The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Most Unique Man in College Football

The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Most Unique Man in College Football

Mountain West Football

The Complex Legacy of Gary Andersen: The Most Unique Man in College Football

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This wasn’t the first time Andersen turned down an absurd amount of cash. In fact, this paled in comparison to what he had before. When he and Oregon State parted ways in 2017, his buyout was over 12 million dollars. It would have been, anyway. Andersen left it on the table. The meager 2.7 million dollars offered at the end of his failed second term at Utah State was pocket change compared to the 12 million he turned his nose up at just a few years before. Per a legally binding contract, that money was rightfully his. He didn’t care. He didn’t want it.

The amount of money Andersen has left on the table makes him one of the most unique coaches in the county. Even outside of coaching, there aren’t many people willing to leave almost 15 million on the table, especially when the money is contractually obligated to them.

But, It’s not just the amount of money that makes him unique. His reason for neglecting the cash is equally intriguing.

To Andersen, it wasn’t even a tough choice. He told the Athletic, “That’s something I’ve stood for my whole life. If the money’s there and I’m working for it, I’ll take it, if the money’s given to me in a contract (buyout) — I don’t know if that’s something I’m comfortable with.”

Yahoo also reported that Andersen said, “waiving my contract is the correct decision and enables the young men and the program to move forward and concentrate on the rest of this season.”

Andersen continued, “Coaching is not about the mighty dollar. It is about teaching and putting young men in a position to succeed on and off the field. Success comes when all parties involved are moving in the same direction.”

That attitude makes him a very unique figure in his industry. The realm of college sports is increasingly showing its servitude to the “mighty dollar.” The summer of 2021 introduced the world to the new frontier of name, images, and likeness (NIL) rules and regulations and a preliminary round of conference realignment. The dollar was flexing its muscles. Then, the most recent round of realignment came along, showing that money matters more than immutable geographic bearings. So, coaching, and college athletics as a whole, is about the money. Just not to Andersen.

The thing that truly sets him apart, though, is that he truly lives by that mindset. Speaking specifically of the 12 million he refused from Oregon State, Andersen said, “How could I wake up every day and look at myself in the mirror knowing I took money from the kids in that program?” According to Deseret News.

Was Andersen displaying a high level of naivety after a lifetime of coaching? Was he giving a lesson in what economists refer to as the fungibility of currency? Was he seeing into an alternate universe where college players are paid, or even mistaking his Beavers for an unsung NFL expansion team? Perhaps he is just deeply dedicated to the student-athletes and truly believes that college athletics are, and should be, in the best interest of the players.

In a series of text messages to John Canzano of the Oregonian leading up to Andersen’s resignation, he differentiated himself from the field and lamented the current state of coaching saying “Kids are a second thought or third or fourth!!”

In another text, he proclaimed his love for his student-athletes saying “Love my kids just want to see them take a step!! Don’t expect greatness but I do want to see progress!.. I will fight! It’s an interesting battle. However I asked for it and love my kids! We still need to step up around here and stop being small time!! … We played hard as hell…”

After his Oregon State resignation, one staffer added to the sentiment that Andersen really was just dedicated to the student-athletes saying, “Couldn’t be prouder to be his guy but heartbroken that we failed him. Walking away from the money because he is in the business for the kids.”

Perhaps Andersen truly believes that even without directly lining the pockets of the players, that money would go to benefit the student-athletes. That is, after all, why Andersen was in the business. He had said that coaching is not about the “mighty dollar.” It was about the kids. That’s not a unique thing to say, but Andersen didn’t just say it. He backed it up. He put his money, so to speak, where his mouth is.

Walking away from mountains of cash because it wasn’t his “style” isn’t the only way Andersen has talked a big talk only to back it up with remarkable actions.

That was the theme of his Oregon State departure. Part of the reason Andersen left was that he said he would. He had promised that once he no longer believed he could win at Oregon State, and that he was no longer the man to put the program in the best situation, he would leave, because “Beaver Nation deserved better.”

“If he didn’t believe he could win at Oregon State he would pull the unprecedented move of tearing up his contract and letting the Beavers go free,” Canzona warned. That’s exactly what Andersen did.

While coaching the Beavers, Andersen outlined a refusal to fire his assistant coaches, despite the profound struggles of the program. He even went as far as to suggest he would pay them out of his own pocket and claimed he would “take the bullet” for them and “ride off into the sunset.”

