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Utah State football: Coach Matt Wells' energy, effort helped direct his career

Published February 11, 2013 8:49 am

USU football • Former Aggie QB quickly worked way up to head coach.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Logan • It's above one of the lockers in the Utah State football building: Matt Wells, 1996. Salisaw, Oklahoma.

The nameplate commemorates a donation Wells made to his alma mater. It was before he ever came back to Logan to take a job, before he ever had an inkling that one day, his name also would rest in front of the head football coach's office.

Wells, now 39, had a few chances to come back to Utah State, where he was a quarterback who graduated with a business degree and not much fanfare in 1996. He only was persuaded the third time he was asked to join the Aggies, when it was coach Gary Andersen on the other end. Wells became Utah State's quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator in 2011.

"It was the right time, the right place in my career, and I felt like the program was headed in the right direction," he said in December, sitting at his new desk in his new office. "I had no idea taking that job would lead to this day. But nothing surprises me in the coaching world anymore."

Wells, a man with a slim frame but an erect posture, has lived through a lot of those ups and downs, surprises both good and bad. And even the toughest stretches of his career have helped shape the man who will lead Utah State football into the Mountain West Conference next season and beyond.

When the Aggies promoted him to the top spot, the administration spoke of consistency and staying on track. That does not mean Matt Wells has the personality of Gary Andersen.

"I was skeptical at first, but Coach Wells called me right when he was hired, and I fell in love right away," said Joe Malanga, an offensive lineman from Bingham who signed with the Aggies last week. "Coach Andersen was more laid back, relaxed. Coach Wells is enthusiastic and outgoing. Everyone in my family loves him; he makes them laugh."

Recruits and players say Wells' energy fills a room. One of the first things 2013 signee Wyatt Houston said he noticed about Wells was that players were drawn to him, chatting him up on the sidelines, and not the other way around.

"I look at him as a family guy," Houston said. "When Coach Andersen left, all I knew was I wanted to be where Coach Wells was."

His deep love of family has his roots in Salisaw, where he grew up as the son of a dentist in a family with his brother and two younger sisters. Matt was the oldest, a quarterback and basketball player, and the thing Jim Wells stressed to all his children was do your best in whatever you do.

"Our dad never steered us in any direction, but he was a guy who instilled a work ethic in us," says Luke Wells, Matt's brother and Utah State's co-offensive coordinator. "Neither of us had any interest in being a dentist, and Dad never pushed us. But if you were playing a sport, and you weren't playing hard, he let us know it when we got to the car."

It was obvious to Luke that his older brother would one day be a coach. Matt's after-school passion was to tutor his younger brother how to be a quarterback in their backyard.

Matt Wells was less sure of his future vocation until later in his career at Utah State. He studied business "to fall back on," Luke says, but decided he wanted to stay around the game through coaching. Wells said at his introductory news conference that Dave Kragthorpe, one of his mentors, had cautioned him against entering the field, but he would not be dissuaded.

"As I grew in coaching and kind of progressed, I realized how rewarding it was to make an impact in young men's lives," he said. "There's great things and tough things about every profession, and you learn to balance those things."

Wells launched himself into a career under his former coach, Charlie Weatherbie, at Navy, where he coached a multitude of positions between 1997 and 2001: quarterbacks, fullbacks and receivers.

"Even at that time, I knew that Matt had everything a coach should have," says Ken Niumatalolo, now the head coach at Navy. "He was very intelligent, a positive guy. He related well to the kids. And everything you asked Matt to do — even making copies, laminating things — he did the menial stuff and didn't complain."

At Tulsa, Charlie Stubbs once asked Wells to make a position manual for tight ends, the group he coached that year. Wells produced a guide so thorough, in-depth and thick, it's still among the materials Stubbs uses today at Nicholls State.

"He always did an excellent job at the things he was assigned to do, and he never did the average," Stubbs recalled. "He was one of the most well-respected staff members. He didn't always work with the most talented kids, but he got the most out of them."

But longer stints at Navy and Tulsa gave way to more short-lived ones at New Mexico and Louisville. He found himself, and his family, at the mercy of coaching staff turnover. It was difficult, he acknowledged, going from the Lobos in 2008 to Louisville in 2009 and back to Albuquerque in 2010.

But through changes and uncertainty, Luke Wells still saw his brother refusing to give in to frustration.

"Matt always took the high road, even when people told him he didn't deserve what was happening," Luke said. "He never saw it that way. I haven't dealt with that stuff as much as Matt has in only a few short years, but he never doubted what God's plan was for him."

In some way, Logan will always be a home to Matt Wells. For now, it's where he has found stability, where a quarterback coaching job has turned into an unbelievable opportunity to coach his alma mater.

It's also been the place where he can give his wife, Jen Wells, and three young children — Jadyn, Ella, and Wyatt — a home for the conceivable future. He's the kind of coach, his mentors have said, who grinds all day and tucks his children in at night. And soon enough, Luke Wells and his family will find a home nearby.

"It's going to be nice not to have to reintroduce uncles and aunts to your kids every year," Luke Wells said. "Family is extremely important to Matt. And it's nice to work for someone who holds family as important as you do."

But even years from now, long after Wells' coaching career is over, his name will be above a locker. And that's somehow fitting, given how the Aggies were where he first learned he wanted to coach.

It just took him a little while to get back.

"The only things you can control at any time in your life is your attitude and your effort," Wells said. "There's always going to be some things out of your control; it's how you react to them that grows you as a man and as a coach."

kgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon —

Matt Wells at a glance

Only 39, the Utah State head football coach has been all around the country in his career:

Utah State (2011-present) • Served as QB coach and offensive coordinator, helping set USU school records for points (454), total offense (6,108) last season.

New Mexico (2007-08, 2010) • Served as receivers coach and recruiting coordinator; helped coach Lobos to a New Mexico Bowl in 2007.

Louisville (2009) • Served as QB coach and passing game coordinator.

Tulsa (2002-2006) • Coached tight ends and served as recruiting coordinator, helping the Golden Hurricane to a C-USA championship in 2005.

Navy (1997-2001) • Coached junior varsity, quarterbacks, fullbacks and receivers.