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Gary Andersen stopped short of setting a definitive expectation for himself and his Oregon State football team.
But there was no denying the excitement in his voice.
Andersen thinks back to his Utah State days when assessing Oregon State heading into his third year of a massive rebuilding project. Those first two seasons were tough with the Aggies. USU became a competitive football team that third year.
Andersen thinks the same could be in store for him at Oregon State. Building a winner in the Pac-12 is more difficult than what Andersen encountered in the Western Athletic Conference, and he knows that. But Andersen believes he finally has the personnel for significant improvement after winning three league games and six overall in two years.
"This is a big year for us," Andersen said. "It's year three, and I think we can make strides. I'm excited for this team. We have a crew of seniors that we've spent a lot of time with. We're ready to compete. Personally, I think the similarities between us and Utah State are unbelievably familiar. We're excited."
At 53 years old, Andersen still is the monstrous competitor he was when he was Utah's defensive coordinator on the undefeated 2008 Sugar Bowl team. He's the same fiery guy who took a bare cupboard in Logan and eventually built Utah State into an 11-2 juggernaut in 2012.
The road hasn't been easy. Andersen left the Aggies for Wisconsin, where he won 19 of his 26 games in two years. But the fit wasn't perfect. Wisconsin and the Big Ten were outside of Andersen's recruiting footprint. And for the first time in his career, Andersen found himself dealing with a program's lofty expectations. His 19-7 overall record was nice. He won the Big Ten West in his second season. But he didn't take the Badgers to a Rose Bowl, and Rose Bowls are expected in Madison.
So when the Oregon State job opened after Mike Riley moved on to Nebraska, Andersen jumped at the opportunity. He always wanted to coach in the Pac-12, and OSU gave him the chance to be closer to home and family.
"I think the important thing with Gary is that he took the Wisconsin job," Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth said. "It was a great chance for him to get experience at a Power 5 school. Guys like him are such good coaches that if an SEC job opened up, he would've been considered for that as well. He's one of the best coaches in the country."
Andersen doesn't hesitate when talking about the experience. He would do it again. That sums him up as a coach and person. He's never been one for regrets, and he forged relationships at Wisconsin that help him today.
His coaching staff at Oregon State features the likes of Brian Wozniak, Josh Oglesby and Mitch Singler, each of whom played at Wisconsin. Andersen's son Keegan is also on Oregon State's staff.
"Wisconsin was great for us and we won a bunch of games," Andersen said. "I think it presented a different challenge for me because I walked into a situation where we had a group ready to win. But Barry Alvarez was a great boss, and I wouldn't change it for the world. It was the opportunity to coach at a Power 5 conference school, and it was a tremendous school."
The challenges at OSU were similar to what Andersen walked into at Utah State. Oregon State went 2-10 and didn't win a Pac-12 game in 2015. Physically, it was obvious the Beavers didn't belong on the same field with many of the other conference teams.
That changed last season. Oregon State went 4-8, but the Beavers were competitive. They narrowly lost to Utah and gave Minnesota and Stanford all they could handle. More importantly, they beat rival Oregon in the final game of the season.
Then Scott Barnes left his athletics director job at Pittsburgh to take the same position at Oregon State. Barnes was Andersen's AD at Utah State, and a central figure in USU's successful bid to join the Mountain West Conference.
"We're very optimistic about where the football program is headed," Barnes said. "I took the Oregon State job because I wanted to be closer to my family. I'm from the Spokane [Wash.] area, so this was a great opportunity."
Andersen's confident Oregon State can get to six wins and qualify for a bowl game this upcoming season. He's beefed up the talent and depth on the offensive and defensive lines through recruiting. Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce became a formidable tandem at running back. The defense is significantly better than it has been in previous years.
Andersen, known as a defensive coach, realizes a team needs to score a lot of points to win in the Pac-12. His quarterback position has been unsettled, but he hopes Jake Luton can offer stability.
"He's a big kid who can really throw it," Andersen said.
Most importantly, Andersen's back within his recruiting footprint. He always will be competitive within Utah, and former Hunter High tight end Noah Togiai was a big get for him. He's excited about David Morris, a star linebacker from Oregon who chose the Beavers over the Ducks. And he's always had success in Florida and California.
It all adds up to an Oregon State team many expect to take a leap. Andersen won't put a number on it. But he knows he finally has a football team capable of winning games.
Gary Andersen coaching resume
2014 to present • Oregon State coach
2013 to 2014 • Wisconsin coach
2009 to 2012 • Utah State coach
2005 to 2008 • Utah defensive coordinator/assistant head coach
2004 • Utah defensive line coach
2003 • Southern Utah coach
2001 to 2002 • Utah assistant head coach
1997 to 2000 • Utah defensive tackles/strong side ends coach
1995 to 1996 • Northern Arizona assistant head coach
1994 • Park City High coach
1992 to 1993 • Idaho State defensive line coach
1989 to 1991 • Ricks College offensive line coach