in 2011 was Utah State’s first since the 1997 Humanitarian bowl. That bowl game kickstarted a run of five bowl appearances, and Utah State has since been invited to nine bowl games in the 11 seasons starting that year.
His first bowl win in 2012 was the first bowl win since 1993, but since then, the Aggies have won five bowl games.
Utah State has had two conference championships since Andersen arrived. One in each conference the Aggies have played in. In the Mountain West, Utah State has been named division champion twice.
The Aggies have played in two Mountain West championship games and won one of them.
Throughout the history of Aggie football, which started in 1892, Utah State has been to 13 bowl games. Nine of them came after Andersen arrived. Utah State has a total of six bowl wins. Five came after Andersen arrived.
In the 11 seasons since Andersen first got the head coaching job, Utah State has had seven winning seasons. Before Andersen arrived, Utah State took 35 years to have as many winning seasons.
Andersen’s winning tradition is as strong as ever. No one has squandered it. Since Andersen’s first departure, Utah State has only had two regular seasons with a losing record. One was the 2016 season and the other was Andersen’s own 2020 season. His legacy is still young, but so far the only person to fail to live up to his mighty legacy is himself, when he returned and was unable to replicate, match, or even live up to his own past.