LOGAN — The question was off-hand, a throwaway line to get the conversation going. But there’s no such thing as a throwaway line, or throwaway time, when you’re first-year Utah State coach Matt Wells.
“It’s been a whirlwind 12 months for you ” I began.
Wells gave me a stop-right-there look as he checked the date on his watch.
“I was hired on the 20th,” Wells said last week. “The game was on the 15th the calm before the storm.”
“The game” was the 2012 Idaho Potato Bowl, after which things got crazy. Gary Andersen, who had said he was staying in Logan, bolted for Wisconsin. That left Aggie fans feeling disconsolate. For the first time in five decades, they were attending back-to-back bowl games and then their coach vanished.
In response, the Aggies did what any shaken but determined athletic program would do. They hired the guy right under their noses.
In his first season, Wells led the Aggies to a 7-1 conference record before losing in the Mountain West championship game to Fresno State. That earned a berth in this Thursday’s Poinsettia Bowl against No. 24-ranked Northern Illinois.
Along the way, Wells learned what it takes to be an upper-division head coach: a lot of multitasking and delegating. Last week as he was talking to reporters after practice, someone was shooting video of a player interview. Wells noticed a set of portable bleachers in the background, being pushed off the field.
“Hey — can you guys hold on a sec?” he called out to the film crew. “Let him go, we don’t want a I-AA interview here.”
Wells didn’t want empty bleachers to be the backdrop for USU football.
Heaven knows there has been enough of that in the last half century.
Those are the little things that worry a head coach.
“It’s been a major whirlwind,” Wells continued. “I thought it would slow down after the first press conference, but I was told by multiple people it would not slow down until after the bowl game — which has been exactly right. But the one thing is that we also set ourselves up for a championship game, so we’re in overdrive right now.”
I asked if anything caught him off guard in his rookie year.
“I don’t know about off-guard, but it did surprise me the number of business decisions I had to do; the micromanaging parts of the program. I’ve learned how to give and take in the program. But the biggest thing was learning what to micromanage and what to balance.”
Part of that balancing is media obligations. Coordinators at smaller schools may get a handful of interviews in a season. As a head coach, Wells does far more. On Wednesday he was in San Diego for the first pre-bowl press conference, calling it “an exciting time for us, best bowl game in school history.”
He has interviews after practice this Monday morning, followed by a press conference at the Omni Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter, followed by the team luncheon and more interviews. In the evening he will attend a Make-a-Wish reception, followed by even more interviews.
He must also handle interviews twice on Tuesday and twice on Christmas Day. Then comes the bowl game on Thursday.
No shortage of media obligations there.
That doesn’t even scratch the surface of other duties, such as greeting families of players, speaking with boosters, making sure practices and team meetings are on time and on task and — in the back of his mind — keeping track of the recruiting.
“My personality is to just jump right in and handle it myself. It’s the only way I’ve known up until now,” he said. “When you get to a position of leadership, you have to delegate.”
Has he learned how to do that in a year?
Hard to say, but he did get someone to move the bleachers.
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