SALT LAKE CITY — If ever Utah State wanted to verify its football team is moving in the right direction, it did so on Thursday. For the second time in 16 months, it opened the checkbook for its coach.
Spending never felt so guilt-free.
Even so, Aggie fans surely must view Matt Wells’ contract extension — aimed at keeping him in Logan through 2018 — with a mixture of relief and apprehension. On one hand, he was a success in his first year as a head coach. The Aggies went 9-5, 7-1 in conference, including a win over nationally ranked Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl. The bad news: he’s a success.
Rock stars always attract a crowd.
Still, complaining would sound like Gwyneth Paltrow, who recently noted how hard it was juggling parenthood and being an enormously wealthy actor.
After finishing tied for first in their inaugural Mountain West Conference season, the Aggies are doing what the New Mexicos and UNLVs can only envy: playing for championships. The only conference loss was to Boise State. Then came the December loss to Fresno State in the league’s title game.
It’s true the Aggies fell to Utah and BYU last year, which is another order of business. But first things first — they’re already a factor in the MWC. Their unofficial theme: “Today, the conference; tomorrow, the neighborhood.”
To appreciate the situation, one must remember that it’s only been since 2010 when people were still laughing at Utah State. When it signed Utah assistant Gary Andersen, the reaction was largely ho-hum. He had credentials, but this was USU, where other credentialed coaches had failed. One former Aggie coach, after leaving, called the place “a coaching graveyard.”
At a minimum it was a coaching drive-through.
People were always leaving for one reason (winning) or another (losing).
But if they must choose, Big Blue fans will take the former, every time.
It’s hard to fault what Aggie athletics director Scott Barnes is doing with the football program. He hired Andersen, who went 4-8 in each of the first two years. But the Aggies improved to 7-6 in 2011, losing in the Potato Bowl. The next year they went 11-2, even winning their bowl game.
That’s when things went slightly blurry. Armed with a contract extension, Andersen first said he was going nowhere, despite offers from Cal, Colorado and Kentucky. Then came the Wisconsin job and, just like cheese and bratwursts, it was impossible to refuse.
That left the Aggies scrambling. Allegedly. They searched all the way to their offensive coordinator, Wells.
Now he’s in line to be the next mid-major “find.”
It’s not like Wells wasn’t already on the radar. Reports said he was offered the Wake Forest job after last season. That’s a considerable jump. But he is nothing if not clued in. He knew it would be bad form to take a job for a year and then go hitchhiking. So he stayed, and USU responded.
For a long time the university was in the groove of hiring coaches just to fire them. Dave Arslanian was followed by Mick Dennehy, who was followed by Brent Guy. All got the ax. Among them, they only won 35 games in 11 years.
In some ways USU is nowadays a far different place. It’s in a stable and respected conference. At the same time, the place is still viewed as a steppingstone. As good as it is for Aggie fans to know their coach is locked up for five years, they also know contracts are as binding as water. Wells will still likely move if he keeps winning. (His $800,000 salary is less than half what big conference coaches earn.) He'll get fired if he loses. For now, though, USU and its fans should just appreciate the moment.
After years of sending coaches on their way, they’re now in the pleasurable business of keeping them locked up.
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