When Gary Andersen first jumped behind the wheel at Utah State three years ago, he had a route in mind for redirecting a football program that had lost its way. He knew there would be bad stretches, loose gravel, orange barrels and major delays. He knew he and his teams would too often get their asphalt kicked.
"It was going to be hard," he says.
It was going to be worth it.
The hardest part for Andersen was keeping the bus in the right lane, between the painted lines of his own expectations for winning and restoring confidence in players who were part of a weary outfit that not only had grown accustomed to losing, but that was bound on some level to go on losing.
Somehow, he had to teach his players to win, even as they lost.
In his first season, when the Aggies went 4-8, Andersen put it this way: "My goal isn't to come in here and just be OK. We are in a building process. You don't change it overnight, you don't change the culture, you don't change the ability level overnight. But our mindset going into every football game is to flat win and we'll never address it any other way. If we don't win, we'll be extremely disappointed."
The Ags were disappointed a lot.
They followed that initial run with another 4-8 mark that fell far short of Andersen's plan. But if the complete results weren't there over those two seasons, small evidences of a building confidence were. Even in lopsided scores, no longer did Utah State get embarrassed, or rather, no longer did the Aggies carry themselves as though they should be.
They nearly beat Texas A&M. They nearly beat Oklahoma. They did beat BYU. But they also suffered periodic letdowns, stumbling through Saturday afternoons, at times not finding the precision and execution to win, at others not having enough talent.
Andersen looked back on his success as an assistant at Utah, and kept telling himself: "I've seen this work. We have a plan that works."
He uttered those words at an even greater clip in 2011, when the fates tested Utah State in the most brutal of ways, starting right out of the gate at Auburn. In a shocking game the Aggies, on that particular day, had no business losing, that's exactly what they did, 42-38. Two staples of Andersen's coaching emphasis strong defense and sound special teams disintegrated in the final minutes, after USU took a double-digit lead.
The loss was his nadir as a head coach.
"It was the hardest loss I've ever been through," he says. "On the plane ride home, I second-guessed myself over and over, thinking about how we could have won that game. It was hard on the players, too. A win at Jordan-Hare could have been so special. And to have that taken away …"
Andersen's voice trails off.
" … But the players were able to move on."
They moved on to a win over Weber State, and then to more heartbreak: a 35-34 overtime loss to Colorado State, another game the Aggies had every chance to win, and a 27-24 road defeat to BYU, a game they had in hand until former Aggie quarterback Riley Nelson entered late and ricocheted passes all over creation in a remarkable comeback.
At that point, Logan was burning.
The football gods were laughing at the Aggies' pain.There was more coming tight losses to Fresno State and Louisiana Tech.
The Aggies followed an open date by falling behind at Hawaii, 27-7 at the half. It was then that, when USU players kept believing and didn't cave, the Ags finally seemed to earn those football gods' approval and respect.
Utah State stormed back for a 35-31 victory, and it hasn't lost since.
"Our guys just made plays," Andersen says. "The message I'd hoped they would learn finally was learned. Mentally and physically, they can play with anyone. Now there is a subtle feeling on our sideline that we can finish games. No matter what, OK, someone will find a way to win."
The exact opposite of the feeling that had prevailed in Logan for as long as anyone could remember.
The cliché Andersen had resisted because it so often blocked his road to success that teams have to learn to win was now working in his favor. The Aggies beat San Jose State, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico State to finish their regular season at 7-5. They qualified for a bowl for the first time in 14 years after the Nevada win and were invited to the Potato Bowl.
On the day the invitation came, Andersen's unsuspecting team gathered, heard the news, and collectively wept. Guys like linebacker Bobby Wagner and running back Robert Turbin, who had suffered through so many losses, at last felt as though they had turned their battered Greyhound off a dirt road to nowhere and onto an open highway toward winning.
"There wasn't a single dry eye to be found," Andersen says. "It's a special experience for these kids to be in a bowl. It will stay with them and help them for the rest of their lives. Whatever it is, they will believe in themselves."
Andersen will believe, too.
"I've grown as a coach," he says. "These kids have taught me to be a leader for them. I'm a much better coach now than I was before. In the tough times, they kept fighting. It gives you validation. Through all the emotions, we found success because of these kids. From the worst of the worst to the best of the best moments, I've learned from them. The credit goes to the players."
In college football, the credit and the money goes to the head coach. And, after rerouting one of the worst programs in the country, Andersen has caught the attention of his peers and other schools' athletic directors. Like every other rising coach, he says he's flattered by the attention, but that he's happy at Utah State, which this week extended his contract and gave him a raise.
"I'm driven by kids, not by dollars," he says. "What we started here, we're far from finishing. Utah State is a great place. I like it here. I'm comfortable here. I came here to be in more than just one bowl game. I believe in what we're doing."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.