LOGAN — It’s Monday morning, and in a few hours, Matt Wells will be getting on an airplane headed for Las Vegas.
Although it sounds like a continuation of the nearly two-weeklong vacation he recently completed, this trip is all business. The 40-year-old is headed to Sin City to take part in Mountain West Conference media days, where Wells’ Utah State Aggies will soon be slated to finish second in the Mountain Division of the MWC at the end of the 2014 season.
A year ago at this time, Wells was a first-time head coach heading into his inaugural campaign at the helm of his alma mater as it moved up from the WAC to the Mountain West. That makes it rather understandable that when asked to compare last year’s summer getaway to this year’s vacation to Hawaii and Seattle with his wife, Jen, and their three children, Wells quickly replied, “First of all, I didn’t go on vacation last year.”
Although he later admitted that he actually had two whole days off over the Fourth of July in 2013, Wells said his lack of a true vacation was due to “an uneducated fear of being away.
“These coaches, our strength staff and our players are mature — not perfect, but mature — and can continue to handle their business,” Wells explained. “There’s a balance between work and family, and it got out of balance for me a little bit last summer. I think I needed to get it back in balance.”
Wells quickly added, though, that he was never far away from his cellphone. “I mean, you’re not out of touch from reality for two weeks, I promise you that,” he clarified.
And just to make his grip on reality clear, Wells announced that during their time in Oahu, he and his family stayed at his brother-in-law’s place, “which saved a few bucks.” When reminded that USU signed him to a contract extension in April that could pay him up to $800,000 a year through 2018, Wells shrugged it off and suggested that he’ll never change when it comes to being frugal — the byproduct of being an assistant coach who had to go looking for a new job five times in the span of 14 years before returning to Logan in 2011.
Although Wells did admit to being a little more confident heading into this second season as a head coach, when asked if he felt like he proved himself last year by leading the Aggies to a 9-5 record, Wells immediately declared: “No.
“I know that I’m driven by a fear of failure, and to me, this is now the 2014 edition of the Utah State Aggie football team, and we’re not going to be given one touchdown, one break or one win because of what we did last year,” Wells said.
Following in the footsteps of Gary Andersen, the expectations were that Wells could continue to build on USU’s recent gridiron success. However, to many fans and observers, the 2013 season appeared headed for disappointment when junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton was lost for the season due to a knee injury suffered in the Aggies’ sixth game against BYU.
But under Wells and freshman quarterback Darell Garretson, Utah State quickly regrouped and ended up winning five straight games to close out the regular season. The Aggies then came up a touchdown short against Fresno State in the inaugural Mountain West championship game before knocking off No. 24 Northern Illinois in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsetta Bowl.
“There were a lot of people that thought our season was done when Chuckie went down, so I think we all take a lot of satisfaction in what we accomplished last year,” Wells said. “The senior class that left here as the winningest senior class in Utah State really helped us face adversity. They did not flinch, and we found a way to win six out of seven, which was a remarkable accomplishment, something that I’ll never forget.
“But saying that, we’ve moved on to this year, and it’s a new team. There are a lot of the same pieces, but yet some very different pieces. The challenge now is to put those pieces together to produce a consistent winner, and something that these people and my bosses and superiors are proud of.”
It was 20 years ago that Wells himself was heading into his sophomore season as USU’s starting quarterback, the year after the Aggies, under the direction of future CFL legend Anthony Calvillo, won seven games and the first bowl game in school history.
“It seems so long ago, and yet, it also seems like yesterday that I was playing here and preparing for that season,” Wells said of the 1994 campaign under Charlie Weatherbie.
Wells said he remembers his first start (a 32-17 home loss to Utah) and his first touchdown pass (a 35-yard “fake zone-fake reverse bomb to Shawn Turner”), but has forgotten the specifics of his first career interception (Utes safety Ernest Boyd returned it 23 yards to set up a touchdown pass by Mike McCoy).
“I mostly just remember running away from Bronzell Miller and Luther Elliss all night,” Wells said. Although the Aggies went just 3-8 that season, Wells said that experience helped prepare him to be a head coach, particularly as far as dealing with media.
“I think being a head coach and being the quarterback are very, very similar because a lot of times, you’re the spokesperson for your team,” Wells explained. “And that’s a part of my job that I really enjoy and take a lot of pride in. I enjoy speaking to the media and speaking about our program.
“To me, it’s marketing and branding and imaging your program in the right way,” added Wells, who graduated cum laude from USU in business marketing.
In fact, Wells is so confident and comfortable with the media that at the conclusion of Monday’s interview when told there was one final question, the second-year head coach answered it without even hearing it first.
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“His knee’s fine,” the former Aggie quarterback said of the current Aggie quarterback. “Every knee is different, and every rehab is different, but he’s been cleared. Hopefully he’s the same Chuckie we all know and love. We’ll see where he’s at once we get through training camp and into the early part of the season, but I have no question that he’ll be ready.
“I knew that question was coming,” Well noted with a laugh. “How many times will I get asked that in Vegas?”