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Aggies won't let wins go to their heads

Published August 18, 2014 9:25 am

USU football • Utah State holds tight to its blue-collar traditions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Logan • With Utah State senior Zach Vigil walking around camp, talking about instilling culture and carrying on traditions, one would think the guy has sociology or psychology in his future, not football.

Yet in Vigil's mind, building such intangible qualities is as important as hunkering down in a film room and studying tape of the Tennessee Vols.

"The new guys come in and think winning is easy," he said. "It isn't. We have to make sure the new guys come in and understand it takes hard work."

Vigil isn't the only one with that line of thought. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton has voiced similar urgency, saying camp should be "painful," so everyone knows how hard they must work to succeed, while coach Matt Wells speaks frequently of the "Aggie way."

"We have a singular focus and that's our job as coaches to portray that to leaders and for the leaders to do that from player to player," he said of the need to learn the Aggie way, which doesn't always involve Xs and Os.

So why is there so much emphasis on the mental aspect of the game? Shouldn't the Aggies be spending more time worrying how to handle the noise in Tennessee's Neyland Stadium and the Vols' talented group of receivers instead?

They'll get there, Wells assured.

"We'll focus on that when the time comes," Wells said. "But for now it's what we do and how we do it."

The Aggies are putting an emphasis on attitude because of the team's recent success. They worked too hard and too long to get their success not to put in a little extra effort to maintain it.

Until Gary Andersen came along, the Aggies were known as a hard-working, blue-collar team — except the hard work didn't always translate into wins.

Utah State suffered 13 straight losing seasons until Andersen took over in 2009 and turned the program around. The Aggies went 4-8 under his direction in his first two years, then finished 7-6 before going 11-2 in 2012.

Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes described the period before Andersen's hiring as a time of self-reflection.

"We had to stop blaming the losing seasons on just poor coaching and see what we could do too as an administration," he said.

The answer was more financial commitments, to the tune of $3 million for staff salaries and other expenses that have been dedicated to the football program since Andersen was hired.

The money helped the Aggies hire a quality coaching staff, but Andersen, and now Wells, also instituted a new attitude.

"Gary believed in guys who had a grind-it-out mentality," Barnes said. "They weren't always the most talented, but they would be the same guys grinding it out on the field in the fourth quarter, then in the film room on Sunday. He wasn't afraid to push the team and make them step up."

Craig Hislop, a broadcaster for Cache Valley's KVNU, described Andersen's hiring and USU's decision to funnel more money into the football program as a "perfect storm," particularly after the Laub Complex was finished in 2008.

"Gary took over and was the guy that was in place to base his recruitment of every class on the facility," Hislop said. "Brent [Guy] had more or less recruited on 'in a few years this place will be available to you.' "

Wells, Andersen's previous assistant, has made the transition between coaches virtually seamless because he was "a big enough man to realize if it isn't broke, you don't fix it," Barnes said.

Instead, the Aggies continued to roll.

The 2013 season, Wells' first, marked numerous achievements.

Until last year, the Aggies had never played in three straight bowl games or won two in a row.

The Aggies' 9-5 record also tied the 1960 and 1961 teams for the second-most wins in school history, trailing only the 2012 team's mark.

Utah State has won 25 of its past 33 games, giving the Aggies one of the best winning percentages over that time span in the West, with just Oregon (28) and Stanford (26) winning more.

"People may not give Matt as much credit because he's younger or something," Hislop said. "But he was an assistant college coach for 17 years. The way he avoided major disaster last season after Chuckie went down against BYU is a major story in my mind."

Such success should be celebrated, but it should also be treated with caution, the Aggies believe.

Now that they've reached a successful level, they don't want to get too comfortable, especially with many newcomers replacing the 22 seniors lost from last year's squad.

"I feel that is more of an emphasis this year because there are so many new kids," Wells said of the need to drill the team about how hard they must work. "I'm not concerned about it, but the reason Zach's saying it and I'm saying it is because it's a point of emphasis. These kids have got to learn to be followed. The example that I gave was when B.J. [Larsen], Zach [Vigil] and Chuckie [Keeton] were young and Bobby Wagner told them to do something they just did it without question. When B.J. Larsen says something, I expect the new D-linemen to do it and quit asking questions."

The Aggies still pride themselves on being a blue-collar team. Let BYU be known as the private school behemoth in the state and Utah for its Pac-12 affiliation — the Aggies, for now, still look at themselves as the little school that could.

"We are a blue-collar team that works hard," running back Joe Hill said. "It's important that the younger players know that and learn how hard we work."

So with camp headed into its third and final week, the Aggies will continue to work hard, knock heads and knock a bit of culture into their teammates as well.

"We have to get that chemistry going," Keeton said. "This is the time to do it." —

Aggie achievements

• USU has won back-to-back bowl games for the first time

• The 2013 senior class of 22 players graduated as the winningest class in school history with 31 victories

• USU's seven league wins in 2013 was a school record, with the past mark being six wins in 1936 and 2012