TUCSON, Ariz. — Twenty-six straight days of work lay ahead. The holiday season would be a blur. Who has time for holidays when you have bowl games to attend?
Matt Wells was loving it.
“Twenty-six straight days for us as coaches,” Wells was saying, a few days after the Aggies had been invited to the Arizona Bowl. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
How about trading it for a day off?
“For us as coaches, last year was miserable,” Wells said.
If there’s one thing worse than working during the holidays, it’s not working.
Friday at Arizona Stadium, the Aggies will meet New Mexico State. It will be USU’s sixth bowl game in seven years and fourth in five years under Wells. A 3-9 season in 2016 caused the Aggies to be picked to finish last in the Mountain West this year. Turned out they weren’t so bad. They wrapped up their bowl bid with a win over Hawaii on Nov. 18, then settled in to wait and wait and wait.
On Sunday, Dec. 3, the Arizona Bowl was one of the last to name its selections. The Utah Aggies were chosen, but not until late. Texas-San Antonio, Buffalo and Western Michigan were all bowl-eligible, but ultimately got passed. It wasn’t a guaranteed deal. Several conferences and teams were lobbying, but the Arizona Bowl went with the team from the Mountain West, strongest of the conferences under consideration.
As the bids were announced, Wells waited anxiously.
“I was a little bit worried,” he said. “I would say there were about two hours of drama playing out on Twitter, along with phone calls and text messages. But in the end, I was very excited.
“The thought of calling a team meeting (that night) and telling them, hey, we’re done and then when you get the call there’s an extreme amount of joy and excitement.”
Lost in the excitement was the fact that, just like in-state brother Utah, a 6-6 season becomes a 6-7 season if the bowl game crashes. Here’s where it gets particularly dicey for Wells. His team did just that in 2015, finishing 6-6 but losing to Akron in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. After going 3-9 last year, another 6-7 season would give the Aggies three losing seasons.
No amount of bowl double talk can cover that.
That’s not to say Wells would lose his job if his team falls to New Mexico State and finishes 6-7. But it would put him in dangerous territory for next year. His contract takes him through 2019. But a fourth losing season — even if several of them included bowls — probably wouldn’t be acceptable in Logan.
“Winning is what I get judged on, and I understand we’re in a competitive business,” Wells said in August. He went on to say, “I fully understand the ramifications” of losing seasons.
Still, Wells outstripped expectations this year. Of 12 MWC teams, his drew the fewest preseason votes of any in the conference. But his team is showing promise. Only four seniors started in the season finale.
“That is who we are,” Wells said. “Our team is talented, but we’re still learning how to win, how to win close games, and we’ll continue to learn that.”
Still, he said, “this team has a great vibe. We’re very competitive and very young.”
These types of seasons, though, can age a coach.
This naturally brings up the age-old question: What should USU’s expectations be? The Aggies usually get third choice for in-state recruits, yet have been to bowls in four of Wells' five seasons. But the step up to the Mountain West was considerable. They had Boise State and Fresno State to contend with for years in the WAC, but Wyoming, Colorado State, San Diego State and Air Force made the overall schedule far tougher.
The expectation is what it is at most schools: be competitive, have a chance at a championship. This year they lost by five to Wyoming and three to Air Force. Wins there would have placed them second in the Mountain Division.
At the moment, though, Wells isn’t thinking too far ahead. Nor should he. It would be unlikely for the school to fire a coach who beat in-state rival BYU and went to a bowl game. But eventually the expectations have to include a team with a winning record. Which is why beating New Mexico State on Friday matters.
“I’m very thankful to everybody that made this happen,” Wells said after the bowl announcement was made.
Actually, he and his players made it happen.
That should be enough to keep him around for now. But a win on Friday would give him some room to operate.