Andersen not a hero for staying, not a villain for leaving

College football coaches and fans need a better way to talk about jobs.

We need a blueprint that leaves some middle ground.

It’s no moral failing for Utah State football coach Gary Andersen to take a reportedly $3 million a year job at Wisconsin, a Big Ten school with a national profile — everyone wants to play in the big leagues — it’s just that many were so quick to lavish praise on his character for staying in Logan after interest was expressed by other schools.

Both reactions to Andersen’s choices are overreactions.

Andersen was lionized for his loyalty, just days ago, but maybe he felt neither Cal nor Colorado was a good fit for his personality or system. Maybe he was a finalist but was never made an official offer. Whatever the case, he didn’t have either job and he said so, announcing that he was staying at USU.

It’s the way he said it that is being thrown back in his face now, less than three weeks later:

“I plan to remain the head football coach at Utah State University,” Andersen said in a statement released by the school Nov. 30. “I love Cache Valley, this university and these young men, and I am humbled and excited to continue to be the coach here. The leadership of President (Stan) Albrecht and Mr. Barnes, as well as the support from the fans and community, are big reasons why this is the right place for myself and my family at this time.”

Andersen in the Idaho Statesman prior to USU’s bowl victory over Toledo:

“Once an Aggie, always an Aggie. And I’ve learned that. I walked in here and I wasn’t an Aggie. To everyone, I was a Ute,” Andersen said. “For me, once an Aggie, always an Aggie is something I take a lot of pride in.”

And this:

“The kids I have in the program, it just was not time. I look them in the eye and I need to be where I’m at.”

If you take his statements at his word, Andersen meant it all a short time ago. But now that he needs to be somewhere else, those words are coming back to haunt him.

There is a long tradition of college coaches swearing up and down they’re not going anywhere, only to swear their allegiance to a new fanbase soon after. Somebody could put together a highlight reel of coaches making promises.

Urban Meyer put his arm around people at Utah and told them he was staying put, then left for Florida. Nick Saban was even more specific — “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach” — before becoming the Alabama coach.

Both Meyer and Saban were rewarded with national championships; Andersen can only hope for the same at Wisconsin.

But what if Utah State turns around and hires a rising young football coach who had received interest from other schools and just last week, with no guile, was telling recruits he was happy where he was at? Aggies fans will be thrilled to have him.

It’s time to stop making coaches into heroes if they stay or villains if they don’t. It’s not about whether they stay or go that reveals their character, it’s whether they handle the process with integrity.

Coaches, like everyone else, have the right and the freedom to choose to move on to a different job — for money, competition, family reasons, a change of scenery or they just think they look better in another color, whatever.

When coaches who are seen as potential candidates for another job are asked, they need a way to say, “I like it here. They’ve treated me well and we’ve had success. But I owe it to myself and my family to consider each opportunity that comes along,” without being vilified if they don’t make lavish promises to stay for all eternity.

Utah State basketball coach Stew Morrill is seen as the ultimate symbol of loyalty in Logan, but USU is his third head coaching job after Montana and Colorado State. Morrill has had opportunities to talk to bigger schools, but none, yet, have been the right fit.

Morrill’s longevity at Utah State is admirable and he has earned the right to stay there as long as he wants, to finish his career there if he desires. But if someday he chooses to take a job in a power conference, would it be a sign of weak character?

Of course not. Just like it wasn’t when he left Montana for Colorado State and CSU for USU. Sometimes the right opportunity comes along. All you can ask is that he handles the situation with integrity.

Even former Weber State football coach John L. Smith, who left the Wildcats in a difficult situation by taking the interim job at Arkansas just months after being hired, would have been much better off if, instead of ducking reporters in Ogden, he had faced them to tell Wildcats fans that an opportunity he had been working toward his entire professional life had become available through an unforeseeable turn of events and that he was sorry for the terrible timing.

Weber State fans still wouldn’t have been happy, but they might have been more understanding.

BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall seems to have found a blueprint that works for him in this regard. He refused a longer-term contract and has been open about not expecting to be in Provo for 30-plus like LaVell Edwards was. He’s also talked about the types of jobs that might interest him for more reasons than just football, places like Stanford and Air Force.

When Mendenhall was rumored to be connected to the Colorado job, he said he hadn’t been contacted; when the Buffaloes later called him, he announced he’d spoken with them but it hadn’t gone farther and said he was happy at BYU for now.

Here’s another blueprint: Just last week, I talked with former Weber State offensive coordinator Matt Hammer, who took a head coaching job at Weber High and told me it was to spend more time with his family.

Hammer is only 30 and had been an FCS offensive coordinator for four years — if not at Weber State, he could have found other opportunities to continue to coach college football, but he chose a different path.

When I asked him if he’d ever come back to college coaching, Hammer said he didn’t see it happening for the next dozen years, but then this: “I’ll never say never. Something could happen where you can’t or you shouldn’t turn something down.”

Coaches aren’t selling out every time they look at another opportunity, nor are they poster children for character, honor and loyalty when those opportunities don’t pan out for the moment — they’re just people like us with jobs.

I love my job, but if someone makes a $3 million phone call to me, I’m answering it.

Still waiting.

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