Monson: For Matt Wells, one trophy isn't enough
Every early morning, as Matt Wells enters his office door, he sees just a few feet away from him a trophy that stirs more burn than any kind of satisfaction. By itself, the hardware is fine enough, built to symbolize victory with its broad brown base and second deck, separated by shiny silver metal, capped up top with the words: Poinsettia Bowl.
The problem? It sits by itself.
"There should be two trophies there," he says. "There should be another the Mountain West Conference trophy. We were just one series short. Just one series. That's all."
Wells' molten lament, caused by a 24-17 loss to Fresno State in the league title game in December and spoken as though it erupted for the first time a minute ago, is testament to a couple of things: 1) how far Utah State football has come from its woebegone days when expectation was wholly absent, when winning anything was cause for unfettered jubilation, and 2) motivation for the Aggies remains in full supply.
As Wells wraps up spring ball with a new Ag iteration in Logan USU's spring game is Saturday he stays completely aware of what he and his team accomplished in 2013, his first go-round as Utah State's head coach and the program's first season in the Mountain West. Despite losing to injury five offensive starters, including quarterback Chuckie Keeton, in a fateful churn that might have killed a weaker outfit, Wells managed to rivet his team's focus to the notion it could overcome.
All as the man who recruited most of those players was coaching in Madison.
"I believe football closely resembles life," Wells says. "It's not perfect. It doesn't always go according to plan. You face adversity. I just didn't know we'd face that much adversity."
Still, the Aggies finished 9-5 overall, 7-2 in the MWC, and won that bowl game in San Diego.
Preparing now for his second season, Wells says he's better suited to handle the vicissitudes that are bound to come: "I feel different. Hopefully, some of the potholes in the road, you know where they are, you know how to navigate them. Last year, I didn't know where they were."
No one did.
The lowest of all the lows couldn't have been foreseen, and it slammed Wells and everybody else around the team in the back of the head.
"We all know what, when it was," he says.
What: Keeton, the most indispensable player in the state, blew out his knee. When: against BYU.
"My first thought when it happened was, 'Come on, Chuckie, get up. Get up, kid.' Then, when Kyle Van Noy started waving his arm, that's when I knew it was serious," Wells says. "Looking at our team, looking at the student section, it felt like the air had been let out of the balloon. And it was personal. That's your guy lying on the ground out there."
Next, the rookie head coach had to build his team back up.
"It took a couple of weeks," he says. "I had to get these kids to rally around each other. And they did rally."
After the Aggies lost Keeton, they got beat by BYU and Boise State, then ran off five straight wins, and six wins in seven games, the only loss coming at Fresno State in the aforementioned MWC Championship game. The bowl victory was nice, but Wells remains vexed by that feeling that he could have done more, could have won more, could have won one more.
Maybe that feeling was always there, programmed in long before he ever became the head coach at Utah State, before he ever played at Utah State, stemming from his days growing up in tiny and countrified Sallisaw, Okla., where two things occupied his time: school and sports. Make that sports and school.
"I went from one sport to the next," he says. "Never had an offseason. Football, basketball, baseball, and golf in the summer." Baseball was his favorite, but a trunk-load of competitiveness accompanied him from season to season, whatever the sport. He was best at football, playing quarterback and safety.
To this day, he favors recruiting multiple-sport athletes because of the athleticism that versatility requires and competitiveness it conjures: "It's healthy," he says. "It feeds competition. I want to see kids with the ball in their hand on the mound in the ninth inning, or at the free-throw line at the end of a game."
Charlie Weatherbie, who was the quarterbacks coach at Arkansas at the time, recruited Wells out of high school, and when Weatherbie became the head coach at Utah State in 1992, that's how and when Wells ended up in Logan, a place he'd otherwise never heard of.
"I didn't know where Utah was," he says.
For him, going to Logan was like coming to the big city. While there, he played for offensive assistants Jim Zorn and Bobby Petrino, who taught him the rudiments of quarterback play, rudiments he still coaches his QBs now.
He had the complete experience at USU redshirting, carrying a clipboard, starting, getting benched, playing special teams, playing defensive back, throwing for over 2,000 yards, being the man, learning humility.
"I was good enough to play and bad enough to get booed and benched," he says. "I took in all that the emotional highs and lows."
After finishing at USU, Wells followed Weatherbie as a graduate assistant to Navy, where he coached the junior varsity and then the fullbacks and receivers until 2001. He then bounced from Tulsa to New Mexico to Louisville and back to New Mexico. He was in Albuquerque when Gary Anderson called from Utah State and asked him to come back to his alma mater to "be a part of something special."
He did, he was, he still is.
When Anderson bolted after the 2012 season, asking his offensive coordinator to become his OC at Wisconsin, Wells accepted, but then declined, taking the head job with the Aggies, instead.
Now, having lived and learned through the troubles and triumphs of last season, Wells walks past that Poinsettia Bowl trophy and groans. He yearns for a league championship at Utah State.
"That motivates me daily," he says. "I bleed Aggie blue. It's important that all the guys remember that they play for the guys who have gone before them, the guys who play with them now, and the guys who will come after them. We want to win a championship."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
Matt Wells file
From • Sallisaw, Okla.
Playing career • Quarterback, Utah State, 1994-96
Assistant coach • Navy, Tulsa, Louisville, New Mexico (twice), Utah State.
Head coach • Utah State, 2013 (9-5).
Personal • Married with three children.
Wells gets extension
Utah State awarded Matt Wells with a contract extension after the first-year head coach led the Aggies to a 7-1 Mountain West record and their third ever bowl win.
The revised contract keeps Wells at Utah State through the 2018 season and includes salary increases for all of his assistant coaches.
"Matt had a great first year leading our football program. His commitment to our student-athletes has been tremendous and they've responded with great results in the classroom and on the field," Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes said.
Wells will make more than $800,000 annually, with incentives and guaranteed step increases in each year of his contract.
Wells led Utah State to the inaugural Mountain West Championship game. The Aggies also defeated No. 24 Northern Illinois 21-14 in the Poinsettia Bowl.