In that same series of texts to Canzano, Andersen shouldered the blame saying “Hard place right now… one thing I guarantee you is this: This staff needs to figure it out… It’s on me and I get that and right now… Beaver Nation deserves much better! End of story!!”

In another text, Andersen said, ”I have them by the (expletive) for every penny, no buyout for the next four not counting this year… but that’s not my style!! If it does not improve I will do some crazy (expletive) with my salary so I can pay the right coaches the right money!!”

If by “some crazy (expletive)” he meant he would walk away and leave the entirety of the 12.7 million remaining in his contract, he was certainly right. It doesn’t get much crazier than that.

Just over a week later, he added, “If these (expletives) can’t get it right I will not just say fire them and start over!! That’s not the way to go about it. If I (expletive) it up that bad I will take the bullet and ride off into the sunset! I will stay old school!! I will not die doing this (expletive)!! Stay tuned!”

Andersen then promised that the athletes and fans would get everything he had in the tank, “My plan won’t change. Coach my (expletive) off for these kids seven more times!! They will get all I got!! … I will grind for these fans they deserve that!!!”

A week later, Andersen was gone. His statements of “Coach my (expletive) off for these kids seven more times!!” And “They will get all I got!!” Seem to be in conflict, but the latter trumped the former as Andersen felt he was no longer helping the team. So, instead of coaching the kids seven more times, he coached them once more, then got out of the way.

When Andersen makes a promise, he fully intends on keeping it.

Prior to the 2011 season, Andersen promised his Utah State team that if they made it to a bowl game, he would commemorate the occasion with a tattoo.

But this was bigger than a tattoo. When Andersen promised that if he couldn’t fix the team that he would stop accepting payment, swallowing his pride, and let “the Beavers go free,” he meant it.

Throughout his career, he has demonstrated that, to him, coaching really is “about teaching and putting young men in a position to succeed…” and in this case, he no longer felt he was doing that. So, Andersen kept his promise and parted ways with his team. Keeping this promise was assuredly a bit more painful than a tattoo.

Andersen wasn’t seeing success at Oregon State, but that’s not why he left. To him, it was about his word, it was about principle, and it was about doing right by the players and fans. “Andersen appears to have left on principle,” SB Nation wrote.

That was a defining pattern throughout his career, too. Andersen had a bit of a proclivity to stand on principle and leave jobs when he and his employer didn’t see eye-to-eye or when he felt his moral character or standards were at stake.

In 1994, Andersen was working his second job out of college as a defensive line coach at Idaho State, when his good friend and defensive coordinator, Kyle Whittingham was fired from the program. Andersen was upset, but his future was secure. Deseret News even reported that all Andersen had to do to keep his job was take the head coach’s side. Of course, Andersen refused, and quit in protest.

Whittingham landed at the University of Utah as a defensive line coach, Andersen’s old job at Idaho State. On the other hand, Andersen, whose wife had just given birth to twins, had no job lined up. He ended up moving back in with his parents and taking a job in the Salt Lake City area for $12 an hour.

To him, his values outweighed his salary, so, at 30 years old with young twins, Andersen walked away from a lucrative and promising career in college coaching, not knowing if he’d ever have another chance, just to stand up for a friend. He ended up coaching Park City High School but didn’t know if he would ever get back to coaching at the college level. Then he received a phone call. “That call came from Bronco Mendenhall, who was then at Northern Arizona University,” Andersen recounted to the Murray Journal.

After the shock of nearly losing his career and being forced into his parents’ basement and a $12 an hour job, Andersen could have been more protective of his career. In his position, some would even sacrifice their integrity to ensure job security. He wasn’t and he didn’t.

After following Mendenhall to Northern Arizona, he found his way back to Utah ahead of the 1997 season. He was hired by his former offensive line coach during his playing days, Ron McBride. After four seasons, Andersen had worked his way up to assistant head coach to McBride, who had become a good friend and a mentor to Andersen.

Then in 2002, to the indignation of Andersen, McBride was fired. So, in true Gary Andersen fashion, he left. He took a head coaching job at Southern Utah University for one year before the new coach of the Utes, Urban Meyer, convinced him to come back.

What kind of person happens upon a head coaching job just to prove a point? Andersen was beginning to evolve and gain steam. Even as a young coach in only his first few jobs, Andersen has always understood the worth of his labor and he hasn’t been afraid to use himself as leverage.

In using himself as leverage, as he so often did, Andersen sometimes had to make significant sacrifices to his career. Yet another curiosity that defines Andersen’s career is how much he was able to do while making so many intentional downward career moves.

