LOGAN — The donors won't have the final say on Utah State's new head football coach. Athletic director John Hartwell made that clear Monday.
It's something that needed to be said.
When Utah State rehired Gary Andersen in late 2018, there was plenty of whispers around the program — even reaching the ear of national college football reporter Bruce Feldman — that a big donor had pressured the administration to bring back Andersen. That led to a failed reunion that didn't even make it through two full seasons.
Whether true or not, Hartwell said it won't be the case this time around.
"You can't just say, 'Oh, we're not gonna pay attention to donors, but President (Noelle) Cockett and I have had lengthy conversations about this. ... It's going to be a university decision," Hartwell said. "And at the end of the day, the buck is going to stop with myself bringing a recommendation to her, and her either giving her stamp of approval or saying, 'No. Bring me to the next person.' So, donors will always have opinions; but in terms of this decision, this will be an athletic director, an athletic department and university decision."
Who is Hartwell looking at? While the national search for Andersen's replacement is just beginning, the Utah State athletic director did give some clues as to what he'll be looking for in a new coach.
"Here's what I want: I don't want to establish any preconceived parameters. I want us to find the best guy for this job," Hartwell said. "Do they need to have an understanding of the return mission program? Do they need to have an understanding of Utah? Yeah, but do they have to have coached here, lived here, or have a certain number of people on the staff that have been here? No. I'm not going to box us into that, nor am I going to box us into saying, 'You have to have been a previous head coach.'"
So yes, it's a wide-open search. But it's hard not to look across the state and see some options for the Aggies.
Like in Ogden where Jay Hill has turned Weber State into a perennial FCS power. He took over a 2-10 team in 2014 and has since won three-straight Big Sky titles. The man who hired Hill to Weber State, Jerry Bovee, also now happens to be a deputy athletics director at Utah State.
Or in Provo, where BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes has led a top 10 offense this season with quarterback Zach Wilson getting some Heisman buzz. BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb, who built Southern Utah into a Big Sky champion before moving on to Provo, could also be a strong candidate.
And yes, Hartwell has noticed what is happening in Provo.
"I would also be lying to you if I didn't look down at Provo and see the job that they've done," he said. "Again, two years ago we went into Provo and beat BYU pretty soundly. And you look at today — and obviously, we don't play them this year — but Kalani (Sitake) has done a tremendous job down there and got that program going, and I want to make sure the Aggies are headed in the same direction."
Hartwell said it would be "very narrow-sighted" if he didn't look at the in-state options, including interim coach Frank Maile, who Hartwell said will have a five-week audition to end the season.
But while the state is home to some good candidates, Hartwell has had success in looking elsewhere. Like in 2018 when he hired Craig Smith from South Dakota to be the men's basketball coach. Smith mostly had ties to the Midwest before arriving in Logan, but he's had immediate success going 54-15 and winning two straight Mountain West Tournament titles.
So, Hartwell could look at someone like Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee or USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell — young coaches that don't have many, if any, ties to the area.
Or they could go look at former Utah State assistants like David Yost, who left Logan to join Matt Wells' staff at Texas Tech, or Utah State assistant and Montana State head coach Jeff Choate.
Hartwell does appear to be leaning to a more offensive-minded coach. On Monday, he lamented how in 2018 (with Yost as offensive coordinator), the Aggies were 11th in the nation in total offense and now "those tables have been flipped in the wrong direction."
He said he didn't want to eliminate the possibility of hiring a defensive-first coach like Hill, who also serves as the Weber State defensive coordinator. But if he goes that route, he said he wants assurance they have a plan to fix the Aggies' struggling offense.
"If it's a defensive guy, I want to know upfront about what their plan is to fix our offense during the interview process," he said.
One thing Hartwell does believe, though, is he won't be short on options.
"I can tell you this in the past 48 hours since this broke, my phone has blown up — and in a very positive way — and a lot of interest already before we've even really begun the search in earnest, so I'm excited about it," he said.
Hartwell said he hopes to make the hire by Dec. 15.