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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/Stunned Oregon State football program loses honorable man, with its future now up to players and next coach

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Gary Andersen, then coach of Oregon State football, makes his way onto the field at Reser Stadium during pregame ceremonies for the 2016 Civil War game against Oregon.CORVALLIS — The Decision, as it should come to be known in Beaver Nation, caught everyone by surprise.

Even his inner circle.

It was no secret that Gary Andersen was frustrated with the state of Oregon State football.

But to resign midway through his third season as head coach? With 4 1/2 years left on his contract?

Makes very little sense.

Or does it?

"This was a mutual agreement," athletic director Scott Barnes said during Monday's press conference, and sources within the program tell me it's true.

Andersen and Barnes had been discussing the situation since after the Beavers' opening, 58-27 loss at Colorado State.

"It evolved, Barnes said. "We've had conversations for a period of time about a number of things. We've been meeting regularly. We've had pre-set meetings once a week, and in between, and a lot of conversations."

And finally Sunday, as the Beavers fell to 1-5 after a 38-10 loss at Southern Cal, Andersen told Barnes he wanted to resign.

Barnes didn't try to talk him out of it.

Not that Barnes doesn't believe in Andersen. He does. Deeply.

The pair go back to their years together at Utah State, where Andersen turned around a moribund program. Andersen was instrumental in helping Barnes — who had been the athletic director at Pittsburgh — get the Oregon State job last December. Barnes' hiring was announced the day after OSU President Ed Ray had given Andersen a contract extension through the 2021 season.

Even through this season, Barnes had maintained public support for Andersen.

"We have the right leader in place," he said two weeks ago.

But Barnes said he came to feel that he had to face reality, as did Andersen.

"We took a step back (this season)," Barnes said Monday. "It was obvious to see that we had. The ultimate decision had many factors. It wasn't just wins and losses.

"It's a re-set for this football program. When the time comes that you don't want to continue moving forward — and that was Gary's state — we decided the sooner the better."

Why didn't Andersen want to continue?

It wasn't because of his players. He loved them. Still does.

It wasn't because of the city of Corvallis. He loved living in a small town. He enjoyed the weather, even the winters. He liked the feel of Oregon State. He looked forward to taking the Beavers to bowl games and contending for Pac-12 championships.

But things weren't working this year. Andersen, transparent in his dealings with the media, made no bones about his discontent with the situation. "Unacceptable," he said, time after time, following losses, and even after the too-close 35-32 win over FCS opponent Portland State.

There was some disharmony on the coaching staff, especially on the offensive side. Andersen felt the offense had no identity. A defensive coach by nature, he gave the offensive coaches autonomy — to a fault. When receiver Isaiah Hodgins didn't play in a 42-7 loss to Washington on Sept. 30, he told the media afterward he didn't know why.

A head coach doesn't have to make such a decision, but he has to know why it was made. If there were a suspension — Andersen claimed, publicly and privately, that wasn't the case — he shouldn't have kept that hidden.

After a 48-14 home loss to Minnesota, Andersen offered a hint in his postgame media conference, obliquely calling out the coaches while blaming himself with, "I hired them."

But more than anything, Andersen was disappointed in himself. The lack of success to start this season caught him by surprise. I think it knocked him off his coaching equilibrium some. He may have started to doubt himself.

Andersen took pride in being able to help his teams succeed by, as he always stressed, "doing things the right way."

And when ultimately he decided he couldn't get it done, Andersen walked away from the job — and the $11.6 million in compensation due to him. Andersen will be paid through Dec. 31, but will forfeit the remaining four years of salary.

"Unprecedented," Barnes said, and he's right. Who leaves that kind of money on the table?

Evidently, Andersen didn't want Oregon State's athletic program — already in financial peril — to fall more deeply in the hole. Now Barnes won't have to go in further debt to hire Andersen's replacement.

"Waiving my contract is the correct decision," Andersen said in a statement released by the university. "Coaching is not about the mighty dollar. It is about teaching and putting young men in a position to succeed on and off the field. Success comes when all parties involved are moving in the same direction."

