Utah State football: Matt Wells steadfast in first year (video)
Logan • It wasn't an upbeat team meeting back then.
Utah State was as low as it could be, fresh off two losses and a slew of devastating injuries. Many heads were hanging in that room in October.
Not Matt Wells.
Utah State's coach explained how the Aggies still could compete for the division by winning out, and he talked about how the team would focus on week-by-week chunks. Luke Wells said he saw his brother's uncrushed spirit lift up his players.
"He never flinched," he said. "The message never changed. They believed in the plan, and they stuck to it. I think that says a lot about our team, but also my brother."
The Aggies (8-4, 7-1) are a long way from that dark valley. They will play Fresno State (10-1, 7-1) for the Mountain West championship Saturday evening. Any questions about Matt Wells taking over his alma mater seem equally distant.
Utah State, like many teams, has taken hits in the form of crippling injuries and disappointing losses, but the Aggies aren't limping to the finish line. They've beaten five straight opponents some they've steam-rolled and others they've done just enough to get by under their 40-year-old rookie coach. He has a chance this weekend to break the program record for wins for a first-year coach.
But Wells is a man whose feet are planted firmly in the present, and he's tried to keep his team there as well. The Aggies have tried to keep a narrow focus in every game this season, and preserving that consistency through good and bad is what Wells has strived to do since he took the big office less than a year ago.
"Nobody in October, when we were 3-4, thought we'd be in the Mountain West championship game," he said. "Nothing is going to motivate my guys to play well besides their performance and expectations. I don't need to look at numbers or stats to motivate our guys. They're extremely motivated."
Those around Wells saw him as a future head coach before he took the job. He is sincere, yet serious. He has a fastidious nature but also knows when to cut a little loose.
Gary Andersen had designs on taking Wells with him to Wisconsin. But when the Utah State administration asked Andersen who should take his place as the Aggies' coach, only one name came to mind.
"It was kind of a no-brainer, actually," Andersen said. "Matt is organized Matt's a thinker but he's also not afraid to reach out when he doesn't know the answer. I knew he would stabilize the crew of kids there."
Wells has kept the offensive and defensive principles that have made the Aggies successful in the last few years. But perhaps one of the most meaningful aspects of Wells' leadership is the time he takes to talk about things beyond the gridiron. When Quinton Byrd was recovering from a season-ending knee injury last year, he remembers being uplifted by Wells' visits with him.
"He's a player's coach," Byrd said. "He takes time to ask about school, your family, your social life. He wants to know everything that's going on with you."
Every assistant coach has mandates for one-on-one meetings with his players to talk about what happens off the football field. Wells invites players to his house on a regular basis. For the out-of-towners who couldn't travel for Thanksgiving, turkey was waiting at the Wells' home.
It builds trust, players say the feeling that coaches are in the trenches next to you rather than shouting down from above you.
It's also clear that Wells is the last man to lower his expectations. When the Aggies were going through their midseason struggles, athletic director Scott Barnes said he put his arm around Wells and told him to "hang in there and see where you finish."
Barnes couldn't be more pleasantly surprised.
"Given where we were, it's been tremendous," Barnes said. "I think Matt has continued a lot of the things Gary [Andersen] did, but he's also his own man. He's been sort of the steady influence these guys could look to, and he's a glass half-full kind of guy. It's been absolutely infectious."
Confidence in Utah State is growing on the outside, too. Fresno State, which only has lost one game this season, is a mere three-point favorite at home. Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said this week that he sees the Aggies building themselves as a perennial contender in the league.
There's a belief that the future should hold promise if Wells can make a championship-caliber team out of all that has befallen his program this year.
Even his predecessor, who left a long shadow, is impressed.
"He's hit injuries and downfalls, but he had a plan, he had a belief and he got everyone to stick to it," Andersen said. "He wanted to get the next kid up, and that's exactly what happened. There hasn't been any panic, no 'Woe is me.' His mindset has been to get through it, and it's admirable."
Matt Wells stands out in first year
• The Aggies have won five straight games.
• Utah State is looking for its second straight outright conference championship.
• Wells is tied with Tony Knap for most wins (eight) for a first-year coach in Utah State history.
Mountain West championship
Utah State at Fresno State
Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV: Ch. 2
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