Feinstein: Gary Andersen’s Oregon State Exit A Mystery

I have never met Gary Andersen, who, until Monday, was the football coach at Oregon State. But I would love to sit down someday and talk to him, if only so I can try to understand how he thinks.

Andersen resigned on Monday with four-and-a-half years left on his contract. Usually coaches get more than two-and-a-half years to build a program, but when a team is 1-5 in year three and appears to be going backwards, well, things happen. Presidents and athletic directors hear the drumbeats of angry alumni and boosters, and that’s when buy-out discussions usually begin.

But in Andersen’s case, there was no buyout. He had somewhere around $12 million left on his contract and you can’t claim “cause” in firing someone because he hasn’t won enough games. The Beavers had actually improved during Andersen’s first two seasons, going from 2-10 to 4-8—ending last season with their first win in forever against archrival Oregon.

But this season began with a 58-27 loss at Colorado State and actually went downhill from there. The only victory was a 35-32 squeaker against Portland State — an FCS team — and then they got routed in their next four games. The CLOSEST of those games was a 38-10 loss at Southern Cal on Saturday.

By Monday, Andersen was out the door with all the usual folderol about the athletic director and the coach reaching some kind of “mutual decision” to make a change. But the rest of this story isn’t usual at all.

Let’s go back three years. Anderson, after taking over a bad Utah State team, had gone 11-2 in season four there — 2013 – and that attracted the notice of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez when Brett Bielema decided to leave Madison for Arkansas after eight very successful years as Alvarez’s successor. Alvarez was — and is — the Godfather of Wisconsin football. When he took over in 1990, the Badgers spent most years fighting with Northwestern for ninth place in the Big Ten. Sixteen years later, they were a perennial national contender that frequently went to the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten rep.

Alvarez became athletic director when he stopped coaching and he hand-picked Bielema, his defensive coordinator, to replace him. Only when Bielema left — after a third straight Rose Bowl trip — did Alvarez reach outside, bringing Andersen in from Utah State.

The transition appeared seamless. The Badgers went 9-4 and then 10-3 and played in the Big Ten championship game in 2014. And then, in the blink of an eye, Andersen was gone, bolting for, of all places, Oregon State. It isn’t as if the Beavers don’t have any football history; they just don’t have a lot of it. Mike Riley, who left for Nebraska, had gone to eight bowls games in 12 seasons. Most of those bowls were of the Las Vegas, Insight, and Oahu variety. The Beavers had gone 11-1 in 2000 under Dennis Erickson – crushing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl — but haven’t played in the Rose Bowl since 1965.

In all likelihood, if Andersen could have matched Riley’s success, he would have had a lengthy run in Corvallis. Pull the occasional upset over USC; beat Oregon more than once a decade and you can live very well up there.

No one completely understood Andersen’s decision to leave Wisconsin. There were all sorts of theories: the academic standards were too tough; Andersen missed living in the west; Alvarez’s shadow — still very much a presence — was too long.

Regardless, he was gone, going from a Big Ten power school to a Pac-12 non-power school. It isn’t as if places like Oregon State can’t win. Just look at what Washington State has done since Mike Leach arrived in Pullman.

But things clearly weren’t going in the right direction. I’m sure it wasn’t just the 1-5 record; it was the embarrassing nature of all five losses that led to the “discussions” that led to Andersen’s departure. Most of the time — actually just about ALL of the time — these discussions are a negotiation: what do we have to pay you to get you to leave?

Coaches almost never go gently into that good night, regardless of circumstances. At this very moment, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, who is in the midst of his third scandal (table-top sex; hooker in the dorm, and now a recruit receiving big bucks from – apparently — Adidas) is fighting the school tooth and nail for as much of the $44 million left on his contract as he can get. You can bet he’ll get some of it. Andersen, whose worst crime was losing games, just walked away from money he had an absolute right to collect.

Most coaches who get caught cheating either keep their jobs because the president makes excuses for them, which, translated into English, means: “Hey, he wins games and makes the school money. I don’t really care that much how he does it.”

There are currently five coaches of recent vintage in the Basketball Hall of Fame who have been hit at least once with NCAA violations: Larry Brown (three times), Jim Boeheim (twice), John Calipari (twice), Jim Calhoun, and Pitino. That doesn’t count Roy Williams, who is part of the academic scandal case at North Carolina that is apparently never going to end.

Trust me, none would ever be asked to leave a school without some kind of generous buyout. And, as proven by history, each simply moves on to another job if he wants to do so. Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson, who got both Oklahoma and Indiana on probation for the SAME crime, had little trouble getting hired again.

Bobby Petrino broke state law while having an affair at Arkansas. It took him about 15 minutes to get a job at Western Kentucky before he was hired by Tom Jurich at Louisville. The best line on the ongoing Rick-gate conversation came from someone who said, “What does it say about Louisville that Bobby Petrino is the role model for decency there right now?”

Andersen, on the other hand, IS a role model for decency. Maybe someday he will sit down and explain to someone — I volunteer — the real reasons he left Wisconsin and why he left almost $12 million on the table. The only other coach I can think of who did anything like that was Steve Spurrier when he left Washington’s NFL football team and walked away from about $15 million. That was different though because Spurrier probably would have PAID $15 million to get away from team owner Dan Snyder. A few years ago, I brought Snyder up to Spurrier. He laughed and said, “I haven’t got anything against Danny. He paid me a lot of money to put up with all that s—.”

Andersen is 53. I would think he will coach again and soon. It might not be as a head coach, or it might be as a head coach at a smaller school — perhaps at the FCS level. It is hard to know what exactly went wrong at Oregon State or if he just need another year or two for his recruiting to kick in. It’s worth remembering that Leach was 12-25 in his first three seasons at Washington State. The Cougars are 23-9 since then, including the 6-0 this fall that has gotten them to No. 8 in the national rankings.

We’ll never know if Andersen could have pulled off that kind of turnaround because he never got to the end of his third season. Oregon State will search for another coach this offseason. Andersen will look for a job. I will be fascinated to see where he lands and what comes next for him. This is clearly not your typical coach — or man.

John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black-and-White,” which is drawing critical raves for taking on the issue of race in sports. His new non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published on October 24th. It has received “Starred,” pre-publication reviews from both Kirkus and Book List.

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