Andersen's decision "was made for all of the right reasons and values," Barnes said. "It speaks volumes about the kind of honorable person Gary is.

"It's a statement of who the man is, his integrity and the honor with which he conducts his business. He felt that was an important piece to this. It creates a clear path. This is an unbelievable opportunity for the next coach."

Andersen didn't listen to radio talk shows or read Internet fan sites, but he was aware of the growing criticism of the program and his leadership. Barnes said frustration from alums, donors and boosters played a role in Andersen's decision to leave the job.

"Did that play into this?" Barnes asked rhetorically. "To be honest, at some point somewhere along the line, that probably had something to do with it.

"When you think about all the things going into this monumental decision, all sorts of things play into that. Was that the game-changer? Not even close. But would that have played some part of it? In some minor form for him, it would have."

Had Andersen lost the Beaver locker room? Had the players stopped listening to him?

"I don't think that at all," said running back Ryan Nall, a team captain. "We believed in him 100 percent. We felt he loved us no matter what, that he would always be there for us. I still feel that.

"He told us from the start, even if it's our fault, he'll take all of the blame. Unfortunately, we haven't had a successful season, and it's had to weigh on him. That's one of the reasons why we love him so much, and guys follow him and fight for him."

Normally when a head coach resigns before the end of a season — and it doesn't happen often in college football — a coordinator takes over as interim head coach. Barnes bypassed offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven and defensive coordinator Kevin Clune in favor of second-year cornerbacks coach Cory Hall, citing his "leadership capacity" and his "connection" to the players.

I'm guessing Barnes asked for Andersen's advice, and that he gave his endorsement to Hall, thinking the players could best relate to him and would rally around him.

Oregon State finished strong last season with victories over Arizona and Oregon to end at 4-8, twice the number of victories during Andersen's first season. There was optimism they could get to a bowl game this season. So what happened?

"It comes down to execution," Nall said. "At the end of the season last year, we were executing, playing the ball we know how to play. This season, it wasn't working the way we pictured it.

"There's still time to come back from that, though. If anything, this is a big eye-opener of what we can make this season to be. With Coach Hall stepping up, he's going to be able to help us with this grieving process and we can move forward."

The grieving process was painful for the players Monday. They were stunned after meeting with Andersen, then Barnes. There were plenty of tears. This was not what they wanted to have happen.

"It's an emotional time, particularly the surprise that it was," Barnes said. "They all gave him a big bear hug."

It was emotional for Barnes, too. Asked by a reporter how difficult it was for him, Barnes choked up, offering only, "hard."

"I've known Gary for many years and respect him highly as a person, friend, head coach and an incredible leader of young men," Barnes told the media.

Later, he told me something more.

"The last thing I told him (Sunday) night was I love him," Barnes said.

Hall will preside over the Oregon State program for the final six games of the season. Meanwhile, Barnes will begin to identify candidates for replacements. He will hire a search firm to help with that. Names such as Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith, California offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo have already surfaced as potential candidates. "Ultimately," Barnes said, "the decision will be made by Ed Ray and myself."

I'd have liked to see Andersen stick with it. He's a man of integrity, blessed with good coaching pedigree.

One member of his staff told me Monday that Andersen is one of the most honorable men he has met in the business of college football. From my dealings with the coach, I'd have to agree.

The Beavers have some very good young players in the program. The defense seemed to be coming around. The offense, slowed by the loss of injured quarterback Jake Luton, was underproducing, but there is half a season yet to play.

Andersen often cited programs at Washington State (under Mike Leach) and Colorado (under Mike MacIntyre) requiring several years to take hold. I'd like to believe Andersen could have accomplished that in Corvallis, too.

But the increased presence of social media ramps up the pressure on college and pro coaches nowadays. There is very little patience in allowing a coach to build a program. I think it played a role in The Decision.

Now the Beavers are searching for another new head coach. They're starting over, even before Andersen had hardly begun.

That's a shame — for Andersen, for the players, for the program itself.

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@kerryeggers

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