CORVALLIS, Ore. -- The busses on the way to and from Eugene felt a bit emptier than usual. Oregon State coach Gary Andersen scanned the travel roster and the seats, but everyone was accounted for -- all 59 of them.
It was the only time during his coaching career that he hadn’t traveled with the maximum number of players to an away game (in FBS it’s 70) and he realized there were certain positions that would be only two deep that day against Oregon.
And yet, the Beavers played their best half of the season that day.
They outscored the Ducks 35-21 in the second half. Oregon State averaged nearly 10 yards per play. The offense accounted for 17 first downs that half, which was about what the Beavers averaged per game this past season. Their defense turned over Oregon and their special teams returned a punt for a touchdown.
In their final half of the season, Oregon State finally was starting to look like something Andersen thought it could be, and it was accomplished with about half of Andersen’s roster.
Now, a few months removed from that moment, Andersen sits in his office trying to think about what kind of advice he would give himself a year ago today.
“I’d tell myself, ‘Go take that job because you’ll be happy,’ ” Andersen said. “And I am.”
But he’d give himself some fair warning on a few items. Andersen generally is one to live in the moment, but he also likes to be prepared, and in that spirit, he’d let himself know that he shouldn’t freak out about how far behind some of the facilities were, that there were plans for upgrades in motion before he even got onto campus. Now, as he speaks, cranes and bulldozers are doing their daily work as he goes about his.
He’d tell himself to not get too far ahead with anything. He’d remind himself that his roster -- which had 54 freshmen and redshirt freshmen -- would progress at a different pace than what he might have been accustomed to at his other stops. That giving the freshmen and backups their own practices with a month to go in the season was the right thing to do. That it would be some of the moments of the season he would enjoy the most as he returned to the roots of why he loves his job -- teaching the game.
And he would have told himself that he was 100 percent right about how tough the Pac-12 was and would be. He wouldn’t tell himself that the Beavers would only win two games all season because admittedly, he says, he would’ve laughed in his own face. Those kind of expectations for a season just aren’t in Andersen’s DNA, and it’s a large reason why there’s such hope around the program in Corvallis.
But privately, Andersen’s greatest hopes for the program stem from the fact that he sees how players have adapted and picked up the culture he wants to instill.
When Andersen begins talking about academics, it’s evident that he has become very vested in each of the Oregon State players. He has files for each of them, which he reads weekly, that not only outline each player’s grades, but also what exams, essays and assignments that player might have coming up.
“We’re competing right now, after this last quarter, at a very high level academically,” Andersen said. “We’re going to bowl games, we’re winning bowl games, we’re playing meaningful games in the month of November in academics.”
It comes from the fact, he explained, that every coach on staff meets with academic advisors every Thursday. That every player has an individual meeting with his position coach at least every other week in which he discusses academic, social and athletic goals.
He loves that when players walk through the office he can ask them how that psychology exam went or why a certain player only got a 78 on the essay that was due last Tuesday, whether they have called their parents this week like they said they would or if they have been a more responsible older brother.
That’s the part of the job he’d remind himself of -- that implementing a culture is tough, but necessary, work. He’d tell himself that there would be parts that were more difficult and parts that were less difficult than some of his previous stops and that he should stick to his gut.
So when his gut -- informed by his culture -- said that the Beavers should only travel 59 in their biggest rivalry game on the schedule, Andersen said sure. And the Beavers only traveled 59.
And as he stood on the sideline in the second half, debating whether the staff should really move that slot receiver over to free safety (a position which he had never practiced) he reminded himself that he was still on course, even if it seemed they were far off.
Because after 23 halves of really tough football in 2015, pieces started to click and the result in that final half -- which had its foundation in academic meetings and facilities and tough conversations and 10 really hard months -- was starting to show itself. And it looked pretty good.
“That’s where we needed to be,” Andersen said.
It was a sign of the places the Beavers could go too.