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Brad Rock: USU coach Matt Wells has burner on high

Utah State head coach Matt Wells during a USU football practice Thursday, March 28, 2013, in Logan
Utah State head coach Matt Wells during a USU football practice Thursday, March 28, 2013, in Logan
Tom Smart, Deseret News

LOGAN — Matt Wells is trying to “act medium,” but it’s not easy, even with a framed reminder on his office wall. Medium is hardly the speed they’re traveling at Utah State University.

In two weeks the school will join the Mountain West Conference, the biggest jump in its sports history. So even though Wells is fairly calm on the outside, inside there are bands playing and fireworks booming.

The placard in his office repeats a phrase by Jim Zorn, an Aggie assistant when Wells played at Utah State (1994-96). It says, “Act medium. Never too high, never too low.”

But holding back isn’t Wells’ nature.

“That’s hard for me,” says USU’s first-year football coach.

That’s why he gets teary when asked what he thinks about before games. He says during the national anthems he prays and recalls his greatest blessings — his family and his players. It’s also why his voice rises when he considers meeting instate opponents Utah and BYU this year. Although he admits the programs aren’t yet equals, it’s good to know USU has defeated them both since 2010.

Too high? Last year’s win over Utah would probably qualify. USU has only won three of the last 23 against the Utes. What about a final No.16 national ranking and a Potato Bowl win?

As for low, they’ve been there. When Wells was hired by Gary Andersen in 2011, Utah State was ranked 104th of 120 teams by Athlon Sports. This year the Aggies are ranked 60th, two notches behind Utah, 17 behind BYU.

Wells is getting misty again just thinking about it. He took the job at his alma mater as the quarterbacks coach and a year later moved to offensive coordinator. Outside offers arrived after last season, including one that tripled his salary in Logan. He didn’t care; he liked his place on the planet.

“How much money do you need? I get Little Caesar’s pizza and my kids still get excited when I order it,” Wells says.

“I was jacked up, anyway. I was at my alma mater, in a secure job in an insecure profession, coaching ballplayers and scoring points,” Wells says as he tries to get his enthusiasm down to a high simmer. “It fired me up. The only thing better than that is this.”

“This” meaning head coach at USU.

It’s not Alabama, but it’s not Landfill U., either. Under Andersen the Aggies attended two Potato Bowl games, losing the first to Ohio, but beating Toledo in the second. Nowadays more than just Boise beckons. In its new league, USU has a shot at five other bowl games, including the Hawaii, Poinsettia, New Mexico, Las Vegas and Armed Forces bowls.

Cultures change and perceptions do, too. Wells says parents of recruits — some having have lived decades in Utah — tell him they didn’t realize what USU had to offer.

“I tell them it’s only an hour-and-a-half up the road,” Wells says.

A strength and conditioning center, that has a commanding view of the Cache Valley, opens this summer. Reconstruction of the south end zone seating is on the drawing board. Athletics fundraising is spiking.

The leap to a bigger, tougher conference is coming fast. In addition to all their toughest opponents from the WAC days, such as Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada and Boise State, there’s also Air Force, Wyoming and Colorado State — similar size programs in similar places.

“I mean, if I took off my coaching hat, and looked at a calendar and saw six Saturdays in the Cache Valley where I could see football,” Wells says, “I know where I’d be.”

But lately it’s not just the weather that makes it pleasant to be in Logan in the fall. USU has won 10 of its last 12 home games. Last year it went 11-2 overall. The Aggies have won 16 of their last 19, the losses coming by a combined six points.

After three decades of irrelevance, USU is back on the instate radar. It is even attracting some recruits who had legitimate offers at Utah and BYU.

So the Aggies have respect. Now Wells says they’re going for contempt.

“I don’t want (opponents) to like us. I don’t want them to want to play us,” he says. “Now we walk into a stadium, any stadium, and expect to win.”

A co-worker pokes his head in the door and tells Wells a caller is on the line in another room. The coach politely excuses himself and apologizes. Upon returning he apologizes again, saying the only interruptions he’d consider would be if a player or a recruit needed to talk.

He speaks again of gratitude to God, family, the university and his players. His voice becomes slightly tremulous, but it’s a voice of conviction. He points out a wall of ex-Aggies who have played in the NFL, another wall containing photos of players who got their degrees.

Fine players, he says, good students, too. He points out that Aggie great Merlin Olsen’s memorabilia is a must-see on the first floor. He says it’s a privilege to coach at his alma mater. And to know the players. He says he wants the previous two years’ success to be a starting point.

Is it getting warmer in the room?

Acting medium is getting harder by the day.

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