When Utah plays Oregon State this Saturday at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, two teams will try to win a very important Pac-12 game. That’s not even half the story.
Though Utah is intent on finally winning the Pac-12 South, and though Oregon State wants to show that its victory over California last weekend was not a fluke, this game is important beyond the stakes as they exist on the surface and in the league standings.
This is a game which is personally, even spiritually, important for the two coaching staffs involved. It’s a game hungered for with every last ounce of bone and sinew and marrow. It’s a game of blood… because the two head coaches in Saturday’s game once shared the sweetest of triumphs and the brightest of spotlights together.
The simple and straightforward caption to the photo above tells the basic story.
Gary Andersen was Kyle Whittingham’s defensive coordinator at Utah in the year which eclipsed all other years for the Utes — even the 2004 season in which Urban Meyer led the sons of Salt Lake City to a 12-0 record and a Fiesta Bowl championship.
In 2008, Andersen guided a Utah defense which foiled the Frogs of TCU in a monumental Thursday night game — easily the biggest in the short-lived history of the Mountain West Conference at the time — and completed a perfect regular season. Standing in the way of an unblemished campaign in the 2009 Sugar Bowl were Nick Saban and the big, bad Alabama Crimson Tide. Utah — with Whittingham in charge and Andersen directing the defense — strolled into New Orleans and handed Saban a Superdome smackdown, the 31-17 final being far more lopsided than the 14-point margin could ever indicate. Whittingham and Andersen shared — and co-created — the memory and achievement of a lifetime.
Brothers — not in biology, but of pigskin — had triumphed together.
It is in the nature of the coaching business, however, for coordinators to want to strike out on their own, to lead a program, to make their own name. Andersen went to Ogden to become the head coach of Utah State. He beat Whittingham and Utah in 2012, and his Aggies were so successful that year that Andersen was able to land the open job at Wisconsin when Bret Bielema abruptly left.
There was one problem for Andersen in Wisconsin, however: His assistants were not paid well — not relative to what the best schools in the Big Ten and the upper tier of the FBS were able to commit to coaching staffs. When Wisconsin lost 59-0 to Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, a contest in which the Badgers were slight favorites, everyone wondered why UW came out so flat.
Days later, everyone got the answer: Andersen had one foot out the door, fed up with the lack of material support for his staffers.
Andersen wasn’t afraid to compete or burned out on life in the Big Ten microscope. He was upset, so he decided to move back to the West and start fresh at Oregon State, taking over for Mike Riley after the longtime Beaver coach went to Nebraska and ambushed college football pundits.
This is when the Andersen-Whittingham dynamic took on different dimensions.
When Andersen formed his staff in Corvallis, he lured four — yes, four! — Whittingham assistants from Utah to Oregon State. The perfect plot twist: These assistants left Whittingham partly because of increased pay, the very thing Andersen wanted but didn’t get for his assistants at Wisconsin.
Current BYU head coach Kalani Sitake; current BYU defensive coordinator and Sitake loyalist Ilaisa Tuiaki; and two assistants still on Andersen’s staff with OSU, Derrick Odum and Chad Kauha’aha’a, all went from Salt Lake City to Corvallis.
Whittingham once called them assistants, much as Andersen had been his assistant. They then flocked to Andersen, the man Whittingham cultivated into a top-shelf defensive coordinator after Whittingham himself had been Utah’s star defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer in that brilliant 2004 season, the one which made Utah football and launched Whittingham’s career.
No matter how close Andersen and Whittingham had become on the night of the 2009 Sugar Bowl, watching a rival — even a beloved and respected one — pluck four assistants from his staff must fuel Whittingham for this game on Saturday, and whenever he faces Oregon State during Andersen’s tenure. Andersen, knowing what he did, is fully aware that he must prove himself against Utah in a way he rarely has to prove himself against other Pac-12 opponents.
Oregon is likely the only Pac-12 team Andersen wants to beat more than Utah, but that’s because beating Oregon is a gateway to his long-term job security.
Beating Utah isn’t a matter of job security, but a matter of family — of tribal loyalties and rivalries in a football sense.
Yes, Utah and Oregon State need to win this game for different reasons, but the coaching staffs need to win for reasons found deep within the human heart.
It’s time for the Pac-12’s ultimate family reunion.
May the better brother win.