Putting aside the utter weirdness of his bohemian résumé, it is impossible to deny that he has indeed accomplished a lot. Not everyone gets to coach in a Big Ten championship game. It’s intentionally exclusive. Only two coaches get the opportunity every year, and that’s kind of the whole point. Andersen is one of only 11 individuals that have ever coached in a Big Ten championship game.

Was Andersen a product of dumb luck or does he just have an innate and immutable sense of meta-spatial awareness of the college athletics landscape?

However he did it, his acute understanding of the game allowed him to make career move years before it makes sense to everyone else.

Somewhat lateral moves dot his career path, not unlike any successful college coach with a long career. But downward moves make his path very unique. Since 2003, he has willingly stepped away from three head coaching jobs in pretty clear downward moves. Four, including the much-disputed end of his second tenure at Utah State, although Andersen insists that he was indeed fired. He also stepped away from an assistant head coaching job to become a low-tier assistant at another school. Yet, each time, it works out for the coach. Whenever Andersen took a step back, he seemed to find a way to take two steps forward and end up exactly where he wanted to be.

He wasn’t just stepping down from prestigious job titles. While he made a habit of leaving money behind when switching jobs, one of these downward moves actually cost him cold hard cash, not just potentially profits. When he left Wisconsin, he was responsible for his end of the buyout. Apparently, rejecting buyout money isn’t a two-way street for Andersen, and he was on the hook for three million dollars.

The game of one-step-backward-two-steps-forward started to come apart in the late stages of his career, but even then, he never had trouble finding a coaching job. Even after leaving a mess behind him at Utah State, his talents were too alluring for Weber State to pass on and he now works as an analyst for Jay Hill, who was one of his players and was an assistant on the defensive side when Andersen was the coordinator at Utah.

His accomplishments and ability to land a job really shouldn’t be too hard to believe. All the evidence points to Andersen being a really good football coach. The fact of the matter is, Gary Andersen only had one truly bad year at Utah State.

In his six seasons with Utah State, he had three seasons with losing records, but that is extremely misleading. His first two seasons were a product of the failed dynasty before him, and while four wins during each of those seasons is far from an objectively successful result, it was an invigorating period for a starved program. His team had a losing record, but he was exceeding expectations. The 2019 season, was the exact opposite. His team had a winning record, he was missing expectations.

While the 2019 season fell short of high expectations, mostly in place because of a legacy that he started, the Aggies still won seven games, went to a bowl game, and produced a first-round draft pick.

His other losing season was in 2020. He may have had only one bad year, but it was a really bad year. Of course, the disaster that was the 2020 season was multifactorial. It would be completely ignorant and unfair to suggest otherwise. Andersen was not solely responsible for the way the season went, but he also isn’t blameless. 2020 could have permanently altered the course of the program and had it not been for John Hartwell hiring just the right coach, it would have.

Always somehow setting Utah State up for success in his absence, turning down money, and taking inexplicable downward career moves are still only parts of the story. Small, isolated, and seemingly insignificant irregularities have added up over the years to further obscure the shape of Andersen’s career and add extra layers of idiosyncrasy to an already unusual curriculum vitae.

For example, there’s something undeniably comical about Andersen getting his shoulder inked with the Utah State logo that was literally replaced by the end of that offseason.

Then, with the former logo of his former team tattooed on his back, Andersen became the head coach of the Badgers. While there, Andersen coached the Wisconsin Badgers in a Big Ten championship game against his former boss, the legendary Urban Meyer, and the Ohio State Buckeyes, with a tattoo of the old Utah State logo and a message about the 2011 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

An absurd addition extension to that story is the fact that Andersen was actually the second Wisconsin coach in a row to have a tattoo of his former team. Bret Bielema, Andersen’s predecessor, had a much-more-visible Iowa Hawkeyes logo on his left calf. At least Andersen’s tattoo wasn’t for an in-conference rival and could be easily hidden with a simple t-shirt. Really, there’s something undeniably comical about the randomness of that entire situation.

That whole set of circumstances has to be one of the strangest and least talked about storylines of all time. Storylines like that followed Andersen like a lost dog.

It wasn’t just tattoo fiascos making his career unique. When he made his decision to leave Wisconsin, he didn’t even tell his son, a linebacker for the Badgers, who found out in a team meeting the rest of the players did.

