Even after all these years, Ladell Andersen hasn't forgiven BYU and Utah for what he believes they did to Utah State, and that isn't easy for a man who has loyalties to all three schools. He was the head basketball coach at USU and BYU and an assistant coach at Utah. He also was athletic director at Utah State for a decade. Andersen has deep affections for all three schools, but that doesn't mean he won't tell what he calls "the truth" about USU's failure to gain admittance to the Western Athletic Conference.
"I have a hard time forgiving Utah and BYU for not getting USU in," he says from his home in St. George. "It disgusts me to talk about it. It's nothing against BYU and Utah. It's about the leadership. We're talking about a handful of people at BYU and Utah."
The old wound was opened again this week when the Aggies were turned down for inclusion in the WAC — for the seventh time. It would be difficult to overstate the impact that WAC exclusion has had on USU over the years. The Aggies, once a powerhouse that rivaled or surpassed their in-state neighbors, have been in decline since they were first left out of the WAC. The WAC failure has been the source of nearly all their problems.
In Andersen's mind, the Aggies are still paying for jealousy and personality clashes that occurred 37 years ago. But give them credit for persistence. They continue to try to gain WAC membership even after enduring insult after insult for nearly four decades. The WAC keeps looking past the eager kid in the front row with his hand up to choose slouching kids on the back row such as TCU, UTEP, Rice, San Jose State, Hawaii and two outlaw schools, SMU and UNLV. Even after the WAC lost eight of its glamour members last year and didn't appear to be in a position to be choosy, they ignored USU and took Nevada. That was like being refused membership into a club of nerds. This week the WAC jilted USU again, this time in favor of Boise State and Louisiana Tech.
"They should have been in the WAC a long time ago," says Andersen. "They should be there now."
How the Aggies were overlooked in the first place is the subject of much conjecture. They seemed to be a natural choice for the new league. They were arguably the best football team in the state when the WAC was formed in 1962. They had been to bowl games and appeared in the national rankings. Led by future NFL stars Merlin Olsen, Lionel Aldridge, Bill Munson and Roy Shivers, they won eight or nine games a season in the early '60s, and in 1960 and '61 they won the Skyline Conference, which included eventual WAC members BYU, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado State. At that time, the Utes were mediocre at best, and the Cougars weren't even that good, and, to boot, they had poor facilities, little support, a small student body and no name recognition. USU's basketball program also rivaled Utah's and BYU's, with Cornell Greene, Wayne Estes, Nate Williams and Marv Roberts.
In short, any talk of forming a new league had to include the Aggies. They were good. Maybe too good.
"USU was a dominating force on the football scene," says Andersen, "and when they were forming the WAC it was a sore point. BYU and Utah went about eliminating USU. There was no question. They held the cards to get USU in the league because you were not going to form the WAC without those two. "
It was baffling that the league would choose Utah, BYU, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona and Arizona State as charter members — but not USU.
"Certainly at that time Utah State had as much draw and as much history and tradition as any of those schools," says Andersen. "I thought there was a lot of jealousy. The Aggies had beaten up on those schools enough. In my opinion it was their way to derail Utah State's prominence in football, and it worked. They won't admit that, but I really believe that's the truth. They did not want Utah State in. I heard this from a lot of sources who were in the meetings and confided in me."
There might have been other factors behind the scenes that worked against the Aggies' admittance to the WAC, as well. Some, including Andersen, believe that USU president Daryl Chase didn't get along with Utah president A. Ray Olpin (perhaps because they were vying for some of the same state funds) or BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson (all three former presidents are deceased). Current USU president George Emert recently told a USU student newspaper reporter that Chase attended a meeting in Colorado when the league was being formed but was offended by something that was said and left the meeting.
James "Bud" Jack, who was Utah's athletic director at the time, says he doesn't know what went on at the presidential level and didn't attend the presidents-only meetings in which the league was formed.
"I can't really remember why (USU) was excluded," he says. "My guess is that, with BYU and Utah, it would have meant three schools from one state. I know I was personally in favor of (USU's inclusion). It was logical. We were going to play them anyway. We might as well be in the same conference and play by the same rules."
Jack says he doesn't know if the presidents shared his view — "They had their own ideas" — but he says he would be surprised if Olpin opposed the Aggies' admittance to the WAC.
