Jeff Hunter
Utah State head football coach Gary Andersen talks to his team at the end of scrimmage Saturday, March 30, 2019, at Maverik Stadium in Logan.

LOGAN — The shuttle bus lurching through the Maverik Stadium parking lot had a vehicle wrap that said “Dare Mighty Things.”

Gary Andersen must do the marketing at Utah State.

That’s the kind of slogan the Aggie football coach would use in the locker room. Daring mightily is just what he did when he became the school’s football coach in 2009. He took over a program that hadn’t had a winning season in 12 years and left with a team that went 11-2 and finished the season ranked No. 16 in the country. Now he’s back for his fifth spring football camp at USU, but his first since 2012 when he was hired away by Wisconsin.

There has seldom been a bolder time to be a Utah State football fan. The Aggies are coming off their best season since 2012. Combined, the football and men’s basketball teams went 39-9 this year.

“We want to be a team that is consistently on the radar late in the year, and prepared to be in a position to play big games. That's really the next step, right?” Andersen said. “I think that's a huge expectation, to consistently be a winner and put yourself in a position to where the calendar is ticking down in November and there’s a special game out there.”

That’s aiming high, but the Aggies earned it. Under Matt Wells — now the coaching at Texas Tech — they went 11-2 and finished last season ranked No. 22. Now Andersen is back at his old job, in the same office.

“The whole thing was kind of surreal, but it felt extremely comfortable,” he said.

While Wells won bowl games and contended for titles, he never won a conference championship game. Andersen’s Aggies claimed the WAC outright in 2012. Now the expectation is to own the Mountain West.

When he arrived in Logan the first time, Andersen found a team that averaged fewer than three wins in the previous six years and hadn’t had a winning season since 1996. His job was to resurrect a dead program. This time, he’s inheriting an excellent one. Outside linebackers coach Bojay Filimoeatu played for Andersen’s 2012 team that won the Potato Bowl.

" When I was a player, he has always been a guy that cares about his players. Now as a coach — to see that from the other side — that’s who he is. "
USU outside linebackers coach Bojay Filimoeatu on Gary Andersen

“We had a talented team, too, but we had to work, work, work, work for what we had,” Filimoeatu said. “These guys — talent is not an issue here no more. Utah State is a destination for kids to come play.”

Surreal as it may be for Andersen to be back where he started, it’s a situation of his own making. He still calls his move from USU to Wisconsin an “extremely difficult decision.” But after two years at Wisconsin, he abruptly jumped to a job at Oregon State. Six games into his third season he quit over reported conflicts with certain assistant coaches and an inability to change the culture.

Andersen has never elaborated on his departure from other jobs; he guards his specific reasons like a playbook.

“To me, first of all, that’s old news,” Andersen said. “I’ve always gone because I think that’s where I’m supposed to be. And that’s the easiest way for me to sum it up.”

After leaving OSU, he spent a year as an assistant at Utah before accepting the USU job last December. He never sold his house in Logan. Although he returns only two starters from the highest-scoring offense in Mountain West Conference history, four others have started multiple games. Also back is return star Savon Scarver, a consensus All-American. The defense has seven returning starters.

Indications are that USU will be picked to finish first or second in the conference at the MWC’s summer media day. The logic is that by combining last year’s success with Andersen’s arrival, the Aggies will continue their trajectory. He has better talent, but also will be facing better talent, than during his first stay in Logan. His approach hasn’t changed.

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“Same guy,” Filimoeatu said. “When I was a player, he has always been a guy that cares about his players. Now as a coach — to see that from the other side — that’s who he is.”

He’s also a bit of a mystery man. He was miserable enough at Oregon State to leave $12 million on the table. The Wisconsin job is considered among the industry’s best, given the resources and reasonable expectations.

In spite of a recent history of moves, walking away from USU doesn’t seem a likelihood for the 55-year-old Andersen.

“I see this as the last stop,” he said.

It’s a good place to dream, where he seems perfectly happy driving the bus.