1 of 4
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah State Aggies center Neemias Queta (23) and head coach Craig Smith embrace as they celebrate their win over the San Diego State Aztecs in the Mountain West Conference finals at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 16, 2019.

If Utah State’s athletic department were a publicly traded company, this would be a good time to buy stock in the Aggies. USU is the best buy in the local sports market. Unlike its instate rivals, Utah and BYU, Utah State is trending up in football and basketball combined. Our recommendation: Buy.

The USU basketball team has won 28 of 34 games this season and the Mountain West Conference championship. The Aggies will play Washington Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — the only Utah team in the tournament.

This follows an 11-2 football season that ended with a bowl victory.

It marks only the third time in school history the Aggies have qualified for the NCAA Tournament and a bowl berth during the same school year, and future projections look equally promising.

It’s time to buy in.

The basketball team stumbled around for three years after Stew Morrill retired from coaching, but the Aggies might have unearthed a coach on the rise. Craig Smith, who was hired last spring from South Dakota, has taken the Aggies to their first NCAA Tournament since 2011. Time will tell what he can do with his own recruits, but all but two of his players return next season, including the top three scorers.

The football team tied a school record with 11 wins last fall and then, in a quirk of fate, actually got an upgrade at head coach. Matt Wells did what football coaches do when they win in Logan — they leave for another job. He was replaced by the man he replaced five years ago — Gary Andersen, Wells’ former boss. Andersen is the man most responsible for raising the football program to its current state.

All of which adds up to this: The Aggies have quietly clawed their way back to being a nationally relevant football and basketball program. It has been a long time coming.

A brief history lesson is in order. Utah State was once a major player in football and basketball, reaching its peak in the early ’60s. During the four school years from 1960-61 to 1963-64, the Aggies were 34-6-1 in football, including a No. 10 national ranking one year, and qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament three times.

During that stretch the Western Athletic Conference was born in 1962. In one of those games of musical chairs that shakes up football from time to time, Utah and BYU left the Skyline Conference to join the new league, and USU was left behind (decades later, Ladell Andersen, who coached at BYU, Utah and USU, bitterly claimed that the instate schools acted to keep USU out of the league).

Rather than remain in the Skyline Conference, the Aggies turned to independence and eventually bounced from one second-rate league to another. (In a great twist of irony, when another conference shakeup occurred in 2011 and Utah jumped to the Pac-12, it was BYU’s turn to be left out and make its way as an independent; the Cougars have been in decline since then).

Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal
Gary Andersen poses for a photo with Big Blue after speaking at a press conference where he was introduced as the new head football coach at Utah State, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

Anyway, the Aggies have spent most of the last 50-plus years trying to recover from that event. The ramifications of the 1962 shakeup were felt mostly in football, which began a slow decline until it bottomed out. The Aggies had only two winning seasons from 1981 through 2010.

Andersen put together 7-6 and 11-2 seasons in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and the program has never been the same. Even after Andersen left following the ’12 season, the Aggies had two more winning seasons and, following three mediocre seasons, they won 11 games again last season. They’ve gone to bowl games seven times in eight years.

The Aggies are now catching up to, if not surpassing, their old instate rivals after being left for dead in 1962.

13 comments on this story

Football: In the last eight years — covering the period when Andersen first revived the program — the Aggies have 63 victories, the same as BYU and one more than Utah. Their seven bowl appearances during that time matches BYU’s total and is one more than Utah. They have beaten BYU in three of their last four meetings; since 2009, Utah has refused to play USU regularly, but Utah has won two of their three meetings since then.

Basketball: The program took a big hit after the retirement of Stew Morrill. but not as much as you might think. In the last dozen years, USU has 265 wins and four NCAA berths, compared to BYU’s 303 wins and six NCAA berths and Utah’s 224 wins and three NCAA berths. In the last 20 years, the win tally is: USU 463, BYU 465, Utah 390.

The Aggies are back at last.