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Utah State football: Matt Wells finds balance on and off field with the Aggies

Published August 6, 2015 11:31 am

College football • His ability to be steady in a volatile profession gives the coach staying power.
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Medium. That's how Utah State coach Matt Wells likes his steak.

It's how he likes anything, honestly.

Medium, by definition, is the middle. Not too high and not too low; not too narrow, not too wide.

In a football coach's world, medium is akin to the duck-and-cover position. It's a safe zone, where you don't let emotions run so high you get in trouble and you don't get so low that you aren't effective as you could be.

In Wells' eyes, it is a good place to be philosophically, on and off the field.

"It's all about balance," he said.

Wells, 41, is one of the youngest head coaches at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, bringing an energy and youthfulness that helps him connect with his players. Yet, he is wise enough to know his position is as precarious as any in this era of college football. Same with every other FBS coach.

Indeed, medium is good.

"That sign is on my wall," he said. "As a player, you want to be that way; if you score a touchdown, do the chest bumps or high-fives, then it's back to the next series and what you need to do. Off the field, you have to be that way with issues, whether it's a car wreck or how you deal with a young man making the right decisions or as a coach when you are leading from out front in times of struggles. You have to act medium."

But then, here is the catch with Wells. Oftentimes he doesn't act medium. To succeed as a coach, Wells is aware one has to take risks once in a while.

Why else would Wells be gutsy enough to start freshmen in key positions, or fiddle with his lineups, such as playing star linebacker Nick Vigil at running back?

If he didn't have that edge, Wells probably wouldn't have the reputation he has earned of being one of college football's rising coaching stars.

With a 19-9 overall record in two years, Wells was rewarded with a contract extension through the 2019 season. Recently, he was tabbed in a media poll as the best coach in the Mountain West, a recognition he greeted in characteristic fashion.

"I hope that is where I am at the end of the year," he said. "That's when it matters."

Wells can joke about such things, but there has to be some bit of comfort in the validation. Of course, Wells has always seemed destined to be in a coaching position.

Growing up in Sallisaw, Okla., Wells trailed along with his father, Jim, as he served as the announcer for a high school football team. He was known for diagramming plays to whittle away the time.

As an athlete himself, Wells drew the interest of a few schools, including Arkansas. The Razorbacks didn't offer him a scholarship, but he caught the attention of offensive coordinator Charlie Weatherbie — who recruited him to Utah State when he became the Aggies' head coach in 1992.

"He always had an unbelievable desire to be the best at what he does," said Weatherbie, now the executive director of the First Baptist Love Orlando Initiative. "You could see that in him with his desire on the field, and it was a work ethic that carried over from his father and mother."

Wells was a three-year letterman for the Aggies 1994-96, playing in 16 games and passing for 2,013 yards and 11 touchdowns. But, as Weatherbie noted, Wells' career arc was always more tilted toward the sidelines.

Weatherbie took Wells to Navy when he became the Midshipmen's head coach in 1995. Wells served as the quarterbacks coach, fullbacks coach and receivers coach before moving to Tulsa, where he was the tight ends coach from 2002 to 2006. Two stints at New Mexico (2008-09 and 2010) sandwiched a year at Louisville as the quarterbacks and passing game coordinator.

His hopscotching stopped in 2010, when he joined Gary Andersen's staff in Logan as the Aggies' quarterbacks coach and made an impression on the community, according to longtime Aggie booster Jim Laub.

"When I met him, I left saying he was going to be the head coach one day," Laub said. "I didn't know when, but you knew he was going in that direction. He had 'it,' whatever 'it' is."

Laub was prophetic. The Aggies' offensive coordinator in 2011, Wells was a natural choice to replace Andersen, who moved on to Wisconsin.

"It was one of the easiest decisions we've made," Laub said.

In another effort to find the middle ground, Wells has maintained his youthfulness while guiding the USU program into the Mountain West Conference.

How does he do it? By staying grounded, he and others say.

Wells is a strict disciplinarian, to the point that his biggest pet peeve as a coach is when players leave their helmets on the practice field.

"I had a teammate who broke an ankle once [by] stepping into one," he said. "Keep them in your hand."

That attention for detail has made him a success as a coach, but it hasn't turned him into an ogre, either.

"I've been around him so long, I feel like I know how he is," Aggie quarterback Chuckie Keeton said. "He is intense, but that is a good thing. He knows as soon as we leave the field it's just life, so he knows about balance. Every single day, he makes sure we have blinders on when we are on the field focusing on ourselves, but off the field, he takes us bowling or things like that."

Wells works hard to foster camaraderie among his players because chemistry is a vital part of his philosophy. More than just X's and O's, Wells believes players who care about one another will play harder for one other.

His efforts in these areas have been rewarded in the past two seasons, as the Aggies overcame a high number of injuries to be successful. But Wells seemed to find the answers.

"He does a lot to motivate us," linebacker Kyler Fackrell said. "Sometimes he'll be out at practice, going crazy and screaming, but he is just getting people going to maximize their potential as players. He is different when you are one-on-one with him. He cares about his players."

He cares about his family, too, which is where his balance comes into play again.

Wells acknowledges that in today's world, coaches don't get many vacations. However, he makes an effort to keep his family life at the forefront, spending long days in gyms watching his daughters Jadyn and Ella compete in gymnastics, or seeing his son, Wyatt, play baseball and soccer.

"You've got to have a balance," Wells said. "You have to have family time or time off — that is when guys get rejuvenated. Coaching can be the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but it's imperative you remain grounded as a person. I've tried to do that more now as a head coach than an assistant."

Weatherbie, who has continued to follow Wells' career, marvels at the way Wells has been successful in all areas.

"When you have been trained to be a quarterback, you learn not to get too high or too low, but to keep people going in the right direction," Weatherbie said. "You have to be the calm in the middle of the storm and have the confidence to come through victorious, and he has ice water in his veins. It's an unbelievable gift. When you are down to your fourth quarterback and still find a way to win like they did last year, it's a gift in the midst of adversity."

So Wells will continue to stay in the middle, which puts him on the rare side. —

About Matt Wells

• He has posted a 19-9 overall record and 13-3 mark in the Mountain West in his first two years as Aggies coach. The 19 wins are a school record for a coach in his first two seasons.

• In the past three years, USU is one of four Football Bowl Subdivision schools to win at least 30 games and three bowl games, joining Clemson, Michigan State and Oregon.

• He was the MWC Coach of the Year in 2013, when the Aggies went 9-5 in his first year — including a 7-1 league run.

• He earned a bachelor's degree in business marketing from Utah State in 1996. He and his wife, Jen, have two daughters, Jadyn and Ella, and a son, Wyatt.






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