Tom Smart, Deseret News
LOGAN — The big corner office on the second floor of the Jim & Carol Laub Athletics-Academics Complex has spent a lot of time sitting vacant recently.
That’s not because its new tenant, Utah State head football coach Matt Wells, has been enjoying some vacation time before fall camp starts.
On the contrary, he has been as busy as ever. There is spring recruiting to do, summer camps to organize and his latest venture: a summer-long caravan across Northern Utah to rally USU alumni before the 2013 season.
“It’s a great opportunity to spread the word about the program and continue to grow our brand,” Wells said.
Wells is a big part of the inaugural Aggie Road Trip organized by the USU athletic department and the Big Blue Scholarship Fund. The trip kicked off at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on May 11 and has six stops to go: Preston, Idaho, Ogden, Brigham City, Sandy, Garden City and Logan. Wells is leading the charge and will be meeting fans in every city, while volleyball coach Grayson DuBose, soccer coach Heather Cairns, men’s basketball coach Stew Morrill and women’s basketball coach Jerry Finkbeiner will drop in on select locations.
For Utah State, it's an opportunity to capitalize on recent success while inviting fans and alumni to “Join the Climb,” USU's slogan for its impending move to the Mountain West Conference.
Besides stepping up in the level of competition, the move to the Mountain West also provides financial challenges for the athletic department. According to the Office of Postsecondary Education, Utah State had athletic expenses of $21.5 million in 2012, a number that would rank 10th out of 11 Mountain West schools based on reported data (numbers for Air Force are unavailable). The Aggies spend only slightly more than former WAC foe Nevada ($19.5 million), but sit miles behind the budgets of UNLV ($54 million), San Diego State ($38.5 million) and Boise State ($31 million).
“It’s going to take the community and Aggie nation to get our fundraising in line with our peer institutions,” said Utah State assistant athletic director Corey Ansfield, who is the organizer of the road trip. “That’s part of what the road trip is about, engaging alumni and finding new Aggies to donate.”
The fundraising doesn’t just help pay for athletic scholarships and coaches’ salaries, but is also necessary for the school to keep the never-ending stream of new facilities going. Next month the school will officially open its strength and conditioning facility in the northwest corner of Romney Stadium. The university also just broke ground on the Wayne Estes Center, a $9.5 million basketball and volleyball facility next to the Spectrum, which was entirely funded by private donations.
Even though the Wayne Estes Center doesn’t directly benefit the football team, Wells believes it raises the profile of the entire school and athletic department.
“I think it justifies the commitment the administration and donors have in the program,” Wells said. “The new strength and conditioning center is going to be phenomenal. Recruits see that and see the commitment that we have in our athletics program.”
While fundraising is an essential part of the road trip, it's also a chance for the school to continue to reach out to its growing fan base throughout Cache Valley and along the Wasatch Front. The road trip stops are free to attend and allow fans to donate money, buy new gear from the traveling campus store and renew their season tickets.
Or Aggie supporters can simply take advantage of the unique opportunity to chat with coaches and other fans about their favorite topic: Aggie sports.
“It was a great way for us fans down in the Salt Lake Valley to stay up-to-date on the program and get some one-on-one time with coach Wells,” said Utah State graduate Aaron Scoll after attending the Liberty Park event. “I hope coach Wells continues to do these, because it's a great way for the alumni to stay closely connected to the program.”
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.
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