I was fortunate to be surrounded by some great people (at Utah). —USU coach Gary Andersen
SALT LAKE CITY — When Gary Andersen moved up the road to become Utah State's head coach more than three years ago, he took some red roots with him.
As the Aggies prepare to face Utah Friday night at Romney Stadium, Andersen reflected on his two tenures (1997-2002 and 2004-08) as an assistant with the Utes.
"It prepared me to be a head football coach," said Andersen, who was also a player at Utah. "I was fortunate to be surrounded by some great people."
Besides head coaches Ron McBride, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham, Andersen noted that several great assistants also came through the program. All helped with molding Andersen's coaching approaches and philosophies.
McBride, Meyer and Whittingham had big impacts. As a young coach, Andersen said he learned from McBride to put the kids first and help them with consistency in life and on the football field.
Meyer taught him to always have a plan and introduced core values to follow. From Whittingham, Andersen appreciated the benefits of being very organized.
And that's not all.
"Coaching is a profession and it's a job. But at the end of the day, it sure is fun to coach a kid that you love and I love the type of kids that are in Utah's program and I love the type of kids that are in Utah State's program," Andersen said. "It makes you wake up with a smile on your face every day."
Andersen is following a proven Utah model that includes recruiting in-state players first and developing a Polynesian pipeline and an LDS Church missionary program.
"Everybody has tweaks to different things, but that is the model that we follow and will continue to follow," Andersen said.
It's working. In Andersen's third season at the helm, Utah State posted its first winning season and bowl appearance since 1997.
The success doesn't surprise Whittingham.
"Not a bit. He's an excellent football coach," Whittingham said. "They've recruited well and that's the bottom line. That's the name of the game — recruiting and they've got speed and a lot of athleticism on their football team. It doesn't surprise me a bit that they've improved as dramatically as they have."
Although he admits coaching against Andersen is a bit weird (they did so for the first time in 2009 with Utah prevailing 35-17 at Rice-Eccles Stadium), Whittingham said the two have maintained a long-time friendship. They speak on the phone about once a week.
Andersen has other friends wearing red as well.
Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake is one.
"I've learned a lot of things from him, not just as a football coach but a lot of things as a friend and as a mentor," said Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who noted that Andersen took a chance on him by hiring him at Southern Utah in 2003. It later led to a position with the Utes under Whittingham and Andersen.
"I'm very grateful to those guys," Sitake said. "I'm just a product of their hard work and their willingness to give a young man a chance. They've groomed me into what I am now."
When Andersen left for USU, Sitake replaced him as defensive coordinator — putting them on different sides on the field when the "Battle of the Brothers" rivalry is renewed after a two-year hiatus.
"When it comes down to game time, all that matters is our side against their side and (Gary) will tell you the same thing," Sitake said. "After the game we'll go back to being friends, but for now we'll try to compete and try to win this one."
Players on Utah's highly touted defensive line also have an appreciation for Andersen.
Senior tackle Star Lotulelei got to know him while playing for Bingham High. Andersen worked with him at a camp and later offered him a scholarship to Utah during the recruiting process. Years later, when Lotulelei was at Snow College and Andersen had moved on to USU, another scholarship offer was made.
"I have a lot of respect for him. He's always helped me," Lotulelei said. "He's always been kind of a positive thing for me."
Teammate Dave Kruger also has kind things to say about Andersen. The coach, he explained, is one of the reasons the Kruger brothers chose to play for Utah.
"Gary recruited me. He's a great guy. I've known him for a while. My family has known him for a while. My dad actually played football with him," Kruger said. "So we've known Gary Andersen for quite some time and all I've got to say is positive things about him."
As Whittingham noted and Kruger acknowledged, it'll be a bit strange going against Andersen in a game.
"He coached me when I was a freshman," Kruger said. "It's weird that now I'm going to be going against him and he's my opponent."