"He had the same feeling I did," says Jack. Nog Hansen, who was USU's assistant athletic director, says, "We were really surprised that we were left out when the WAC was formed."
Dave Schulthess, who was BYU's sports information director for 37 years, says, "I know USU was quick to point fingers at Utah and BYU and not without some reason, but there are other things to look at. Other schools had to figure in the mix. And I know BYU and Utah had to protect their interests, too. I can't understand it myself, except that they were all competitors, competing for the same recruits and so forth. But logically, how can you leave a state rival out? The very purpose of a conference is to unite schools that have something in common, whether it's geography or rivalry or whatever. What didn't they have? This cries for an explanation. And then to be left out this last time, that was a slap in the face. This is like a curse. It defies explanation. It certainly is something that deserves to be examined. I can understand schools looking out for their own interests (in the beginning), but to have it go on and on. Those people are going to get a complex."
Schulthess believes BYU might well be in USU's position today if Eddie Kimball, BYU's athletic director at the time, hadn't been involved in the formation of the league, which gave the school an in. "USU was just the odd man out," says Schulthess. "I think there was some feeling that they didn't want three schools from the same state. Well, Utah was in — they were based in Salt Lake City. And Eddie Kimball was involved in the formation of the league, so BYU was in. If he hadn't been, BYU could have been the odd man out, and then it's horrors. What would a private, religious school do?"
Noting that various WAC members have helped pave membership for other schools (New Mexico got Wyoming into the league, for example), Andersen says BYU and Utah could have done the same for the Aggies. Even if, as some suggest, BYU had trouble enough just getting itself into the WAC in the beginning, the Cougars certainly developed enough clout over the years to help USU.
"You cannot tell me that Utah and BYU did not have enough clout to get USU into the league," says Andersen. "That would be a lie."
In the early years of the WAC, there was a movement to force the Aggies' inclusion in the league through legislation. Andersen says a state legislator told him the legislature had the votes to force Utah and Utah State to play in the same league.
"But when they presented it to (USU officials)," says Andersen, "they said, 'We don't want to get in that way. We'll get in on our own merits.' Well, that wasn't going to happen."
The repercussions are still being felt today. The Aggies fared well for a few years as an independent until the late '60s, when independents began to be absorbed by conferences. After that, it was a domino effect: Scheduling was difficult because other schools had conference games; gate receipts suffered, and, as a result, so did finances recruiting and donations. The power shifted. USU has long since fallen behind its neighbors to the extent that no one remembers they were once their equals, if not their betters. BYU and Utah flourished in the WAC; USU floundered without it. BYU and USU's fortunes flip-flopped with the formation of the league.
While most state schools are in the same conference — Kansas/Kansas State, Washington/Washington State, Oregon/Oregon State, Arizona/Arizona State, Michigan/Michigan State, etc. — Utah State and Utah have played in different leagues for 37 years. It never has made sense. USU joined a California league and the WAC granted membership to schools all over the map, which meant huge travel expenses and fewer natural rivalries.
Desperate for a Division 1-A conference affiliation, the Aggies signed on with the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (now the Big West Conference) in 1978. It has always been a strange fit, like cowboys and surfers. Defections have reduced the Big West to four football-playing schools — Idaho, USU, North Texas and New Mexico State — and at least three of them are trying to exit.
Meanwhile, USU has jumped through all kinds of hoops trying to get into the WAC, whether it was setting up a hospitality suite at the WAC basketball tournament or hosting a dinner at the president's house for WAC officials.
"I tried to get USU in two or three times," says Andersen. "After we were turned down, I heard from BYU and Utah people that Utah State will never get into the WAC. They were proud of it. I'd ask for their help to get into the WAC, and they'd say, 'No way.' "
Over the years, various reasons have been given for USU's continued exclusion. They said Logan didn't have enough TV sets — but what about Laramie? They said the Aggies didn't draw big home crowds — but what about UTEP? The Aggies have done everything they can, adding seats to a stadium that is never filled, building an indoor practice facility and so forth.
Ironically, many of the Aggies' shortcomings cited by WAC rivals came about only after they were excluded by the WAC. Many of their problems now would be remedied by WAC membership. Another irony: Utah and BYU are no longer in the WAC. They have joined the Mountain West Conference this year.