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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Gary Andersen was the Utes' defensive coordinator before leaving to take over this season as the new football coach at Utah State University.

Thursday night's game at Rice-Eccles Stadium will mark the first time Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Utah State's Gary Andersen have ever matched wits as head coaches.

It won't, however, be the initial competition between the longtime friends and associates.

"Maybe that's why we've gotten along so well," Andersen said. "I don't know why, but we just kind of compete at everything we do. Whether it's losing weight in the offseason, or lifting weights, or riding bikes, or playing on the football field, we've always been extremely competitive."

They want to win in everything, he added

As such, the season-opening reunion of sorts should be entertaining.

Morgan Scalley, who played for and coached with both men at Utah, is expecting it to be a lot of fun.

"They are two of the most competitive people you'll ever meet," he said. "They have a great relationship, a great friendship. But when it comes down to it, there's nothing more they'd like than to beat one another."

Whittingham acknowledges the competitive aspect to their friendship.

"That's probably an accurate statement," he said while noting that both are driven to succeed. "That's probably what it boils down to. That's probably the bottom line."

Since working together at Idaho State in 1992, Whittingham and Andersen formed a friendship and a working relationship that has endured the test of time. They've spent much of their careers together at Utah, helping the Utes secure two trips to the Bowl Championship Series (2005, 2009) with undefeated seasons.

"He was a very valuable asset to the staff and instrumental in our success," said Whittingham, whose first move when hired as head coach in December 2004 was to promote Andersen to defensive coordinator.

Five years later, Andersen left for Logan to resurrect a once-proud USU program. As much as Whittingham appreciated having him around, he wasn't surprised a head coaching opportunity surfaced.

"I think it was long overdue. We were lucky to hang on to him as long as we did," Whittingham said. "He's the right man for the job up at Utah State and I think he's going to do just fine."

Andersen's departure, though, hasn't been easy. Whittingham acknowledged things are different up on the hill without him.

"It has been. You get used to a routine and working with a guy after as many years as we did," he said. "Then all of a sudden that changes. That took some getting used to."

So, too, has Andersen's change in apparel. He's no longer clad in crimson.

"It's going to be weird seeing Gary in blue, for sure. I've seen him out at some camps and recruiting, but it still doesn't suit him right now," joked Kalani Sitake, who replaced Andersen as Utah's defensive coordinator. "He'll do a great job. I think he's a fantastic coach and I think the Aggies are lucky to have him.

"We are looking forward to this matchup. I'm excited to see him. Shoot, he's a good friend of mine and a group friend of Kyle's," he continued. "It'll be an interesting game. But when it starts, it's all about the ball. We're friends before and we'll be friends after. That's the way it's always going to be."

Scalley noted that friendships don't alter the big picture. Everyone's job is to win.

The two competitors wouldn't have it any other way.

"This game is not about the coaches. It's about the players — as is every game," Whittingham said. "That's where the focal point should be. The coaches are just a sidebar to that."

Utah State defensive coordinator Bill Busch, who coached with both Whittingham and Andersen at Utah, agrees.

"The matchup between coaches is a complete non-factor. It's not like we've got this and we've got that," he said. "It's football. That kind of erases everything."

Not everything, however.

The bond between the coaches offers a layer of intrigue to the season opener. And it's not just limited to the Beehive State.

Florida coach Urban Meyer knows all about it. Both coaches were on his staff at Utah in 2004.

"Picking a winner between two great friends is an impossible task. I have tremendous respect for both coach Kyle Whittingham and coach Gary Andersen and hope that it is a great game," Meyer said. "I wish both a successful season for 2009. However, if I had to pick between the Utes and Aggies, the answer is simple — the Utes, no question."

Utah has won the last 11 meetings, but no one is taking anything for granted.

"This is not a game that either team is taking lightly. Both are focused. Both are ready to go," said Scalley, who noted that opening games are always a bit of a mystery. "There are unknowns, especially when you're dealing with a new coaching staff. We respect coach Andersen and he's going to do a heckuva job in Logan, but our job is to, obviously, prepare the right way."

The Utes have a proven plan. The Aggies, meanwhile, are busy developing one.

"We're both in very different situations right now," Andersen said. "I'm going through the first year of being a head coach and Kyle's gone through a lot of the situations that I'm going through and learning through."

Thursday's game, however, has delayed any such conversations.

"We have backed off a little bit. It has been a little bit awkward," Whittingham said. "Out of professional courtesy to each other we've kind of put the relationship on hold, I guess you could say."

Though they remain good friends, Andersen considers the lack of football talk the worst part of the situation.

"After all the years we've been together there's a lot of times that we'd like to be able to have a conversation," Andersen said. "But that will get back to normal."

After this year's meeting, Utah and Utah State won't face each other again until 2012.

"I think the break comes at a good time in that respect," Whittingham said.

Andersen has similar thoughts.

"There will be ways that make both football teams better throughout this year after Game 1," Andersen said of communicating about situations that arise. "It'll be nice in that way to have it over with from a professional standpoint for me and also from a personal standpoint. I'm sure Kyle feels the same way."

Whittingham considers it part of the deal.

"If you're in this profession long enough you're going to cross paths with good friends on the playing field," he said. "Once the ball's in the air, it's all about game mode — making decisions and managing the game."

Coaches, he pointed out, don't concern themselves with much else.

This game, however, may be an exception. Andersen admits it'll be interesting to compete against Whittingham after the two friends spent so many years working together.

"I'm excited about the opportunity," he said. "I'm sure we're both excited. But it's a little different, that's for sure."

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com