Then, when he coaching the Beavers, Andersen was instrumental in helping Barnes secure the athletic director job at Oregon State. In an unusual reversal of roles, the football coach was selecting the athletic director, not the other way around. Barnes was Andersen’s athletic director at Utah State. Most coaches just take their assistants and some recruits when they get a new job. Not Andersen. He was bringing university administrators with him.

Andersen didn’t just have borderline comedic events following him. He also found himself adjacent to some singularities that appeared more aberrant and offbeat than just quirky and strange.

The Washington Post acknowledged the prevalence of conspiracy theories surrounding the final weeks of Wisconsin’s season, that began to circulate even before Andersen’s sudden departure. The unsubstantiated claims speculate that Barry Alvarez, Andersen’s athletic director at Wisconsin and former longtime coach of the Badgers, who also happened to be a “member of the selection committee for the first-ever College Football Playoff, had something to do with the fact that Wisconsin got trounced so thoroughly in the Big Ten championship game.”

These theories seek to explain how Wisconsin lost in such brutal fashion and why Andersen left so unexpectedly and abruptly after what was otherwise a successful season. Regardless of the validity of the conspiracy theories, it was widely speculated that Andersen’s relationship with Alvarez was strained and could have played a part in Andersen paying three million dollars to walk away.

Alvarez forcing the Badgers to throw a game for the financial benefit of the conference and, in turn, the Wisconsin program, would certainly mar his relationship with Andersen, a man of principle with, apparently, no regard for monetary value. The conspiracy theories didn’t accuse Andersen, but it’s just another example of the perplexing aura that followed him around.

During his career, Andersen encountered unorthodox phenomena and outlandish circumstances. He routinely faced unlikely challenges but throughout it all, he never changed. He was a man of his word and he cared about the student-athlete more than money. Instead of compromising his standards for a job, he would rather leave. Andersen didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk. Doing so has cost him at least around 15 million dollars. That, and the price of a shoulder tattoo.

When Andersen left Utah State the first time he left an unambiguous and tremendous legacy. When he came back, he altered and mangled that legacy in a way that only he could.

He didn’t just create a new legacy, or add an appendix to his existing one like some sort of blockchain technology. He didn’t erase his first tenure, he merely complicated it.

Andersen retroactively changed the perception of his first coaching experience while somehow reinforcing his position as a central figure in the history of the program and preserving the future of his contributions to the team.

After Andersen and the team parted ways for the second time Hartwell said, “His departure should not take away from the body of work that Gary Andersen has done for our program. Just looking back and seeing the way and such a positive way that he flipped our football program, from years of mediocrity at best into being an annual bowl participant…I will forever be indebted to Gary Andersen, as will all of Aggie Nation”

Even after everything that happened during that 2020 season, this was true.

By the time he left Utah State the second time, he had accumulated one of the most bizarre and unlikely résumés a coach could have. A source from Oregon State called him “a strange cat,” and another called him the “most unique man in college football.”

He’s a rare breed. That rarity, at times, has granted him unmeasurable success, and at other times has introduced him to the depths of failure.

He is just different. Different isn’t necessarily bad or good. Different oversaw the incredible rise of Utah State football and different oversaw the near collapse of Utah State football. Different is just different.

On 10th north in Logan, Utah, the likeness of Merlin Olsen stands as a lone sentinel. Alone he will remain, as Andersen is unlikely to join him any time soon. Behind the solitary effigy is the house that Gary Andersen built, Maverik Stadium.

At first glance, there is no trace of Andersen. In the tumultuous aftermath of Andersen’s return, he has become far too controversial a character to receive tribute. He hasn’t been completely erased though. The locker room for the Aggies is dubbed “the Gary Andersen Family Locker Room,” but it is called so because of significant financial donations he made, not because of the on-field contributions to the program.

His two polar opposite rounds of coaching, instead of canceling out like a simple math equation resulting in a sum of zero and negating Andersen entirely, combine to do the opposite and add both chaos and balance to the complex legacy of Gary Andersen. He has the record to show for it too. After the wild journey, Andersen poetically left Utah State with a perfect .500 career record.

Time has not yet contextualized the anomalous Gary Andersen. But it will. Time is relentless. One day, the emotional garnishes and the embellishment will fade and reality will prevail.

The anger and the adoration will both give way to sensible contemplation, and an enduring pragmatic school of thought will emerge on the subject.

No one knows what the future holds for the legacy of Gary Andersen. It is impossible to foresee how history will treat him or what he will be known as.

For now, he is simply “the most unique man in college football.”

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