Matt Wells finishes the first of two team sessions on the Utah State practice field high above Cache Valley on a brilliant late-summer morning here. As the players walk off, their fresh-faced football coach appears upbeat, but far from satisfied. He likes the way the practice started, but is less pleased with the way it ended, a few sloppy plays tarnishing the effort.
“We have high expectations,” Wells says. “I believe the way you practice is the way you play on game day, so …”
The incomplete sentence, in his mind, needs no completion. It speaks for itself.
Later, more elaboration comes.
“We are who we are around here,” he says. “We’re a tough, blue-collar program. It’s a hard program to play in, but the kids understand that they’re going to get coached hard and loved hard so we can win.”
Anyone who expects the Aggies to fall flat this season because the great transformer, Gary Andersen, is busy now banking his millions at Camp Randall Stadium had best rearrange that skepticism. Getting to know Wells helps in that regard.
A few things strike the observer standing on that practice field, the first being the coach’s young appearance. Wells just turned 40 last week, but wouldn’t seem out of place as a backup singer for Justin Bieber. Here’s the kicker on that, though: He is rock-steady serious about his business, a quality that is somehow amplified by those youthful looks. In that way, the new guy and the old guy have a lot in common. Both are demanding but caring coaches, strong motivators who’d just as soon save the B.S. in favor of straight talk. Relating to players, for Wells, isn’t a problem.
“Coach is a great listener,” says Jamie Markosian, a senior offensive lineman. “He’s intense and passionate. You can see it in his eyes. He’s brought all the same stuff over from Coach A. It’s going to be a great season. We’ve got a tough schedule, but if we fire on all cylinders, there’s nobody on our schedule that we can’t beat.”
Markosian’s is the kind of statement a new head coach might encourage his players to avoid, but Wells, who last year was USU’s offensive coordinator, echoes similar words:
“We’re optimistic. I believe we can win every single game. Of course, if we’re not ready to play, we could get beat every week. But we don’t expect to walk out on any field, whether it’s Rice-Eccles or the Coliseum, and just compete. Our kids expect to win. It’s a major disappointment if we don’t. They’ve had enough success now that they believe that.”
The Aggies, under Andersen, then, transitioned from a team that had become an easy victim to a pack of true believers. An 11-2 season underscored that. When he left, Wells moved to the lead position, and in following months, the deck hasn’t been shuffled much.
“It will be more the same than different,” he says. “The program is built on the right foundations — from a recruiting and coaching standpoint. At the end of the day, you’ve got to get the right kinds of players who are going to come in, work hard and develop. If you treat them right, you’re going to win games.”
Wells is fully aware he has quality players coming back off a team that might have made a major bowl in 2012 with just a couple of fortunate bounces. His players know that, too.
“Coach Andersen made us believe in ourselves,” says Tyler Larsen, Utah State’s highly regarded senior center. “We started to win and now it doesn’t stop. Everyone here cares. We want to be winners, and we won’t take anything else. I’m sensing another great year. Our goal is to go undefeated. We want to go out with an even bigger bang. We’ve got the most talent now of all the years I’ve been here. Coach Wells is a younger coach and his energy is rubbing off on all of us.”
Still, the work remains undone, and, at practice’s end, that thought ricochets around Wells’ brain like a Wham-O Superball chucked inside a parking garage.
“The way you practice is the way you play,” the coach repeats. “We’re not going to lower our expectations. I’m making that very clear — to the coaches and the players. We expect everyone to give everything they have, every day. This isn’t about me, it’s not about our staff, it’s about the players. They’re the ones who will win the games. We just can’t screw it up for them.”
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.