It was an eventful weekend for Utah State football players, coaches and fans alike as they found out that Gary Andersen’s second stint with the program was over.
The news that Andersen was out as the Aggies’ head coach first broke Saturday morning and was confirmed in a press release less than three hours later. USU Vice President and Director of Athletics John Hartwell addressed the media in a Zoom press conference Monday afternoon, along with interim head coach Frank Maile.
“This is not a knee-jerk reaction,” Hartwell said. “... The first three weeks ... was not Aggie football as we have grown accustomed to, the success level. And really other than maybe the first quarter of the Nevada game the other night, we really weren’t in contention in any of those games. That’s not the product (Andersen) wanted, that’s not what I wanted, that’s not what any of Aggie Nation wanted.”
The decision to part ways with Andersen was not an easy one for Hartwell, who stressed it was more about “the trajectory of the program” than how the first three games went. The Aggies were blown out by Boise State, San Diego State and Nevada, and are off to their first 0-3 start since 2008.
“(Andersen) and I had some really candid talks over the last few weeks and I’ll say this: His departure from Utah State should take nothing away from the body of work that Gary Andersen has done for our program,” Hartwell said. “It has been outstanding. And obviously it was (before) my tenure at Utah State, but even just looking back and seeing the way, in such a positive way, that he flipped our football program from years of mediocrity at best into being an annual bowl participant (was outstanding). And the way he did it in developing young men, not just on the football field but in the classroom and in preparing them for the game of life — I will be forever indebted to Gary Andersen, as will all of Aggie Nation, for what he has done.”
Hartwell met with the USU coaching staff at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday and the players about a half-hour later. Hartwell said “there was some passion in that room and understandably so” when asked how the players responded to the news, but he is confident this is a “resilient” group of athletes who will work hard to improve.
When asked about a timeline for hiring a new head coach, Hartwell said “the sooner the better,” with the objective of announcing the decision on or before Dec. 15. The early signing period starts the following day and having Andersen’s replacement in place will be essential in the recruiting process.
Until that decision is made, Hartwell is certain he has the right interim head coach in place in Maile, who, with the exception of a two-year stint at Vanderbilt from 2014-15, has coached at Utah State every year since 2009.
“His passion and energy and enthusiasm for the young men in our program and for our program in general is not something that started two days ago when he was named the interim head coach,” Hartwell said. “It’s something that’s been a lifetime for him and I know that we will get our guys prepared and have them ready to play hard every single snap, starting this Saturday” against Fresno State.
Maile and Hartwell spoke at length before the former Aggie defensive lineman accepted the position as interim head coach. Hartwell was asked if Maile would be considered as Andersen’s permanent replacement should the Aggies make strides during the final five weeks of the season.
“It gives him a five-week audition, if you will,” Hartwell said. “You know, there’s no guarantee, no promise in there, but it certainly does not hurt him having that (opportunity).”
How important is it that the next head coach has ties to the Beehive State?
“Here’s what I want: I don’t want to establish any preconceived parameters,” Hartwell said in his response. “I want us to find the best guy for this job. Do they need to have an understanding of the returned mission program, things like that? Do they need to have an understanding of Utah? Yeah. But do they have to have coached here, lived here, have a certain number of people on the staff that have been here? No. I’m not going to box us into that norm. … I want us to be wide open in this search and go find the best person, the best candidate to lead Utah State football forward.”
However, Hartwell did say it would be in his best interest to consider candidates from “other programs in the area that have had success. … Yeah, it would be very narrow-sighted if we didn’t at least put some of these guys, if interested, in our pool.”
Hartwell is not one bit worried the Aggies will find the right candidate for the job. In fact, he said “in the past 48 hours since this (news) broke my phone has blown up and in a very positive way, and (there’s been) a lot of interest already before we’ve even really begun the search in earnest, so I’m excited about it.”
Hartwell went on to say he was “not influenced at all” by donors in his decision to take the program “in a different direction.” When asked if benefactors would have any sway in the hiring process, Hartwell said “obviously you can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to pay attention to donors,” but ultimately the decision would come down to himself and Utah State President Noelle Cockett.
Whoever replaces Andersen will be tasked with the challenge of helping the program be in the mix for a Mountain West title on a yearly basis. The Aggies have only played in the MW championship game once — in their first year in the conference in 2013 — although they have competed in bowl games in eight of the last nine seasons.
As for Andersen, his second stint at the Aggie helm came to an end just two days after his team lost to Nevada 34-9 on the road. Andersen was first hired as USU’s head coach prior to the 2009 campaign and went 33-33 in his five-plus seasons in charge of the program.
Andersen took the head coaching job at Big 10 Conference power Wisconsin after helping lead USU to a 11-2 record and a Western Athletic Conference championship in 2012. The former Ricks College and University of Utah player spent two seasons with the Badgers, who went 19-7 during that timespan. Andersen was then hired as Oregon State’s head coach in 2015 and ultimately stepped down from that post midway through his third season. The Beavers went 7-23 during Andersen’s time in Corvallis.
The 56-year-old was rehired as the Aggies’ head coach in December of 2018 after Matt Wells, the man who replaced Andersen at USU, accepted the same job at Texas Tech. He was the first of 27 head coaches in school history to be in charge multiple times. The Aggies went 7-6 last season under Andersen and his coaching staff.
The 2012 WAC Coach of the Year was also the head coach at Southern Utah for one season (2003). Andersen first started coaching at the collegiate level in 1988 at Southeastern Louisiana.